Officials refuse to meet them; Police threaten action against workers
On 27th November, over 60 workers of Greaves Cotton India, retrenched since April 2016, assembled at the Head Office of Greaves Cotton at Saidapet, Chennai to press their demands. With conciliation efforts with Assistant Commissioner of Labour failing, the case would move to the labour court. On previous occasions the company had successfully delayed the legal process by not showing up for conciliation meetings in the labour department. The workers assembled to get an assurance that the company would honour the courts and engage with the legal process without delays. The company officials, even though they knew about the workers visit, refused to meet the workers or give them any assurances. Instead, they refused entry of the workers inside the premises, while informing the local police. The local police refused the peaceful assembly of workers even near the premises, even though they had no lawful order against the workers. After threats to arrest the workers, the workers decided to disperse even though they had neither met nor obtained any assurance from the company officials.
On April 29th of 2016, Greaves Cotton, closed its Gummudipoondi factory and even as litigation was pending, removed the machinery from the factory. Rather than absorbing the workers into its operations at Ranipet and other cities in India, it forced termination of employment. Though officially the company maintained that the closure was due to fall in production, the real reason was to break the workers union formed under the leadership of DTUC. The workers challenged the action with the labour department that initiated a conciliation process. After numerous delays due to the absence of company officials for the hearings, a ‘Failure Report’ was filed by the labour commissioner on 24th Nov.
After more than a year without a job, the workers and their families are facing acute financial and social problems. Some of the workers have taken up alternative employment under even more dismal conditions of contract and wage. “we get Rs 8000/- after 30 days of work, no leave, no overtime. We have to work 15 days for paying our rent. How can we survive like this” asked a worker. The company remains stubborn on termination and is only willing to discuss minor increase in the compensation. The labour department and the courts have failed to resolve the dispute in a time bound manner, tolerating the delays by the company. After 18 months of conciliation, the labour department has issued a ‘failure notice’ after the company said it will move the labour court. The workers fear that the case will prolong we further in the labour courts, and the appeal process. This forced them to head to the corporate office to get an assurance from the General Manager that the company will honour the legal process and respond promptly.
“We have lost a lot after the company threw us out, my wife left me, my parents need my support. I don’t have a proper job. I moonlight in many places to make ends meet. I don’t have the time to go after a long legal process” a worker said in an earlier discussion. This judicial delays in adjudicating workers’ rights, has forced many workers (nearly 30 workers) to settle the dispute by accepting the compensation offered by the company. Those holding out fear that the process will wear them out and deny them justice. Similar cases that have languished for two decades reinforce the workers’ fear.
The workers assembled at the office gates around 10:30, after the office staff had entered the premises. They did not prevent anyone from moving in or out. They sought an audience with the General Manager. The security, after locking the gates, called the police, who came within a few minutes. The Sub inspector, began a long-winded negotiation with the workers and their union leaders, regarding the need to inform the police about such actions. The security officers maintained there was no one of authority at the office. The officer suggested he would get an audience for a few representatives later in the day but the rest would have to disperse immediately. This was not tenable for the workers. After a couple of hours of standoff, the Inspector arrived and threatened to arrest them, if they did not disperse. He claimed that Anna Salai was a high road and he cannot tolerate assembly of workers. The workers argued that they had not obstructed work at the office or caused any disturbance to the public and they had a right to stay. The police refused to entertain any discussion about the law. As the arguments became heated with the police shouting down the union leaders, the union leaders decided to disperse and return if the company refuses to discuss with them.
The workers were visibly upset. They felt that the police had no role in the issue. They had not caused any public disturbance. No law was violated. The police had inserted themselves in the issue in the name of ‘Law and Order’ and acted in a predictably biased manner. The workers were also frustrated that the leadership decided to disperse instead of stand their ground. They had taken great efforts to come together, lose a day’s wage, travel to Chennai, some with family members. To return with neither a meeting nor assurance was depressing. But the leaders assured them of the impact of this action. They also said that they would reassemble if there was no positive change in the action of the company.