Factory closed in March 2016, workers yet to be paid dues, compensation
One and half years has passed since Unitex International, garment factory in Thiruvallur district closed down. By March 2016, the management had effectively ensured that most workers resigned by delaying salary payments each month. This was to ensure that total number of workers went below 100 so that there would be no necessity to seek permission from the government for closure. But 80 workers remained, and even after the company has shut are continuing to knock at the doors of the labour department hoping for a fair compensation.
This is not the first time that P.K.Radhakrishnan, owner of several garment factories in Ambattur and Thiruvallur, has resorted to this strategy to close his factory. In 2012, Unitex Exports, a factory that had been making garments for big brands in U.S and Europe for more than two decades in Ambattur, was shut down in similar fashion. The workers, united under the Garment and Fashion Workers Union, had occupied the premises for 3 months until they were able to get a compensation, albeit meagre. Workers who were employed there for more than two decades had no clue that their provident fund was being pocketed by the management. It was only on closure that they realised that lakhs of rupees, their hard-earned wages meant for ESI and PF, was swindled by the company.
Five years later, the plight of workers in Unitex International is no different. Like in Unitex Exports, they too are women workers employed as tailors, operators and helpers for several years in the same factory. One of the only factories located in the rural area of Sevvapettai, Thiruvallur, it offered employment for women who would have otherwise been unable to find work in the locality.
About 15 of the women attended the hearing before the Assistant Commissioner of Labour at the Labour Commissionerate in Teynampet on 21st October. Many of them said that it was the first time they had come to Chennai and were relying on one of their male colleagues, who is a cutting supervisor, to guide them through the city. One of the workers said “This is the only work we know and we were comfortable working there. Even though the salary was less, we worked because it was close to home.” This worker, a checker, has been employed for more than 8 years. At the end of 5 years, she was forced by the company to resign and collect gratuity, the minimum amount that she would be entitled to. She was then re-employed on a marginally higher salary. In March 2016, when the company closed down, she was earning Rs.7500. Most of the workers’ wages are around this amount. The helpers earn lesser, ranging from Rs.4500 to Rs.5500.
These blatantly illegal practices are rampant in garment factories. Managements make full use of women workers’ vulnerability and lack of knowledge about their rights at the workplace to ensure that they can cut labour costs and maximise profit. Low wages, forced resignations and unpaid overtime are all common practices in garment factories. Within this oppressive patriarchal structure at home and at the workplace, women are simply unaware of their rights, let alone being able to exercise them. Their identity remains primarily as wives and mothers, rather than workers. So, in most cases, even if they are met with harassment, the default response is to resign rather than fight it out.
In the case of Unitex, when the management began to delay salary payment each month, the women would argue with the supervisors and resort to a strike. Eventually the payment would come, but in a hand-written envelope, rather than a printed salary slip required by law. Even older salary slips did not have the “date of joining” column filled in. Many of the women, who could not afford to fight it out each month, resigned. By March last year around 80 remained.
As the company was being shut, managers of the factory promised the workers that their dues would be paid. In fact, a few months later they were even given cheques which eventually bounced. It was at this stage that the workers approached the Garment and Fashion Workers Union. The union found that Radhakrishnan was in fact bankrupt and several banks claim that he owes them crores of rupees. For the workers, who did 8 hours of work each day till the factory shut down, this seemed like an alien notion. There seems to have been gross mismanagement and laundering of funds, the full extent of which may never come to light.
Adding to this, when the union finally made complaints to the Labour Department, the management simply refused to acknowledge that the list of 90 workers that the union submitted were their employees. During the conciliation meetings last year, they claimed that at the time of closure only 30 workers were employed. By ensuring that they did not record payment of wages, they effectively erased proof of employment. Sujata Mody, President of GAFWU, said that the conciliation did not yield any results and that the individual cases for payment of wages, gratuity and other dues. On this particular day, they submitted identity proofs of all the workers before the ACL.
It is no doubt going to be a long drawn out battle as the union manoeuvres the bureaucracy of the labour department. Most of the workers have gone to work in other factories and vow to be more vigilant. However, a vast majority of women workers, more than male workers, remain outside the union fold, and continue to be exploited. There is an unspoken feeling among most unions that women are impossible to organise and that they will be unable to fight. In most cases, unions step in only when there is a closure and rarely take up other issues, be it wages or working conditions. But GAFWU has slowly and steadily been bringing more and more issues of women workers to the Labour Department, and therefore to the attention of the government and state machinery. The union said they are banking on small victories to expand their organising efforts.