13th October 2017
On a cloudy day, travelling hundreds of kilometers away from their homes in Ambur and Vaniyambadi, about 100 workers assembled near the Chennai Collector office. They were demanding that a Supreme Court order be implemented without further delays. It has been 18 years since 360 workers, many of them Women and Muslim, were forced out of their jobs. Jobs, they had done for most of their working life. For many it was the only job they knew other than carrying out their household work. The courts, including the Supreme Court of India, had heard their case, found the company to be in violation of labour laws, and ordered the company to pay fair compensation to the workers. Yet here they were, 18 years after losing their jobs, demanding that the compensation due to them be paid without any further delay.
The workers belonged to two privately owned shoe factories, FlorinD Shoes Pvt Ltd, and United India Shoes Corporation Pvt Ltd (UNISCo). They are both owned and managed by members of the same family and employ between the two of them about 3500 workers. In 1998, there were about 1500 workers. They were paid between Rs 3000/- and Rs 6000/- montly wage. Most of the workers joined in their youth and have spent between 15 -20 years in the company. Decades back, they had formed a union (Leather and Leather Goods Democratic Labour Union) under the leadership of A.Venkatesan demanding better wages and working conditions. But workers maintain that their relationship with the owners were cordial and even familial. “They (the owners) said they will take care of us through our lives when they gave us jobs, but in one moment they just asked us to leave” said a women worker aged over 50. The workers say they were giving no reason for this partial retrenchment. Ramani, one of the petitioners in the case said “ we were told that old people were to be retired, but then they even removed younger workers. Most of the workers removed were active union members. All the workers were in union but all of them were not active.” The workers were threatened that false cases would be created against them if they did not agree. The company officials and even local strongmen forced them to submit to this demand. The company offered Rs 5000/- for every year of service left. They were forced to sign away their rights. The labour department gave its stamp of approval without even hearing their case. The workers challenged the order in the court and thus began the long ordeal for justice.
A Judicial ‘not so Merry’ Go Around:
After the labour department failed to settle the dispute, the workers took the case to the labour court which adjudicated in favour of the company in 2000. The workers went on appeal to the High Court. After an entire decade, in 2010, the high court found the company in violation of labour regulations. It ordered that a fair compensation be paid to the workers with the amount to be decided by the labour commissioner. This order was appealed by the company that took the case to the Supreme Court of India. Here it languished for 3 years. As the case wound its way through the judicial process, over 30 workers died of natural and other reasons. The workers, anxious about the delays, sent hundreds of telegrams to the chief justice office seeking an early trail. In 2013, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court’s order, directing the setting up of a one person committee to arrive at the quantum of compensation and disburse it at the earliest.
After delays in Chennai by the commissioner appointed by the department, the workers protested. The case was transferred to the labour commissioner of Coimbatore. Though the company initially agreed to his appointment, it delayed the process by not appearing regularly for the hearings and in other ways. The process dragged on for another three years and the labour commissioner’s order was made in 2016. The compensation was to be Rs 12000 for every year of lost service (retirement age minus age at time of retrenchment). The workers had demanded at least Rs 1 lakh for every year of lost service. This meant a substantial loss. Worker allege that during the negotiations, the negotiator from the workers side had mentioned that the company had agreed to pay an average of 12 lakhs per worker. But the order was very different. The lowest pay out would be Rs 80000 while the highest payout would not be more than Rs 300000. The workers sought response from their negotiator but got no satisfactory answer. After 17 years of legal tangles, they were willing to accept the pay outs and settle the dispute. In an ironic twist, the company has obtained a stay order from the Coimbatore court maintaining that the Coimbatore labour commissioner (who does not have jurisdiction over Ambur) does not have the authority to decide the issue. How many more appeals would the company prefer? how many more appeals would the judicial system entertain? How many more years will the workers have to wait? How many will perish before ‘Justice’ is done?
A War of Attrition:
35 workers who had filed the suit have died since. Hundreds of others have dropped out of the case, following the long delay in the high court. More refused to engage in the S.C case. Today only 155 of the 360 survive. A few more years and many more will perish, others will lose interest. Their fight began for retaining their jobs. After the initial setbacks with the labour department, they were forced to accept a compensation. By the time the case had been heard by the High Court of Madras, many had grown old to get back to work. At that time, they wanted the company to back their full wage for the years of service lost. After seven more years of judicial struggle, the workers were willing to take a fifth of that compensation. Yet, it remains as elusive as it was in 1998. The legal system has ensured that the workers lose their motivation, reason and even their lives before they ever smell a quantum of justice. This is a war of attrition against the working class.
The workers had been well organized in the initial years. They had put their faith in A.Venkatesan, their union leader, who had led them ably. The years of struggle saw his demise too. The leaders who followed neither had the confidence of the retrenched workers, nor their best interests. Workers allege that these union leaders who negotiated with company on their behalf in 2014-16, had betrayed their interest in settling for so less. Yet they have no recourse nor the energy to challenge them.
Democratic Trade Union Center, to which A. Venkatesan had been affiliated, had lost the leadership over the workers after his demise. Dissatisfied with the negotiation by the current leadership of the union, the retrenched workers approached DTUC, after it became clear that even the negotiated compensation would not be paid by the company. They are providing political and legal support to the workers. Though organizations such as Tamilaga Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam and other religious organizations claim to represent these people, they have not showed any interest in this class struggle, in which both the employer and the workers are from the same community (workers are predominantly muslim not entirely). In fact the within the realm of identity politics, the pro-capital bias of these organizations becomes clearly exposed. DTUC has also not taken the initiative to invite these organizations to join the struggle.
The systemic failure of our democratic institutions like the bureaucracy and judiciary, the lack of trade union leadership and the failure to find an political form of struggle allows the capitalist to brazenly violate the rights of the workers. In also creates a deep sense of frustration among the workers. Workers have shown immense patience with the system, but sooner than later, it is bound to run out.
*The name of A.Venkatesan had been misspelt in an earlier version. It has been rectified. The name of the union that the workers formed in the factory has been included in the new draft