(Translated from Article by Vishwanathan, General Secretary, Cooptex Employees Union)
The Cooptex Company was started as a public sector initiative by State Government in 1935 to market garments produced by handloom weavers. In 1967, Tamil Nadu Government started subsidizing 10% of retail price during festival season to attract more customers. Since 1971, The Government has also given options for Government employees to buy textiles on loans. As the quality of the material was high, the price was low compared to private retail and since the wages of Government employees and workers were usually low, Cooptex was the most preferred retail service for the public. In 1980, our Janta Dhoti from Rs 4.50 to Rs 5.08 and Janta sarees of Rs 15.50 were very popular among rural households. However today, the interests of Cooptex has gone away from the needs of rural households.
The workforce has been reduced from 500 sales outlets, 20 regional offices and 3000 workers to 202 sales outlets, 11 regional offices and 750 workers. Corruption, inefficient management also played its part. In 1996, the company was affected seriously by major corruption scandals and the loss of Rs 85 crores. Since 2002, various subsidies were withdrawn. Wage payments were delayed. In 2005, the Government announced a special voluntary retirement, which was availed by over 640 employees. Since then every year, average 50 employees continue to retire. While these positions were not being filled, the remaining workers are tasked with the work pressure, and undue focus on sales. They have been asked to do foot sales by visiting multiple offices and government departments to sell their products. Because of this pressure and hard work, the loss of Rs 85 crores has been reversed and company has started making profit. This achievement is being hailed by the IAS management as their own achievement.
However, the company was being affected by non payment of loans from departments who have purchased materials from Cooptex. Any action is being banned on those who have not paid loans, the stated reason being that taking action against them would affect the sales. And, this burden is being shifted to the workers. Voluntary retirement option is being denied to workers, who are harassed with increased work pressure. In 2011, a Government Order has been passed which denies gratuity to workers opting for voluntary retirement. The management has also been penalising workers in wages for not meeting sale targets, which is being fixed upto Rs 10 lakhs.
In 2016, a worker named Charumathi retired from sales retail office in Chennai Cooptex. Her predecessors had supplied over Rs 23 lakh worth of uniform materials to Chennai Corporation, which has not been paid by the Corporation. The Managing Director of Cooptex has written a letter to Corporation Commissioner threatening that if the Corporation does not pay the dues, Charumathi’s retirement benefits will be withheld. Another worker Nallathambi who also retired in 2016 has been denied gratuity and other benefits because of outstanding loans from Government Employees. Similarly benefits of Rs 4.50 lakhs each have been withheld from Vijayan of Thanjavur, Balu and Rs 5 lakhs has been withheld from Gunasekharan. These benefits have been withheld in spite of various departments having paid some of the loans through ECS, as these loan payments are not being reflected in accounting. Even though, there are judgements which ban withholding of gratuity, the Cooptex management has been brazenly proceeding with the same ( High Court of Calcutta, in eastern coalfielos limited vs.Rlc (c)calcutta and others )
(office of the Regional labour commissioner (central) BANGALORE Application No 349/87/B3 26.09.1988).
At the same time, the management has passed a resolution in board meeting to cancel recovery of payment of Rs 5.50 lakhs by a New Zealand Company, which has defaulted on the non payment. Similarly Rs 7.50 crores loss due to wholesale purchase of inferior textiles have not been recovered. All of these are being burdened on the employees.
Petitions to various government representatives including Textile Ministry, Handloom Ministry, Labour Ministry and SC/ST Commission has not produced any result. To highlight our issues, we gheraoed Chennai Cooptex Head Office on July 12, 2016. We plan to do a hunger strike on August 21st and participate in September 2nd National Strike.