On 1st November 2011, when Santhanam went to work in the morning she found the gate of the Unitex Export factory in Ambattur Industrial Estate, where she has worked for last 25 years, locked. The management had pasted a notice on the gate which said that a new factory has been started in Sevvapettai (a place 30 kms away from the present location) and that all the workers need to report at the new factory. Shocked workers, about 150 odd women, stood around the gate for a while reading the notice and then decided to sit in front of the factory in protest against the illegal closure. And they have been sitting there since then even with intimidation from police. Every day at around 9AM workers gather at the gate and sit there till 5PM protesting the illegal and sudden closure of the garment factory which has been in operation since 1986. The company is a supplier to apparel brands in Europe and the U.S.
After almost a month and half of sitting in front of the factory and management inaction, the women decided to shift their protest site for a day to the Labour Commissioner’s office located at DMS complex in Mount Road on 16th December. They demanded that the labour department intervenes and directs the company to reopen its factory and immediately pays wages to the workers. Since November 1st, the workers have been without work and wages. Several of the workers have been working in the factory for over 25 years.
Trouble started brewing in the factory since September 2011, when the workers, most of whom are members of the Garment and Fashion Workers’ Union (GAFWU), which started a union in the factory in 2010, raised issues about low wages, arbitrary delay in payment of wages, non-issuance of salary slips, no records of overtime, low and late payment of bonus, non-provision of ESI cards to 10-12 workers. Several of the workers who have been working
in the factory for more than 25 years are being paid woefully low salary of Rs.3500 per month. Many workers who had resigned from the company have also not received their gratuity and other dues. Moreover, the management has also not remitted Rs. 37 lakhs of the provident fund deducted from workers for the past three years. After concerted struggle by the workers and GAFWU, the Provident Fund Authority has finally taken notice and attached the property of the company. In early 1990’s, the company had initiated some small saving scheme-Unitex Employees’s Welfare Fund, where the workers had contributed Rs 100 per month from their salaries. About 5 workers who had contributed to the scheme were never given their dues, which is worth approximately Rs 70,000.
On 30th September, GAFWU raised an industrial dispute under Industrial Disputes Act in Assistant Commissioner of Labour (ACL 2) apprehending closure. Management refused to come for the two conciliatory meetings called by the ACL and finally on 13th October the ACL declared a status quo ordering the factory to operate and allow the workers to resume work. In violation of the order passed by ACL 2, on 1st November Unitex management illegally locked out the factory. The company has a track record of sudden factory closures and had in 2007-08 closed down two of its factories -Aditya Export and Vivaswan Export without any notice to the workers. Many of the workers were left without jobs and were never given their dues like gratuity, and for some of the workers who were shifted to the Ambattur factory, management did not transfer their PF’s.
Fearing similar fate, the Unitex workers from the Ambattur factory filed a complaint with Labour Commissioner. On 16th December, GAFWU representatives and the workers met the Deputy Commissioner of Labour and had been called for a tripartite conciliatory meeting on 19th December. The Unitex management had been issued summons to appear for the talks on on 19th at the DCL’s office. The management has ignored the summons prompting a protest in front of the DCL’s office. With no enforcement by the DCL, the future of the workers hangs in the air!
Madhumita Dutta is an activist and researcher based in Chennai and works on labour and environmental justice.