Celebrity Fashion management resorts to harassment and intimidation to break union.
14 workers of Celebrity Fashions Limited, a garment factory located in the MEPZ-SEZ, Tambaram were suspended on 14th October. The previous day, workers had protested at the factory gate demanding that one of their comrades who was suspended earlier, be taken back to work and calling on the company to provide 20% annual bonus.
Over the last few years, the workers who belong to the Garment and Fashion Workers Union (GAFWU) have taken up several issues within their own factory and also campaigned on issues plaguing the industry such as minimum wage and ESI. In the last few months, union activists in the factory been pushing the management to implement the new minimum wage and ensure that workers get arrears as per the order of the High Court. This has prompted the management to launch an all-out attack on workers, including suspension of Elizabeth, General Secretary of the union, who has worked in the factory for over 10 years.
One of the biggest factories situated inside MEPZ-SEZ, Celebrity Fashions Limited employs more than 2000 workers who produce ready-made garments for major American brands like Timberland, LL Bean, etc. They are also producers of the high end domestic brand called Indian Terrain. In fact, it was workers from this factory that first came together to form the industry level Garment and Fashion Workers Union in 2008. Women workers in the factory raised several issues including low wages, compulsory overtime, denial of leave as per law and a host of other issues related to health and safety at the workplace. Most of the union’s office bearers are workers of this factory who began to organise workers in other areas. Union activists say that over the last few years, they have been able to build up leadership on the shop floor and deal with several problems which has put pressure on the management.
According to Com.Sujata Mody, President of GAFWU, the latest round of attack began after July when the High Court ruled that the new minimum wage order of the government (issued in Dec 2014 providing a hike of Rs.3000) ought to be implemented retrospectively. “Celebrity Fashions management paid the arrears but till date not paid the legal minimum wage and has illegally been deducting transport cost bringing wages below that set by the government. The union activists have lodged complaints before Deputy Commissioner of Labour (DCL), but the management has not come forward to hold a dialogue”, she said. For years, companies like Celebrity Fashions and others have ensured that each time a minimum wage notification is issued by the government for the garment industry, it remains locked up in a long winding legal battle.
Com.Elizabeth Rani, who began working in the factory as an ironer almost a decade ago, told TK that she was physically assaulted by a factory manager in the early days of the union. She said that the management tried several tactics including physical assault, harassment and filing of false cases but the union was able to resist and ensure that the workers went back to work. In September this year, having undergone a cataract operation, Elizabeth went back to work after a 3-week leave. Prior to her surgery, she was instrumental in organising a group of young workers from a village near Tindivanam who were forced out of work when CFL management abruptly stopped the bus to their village. This is a tactic used to illegally terminate workers as these villages are in remote locations and without the company bus, they will be unable to come to work. A complaint has been filed and there is an ongoing dispute before the Deputy Commissioner of Labour.
“I went back to work on 16th August after my surgery and I was told to work on the Red Machine. At times they would ask me to do table work which involved putting belts into pants as part of the packing and finishing process. I was working to the best of my abilities, but the supervisor would constantly demand higher production. On 31st August, they escalated the issue. The supervisor shouted at me and I defended myself. They brought the senior management to my workspace who proceeded to shout at me in front of everyone. They then called me to the HR cabin where once again I was accused of being disrespectful to the manager”, said Elizabeth. Shaken by the harassment, she took two days leave and when she reported to work on 4th September, she was handed a suspension order alleging that she had violated the rules of the company by being rude to the manager.
As the union was dealing with this issue, during the first week of October, workers came to know that they would be receiving only 8.33% bonus this year. Com. Dilli, an operator in the factory and Vice President of GAFWU said that the management did not inform the workers and were planning to just put the money in the bank account. Workers decided to distribute pamphlets and even attempted to talk to the management. “Last year, we accepted 8.33% bonus because the management had to pay minimum wage arrears. But this year, we refused to keep quiet. When we went to talk to the management they claimed that the company’s situation is not good. But we are not shareholders of the company, we do not know if there is really a loss. It does not mean anything to us. We are asking for what is rightfully due to us”, said Dilli.
On 5th October, the management threatened Kesavan, another union member. “We were standing outside the MEPZ gate after collecting the pamphlets from the printer. HR manager Idene and another were standing and staring at us. Then this man came up to us and started threatening us, saying that we may be killed if we continue these activities. I immediately filed a police complaint and the manager was forced to write an apology letter and assurance that no union member would be harmed”, he said.
On the next day union members distributed pamphlets. Another woman worker (name withheld) told Thozhilaalar Koodam that she was held captive in a room without fan and light and forced by a group of managers to sign an apology letter for distributing pamphlets. She has worked in the company for five years. “They surrounded me in the room and forced me to sign an apology letter. I felt completely trapped and suffocated, could not breathe because they would not let me leave. I even asked to go to the bathroom but they kept saying I should sign a letter”, she said. Eventually, union activists came to know about this and informed the labour department. She was let off at about 3pm and asked to go back to work. “Are we bonded labour? I don’t think we are asking for something big. They have not increased our wages and given the increasing cost of living, 20% bonus is important for us”, she said.
The demand for 20% bonus has resonated with all the workers in factory. But according to the account of the union activists, as soon as they arrived on 13th October, supervisors and security officers literally formed a human chain around the workers and escorted them into the factory from the bus, telling them that the company would shut down if they strike. About 30 workers resisted and continued to stand outside the factory demanding that the management declare 20% bonus. They were repeatedly harassed by MEPZ security officers saying that they did not have permission to protest outside the factory. The next day, workers decided to continue to protest within the factory premises but were prevented from entering and were handed suspension orders at the gate. As the workers pursue the next course of action, news from colleagues within the factory is that the management is coercing them to sign false complaints against the suspended workers.