Four months ago, the company van of Vijay Garments factory met with an accident. Six employees were injured. On 29th March, the employees finally received their compensation after many struggles. ThozhilalarKoodam reported the story of the workers waiting for compensation. In this period they were unable to seek medical treatment or go back to work. The Garment and Fashion Workers Union had also written to the management of the factory. In all this time, the factory management did not pay for medical treatment, after promising to do so. ESI deductions were being made from the workers’ salaries. Thus, they are legally entitled to lost wages and medical benefits. Inspite of ESI deductions being made, the workers had not received their ESI cards. It turns out that Vijay Garments has not paid the contributions to the ESI Corporation.
Initially, the company was not willing to pay the workers’ wages, or pay for their medical expenses. So, there was a conciliation process before the Deputy Commissioner of Labour (DCL). On 29th March, the workers finally received their salary for the last four months. The amount worked out to Rs.28000 approximately for each worker. However, the workers had also demanded money for medical expenses. While they demanded Rs.15000, the management agreed to only a third of the amount, which they were asked to collect on the following day in the company.
One of the injured workers, Nithya, belongs to an agricultural family and her wages are a vital source of income for the household. After her injury, she was unable to buy medication as her aged father could not afford it. Nithya had been employed for just over a year, and she earned Rs.7000 per month. Her wage slip shows that ESI and PF deductions have been made each month. However, no ESI IP number has been provided. Her other injured colleagues also earn similar wages with ESI deductions. While they have been assigned IP numbers, they have not received their ESI cards. During the last four months, all the workers were in dire financial straits. They had to take loans to pay home rents as well as medicines. The workers were legally entitled to receive their ESI cards as soon as they started their job.If they had received their ESI cards on time, they would have been entitled to free medical care, and also sickness benefit during their absence from work.
According to D.Sumathi, Garment and Fashion Workers Union, who accompanied the workers for the conciliation, the DCL also pointed out that if the factory is covered by ESI, the issue ought to have been taken up with them and not the Labour Department. Muniammal, one of the workers who had an ESI card from her previous employer had checked with the ESI local office only to be told that her present employer had not paid the dues. The management representative was evasive saying that the workers would not use the scheme as the hospital in KK Nagar is too far away. The DCL stated the management did not have a choice and instructed them to complete all procedures and provide ESI cards to the workers.
According to Sujata Mody, President of GAFWU, there was an attempt to arrive at a bilateral agreement with the management which was not honoured. “We will now file complaints with the Factories Inspectorate (Department of Industrial Safety and Health) and the ESI, and follow due process of law”, she said. Most workers do not know that as per the ESIC Act, workers are entitled to medical care from the first day of their employment. The responsibility of registering workers in ESI and PF solely lies with the company’s management. Workers need to be provided with temporary ID cards until they are given permanent ESI cards. This will then have to be registered by the workers at their local branch office. Moreover, the Department of Industrial Safety and Health as well as the ESIC ought to have been informed about the accident.
In the last four months, the management pressurized the workers to withdraw the case, in return for money. The workers did not yield to the pressure, although they were undergoing mental, physical and financial hardship. Though the compensation may not fully cover expenses they incurred, they feel that if not for union, they would not have been able to receive salary even for the four months during which they were unable to work. Nithya said, “We will go back to the factory and tell others about this.” The DCL has also instructed the management of the company to ensure arrears of wages (following the new minimum wage order) be paid to the workers and proof of the same be submitted to the Labour Department.