The struggle of workers at the Noble Tech steel factory near Uthiramerur continues even as the management continues its efforts to break the union formed by around 200 permanent workers. In June, Thozhilalar Koodam covered the deplorable working conditions at the factory. The workers formed a union under the CITU leadership after which many of them were victimized. This was followed by a week-long strike which ended when the management promised to dialog with the union. However, two months on, most of the workers who participated in the strike have been harassed, suspended or transferred out of the state.
The strike, which brought together local and migrant workers from Bihar and West Bengal, had ended after an agreement was reached before the Assistant Labour Commissioner. As per the agreement, the management promised to dialogue on pending issues including wage hike, suspension and transfer of union activists. Management also agreed to take all workers who participated in the strike, back to work, without any disciplinary action against them. In reality, it did just the opposite and went back on the signed agreement.
When workers reported to the factory next day, very few were allowed inside. Management claimed that the rest were daily wage workers and that they could be hired and fired at will. According to one worker “This is the reason that they maintain two registers. One for ‘staff’ and the others as ‘daily wage worker’ even though there is no difference in the salary, work or any other benefits between the two. To maintain a distinction, they give monthly wages in cash to workers whose names are on the second register.” Most of the migrant workers were not taken back inside. Moreover, within a few days, most of the union activists who did manage to go into the factory were given transfer orders to areas like Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, etc.
One of the workers who had been facing the harassment by the management even prior to the strike narrated his experiences. As soon as the management came to know that the workers were organising, they were targeted, including this worker who has been employed in the company for more than 4 years as a CCM observer. In January he was transferred to Krishnapattnam, a port in Andhra Pradesh. “When I reached there I found that Noble Tech did not have any company there. I had to oversee the unloading of materials coming by ship. There was nobody to guide me and I had to take care of my boarding and lodging. Thankfully I borrowed some money from friends and could survive”, he said. He also added that he would be called at any time during the day and night whenever the ships docked and has worked several hours of unpaid overtime which the management is refusing to compensate him for. After he was shifted back to Chennai, he was once again transferred to the Ennore port where he spent two nights on the platform as he was unable to find affordable lodging. Despite following all orders given to him, he was suspended on a false charge that he reported late for work. “I had to travel almost the entire day from village near Uthiramerur to reach Ennore. I was just returning from leave and kept the supervisor informed of my whereabouts. But they did not listen to my explanation”, he said.
There is no doubt that the management is resorting to the usual tactic of harassment and acts of vendetta believing that they can punish workers by transferring them to far away locations and forcing them to do work which they are not trained to do. Workers who have been suspended are getting only half of their already low wages (as per law) and that too after several calls and pleas to the managers. But the management has not stopped there. They have also terrorised the migrant workers who supported the strike. Three workers were taken to a remote location in a van, blindfolded, and warned to go back to their homes. The management dropped them at the railway station and threatened them not to come back. Many of the migrant workers and other workers, fearing similar retribution are reluctant to join the union. In order to provoke the union members, a large amount of debris and industrial wastes were dumped on the unions board and flag. Angered by this, CITU leader Com.Muthukumar, who is also President of the union, gave complaints to the police and the Pollution Control Board. Along with a reporter from Theekathir, Com.Muthukumar went to the factory and spoke to the HR Manager, warning him that all the workers in the area will protest at the gate if the rubble is not removed.
“One of the main reasons that the conciliation process does not seem to be going anywhere is that the company has links with bigwigs in the ruling and opposition parties. None of the councillors or the local MLA have supported our struggle”, said one of the workers who had assembled at the ACL office in Irungattukottai, Sri Perambadur, in hope that at least this time the management would yield to their demands. This was not to be. After a brief meeting with the ACL, it was back to square one, as the management was not agreeable to negotiating. Com.Muthukumar admits that Noble Tech seems to operate outside all laws and that continuing to rely on the state machinery for a dialog doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. “Maybe we will have to just sit outside the factory, like the Neduvasal struggle”, he said. Meanwhile, workers feel that a positive outcome, i.e, revoking of the suspensions or transfer orders, through a dialog with the ACL or any other means that the union leadership suggests, will be the only way to reach out to other workers in the factory to strengthen the union.