Lightmen Union and Dubbing Artists Union join to show solidarity
20th Sept 2017
South India Cine and TV Outdoor Technicians Union (Technicians Union) organized a one day symbolic hunger fast against the expulsion of their union from FEFSI and demanding producers not to lower their wages and ‘bata’. Over 400 workers assembled at Valluvarkkottam in Chennai in protest of these two measures which has forced them out of jobs since 1st of September. The protest had the support of Viduthalai Chirutaigal Katchi (VcK), a political party in Tamilnadu. Thol.Thirumavalavan,the president of VcK, said his party would fully support the struggle of the workers and take steps to resolve the issue.
Union leaders from the Lightmen Union and Dubbing Artists Union participated in the hunger fast. Raman, the secretary of the Lightmen union, said that he whole heartedly agrees to the demands placed by the technicians union and would fight their cause within FEFSI to revoke their expulsion. “We have travelled all these years in the same van with you (workers), it is hard for us now to go on without you. We hear you and your demands. We will fight to keep your wages on par and will also fight to get you back into FEFSI. If the producers and FEFSI leadership expel us, then we will happily rejoin you as before. It is hard for us to have our food, when we know you are going hungry”he said.
Mr. Vellalan, a cinematographer, and Director Shiva, who presided over FEFSI a year back, spoke at the protest. All of them assured the workers that the issue will be resolved amicably within the next few days. However they said that FEFSI had not responded positively to their efforts to resolve the current standoff. SibiChandran, propaganda secretary with VcK and a former cine director, concluded the fast by offering fruit juice to the secretary and president of the technicians union.
There was a sense of hope and enthusiasm among technicians when members of other unions and political parties committed their support. However the lack of jobs and the uncertainty of wage caused frustration and anger. They were also very unhappy over the reduction of journey bata as they felt that was a just compensation for their work. Speaking to ThozhilalarKoodam, a worker from Anand Cine Service said, “Without the union we won’t get our wages. Producers often default on payments. It is only the collective strength of the union that gets us that money. Delays of few days are very common, but if the union does not exist, we will never be paid as producers might just shut production without even paying us. So leaving the union is not an option.” But he has not found work for over a month due to the conflict. “We have not gone to our company; they are asking us to quit the union. We heard that there were a few north Indians at the gate. We are not sure if they will be employed, but they need to be trained here. They can’t simply replace us,” he reassured himself.
TheTechnicians Union has said that they might be forced to go on an indefinite hunger fast if the issue is not resolved soon.
In July of this year, technicians had refused to work on BillaPandi, a Tamil movie, for a couple of days, stating that they were not being paid their daily wage. They had also charged the producer with defaulting on payments on a previous project. The movie has actor-producer Vishal Krishna in the lead. Vishal Krishna was elected president of the Tamilnadu Producers Council in the recently concluded internal elections, defeating the team lead by producer Thanu. This change of guard had happened in the midst of negotiations between TNPC and FEFSI-affiliated unions over wages and working conditions (referred in their circuit as ‘General Conditions’). Following this altercation on the sets of BillaPandi, the producers’ council announced that they would want a significant revision in the general conditions and would not be restrained to work exclusively with unionized workers. This had forced FEFSI to go on strike for two days in August. For more information, read our full report on the FEFSI strike.
The August strike was withdrawn after three days and the labour department organized negotiations between FEFSI and TNPC. During the period of the conciliation, FEFSI suspended the Technicians union and later expelled them. FEFSI office bearers defended this decision by stating that the Technicians union, by disrupting the shooting of BillaPandi, had unilaterally acted against the established rules of FEFSI. They further maintained that such actions cause damage to all crafts persons and cannot be tolerated. In the absence of a proper reason or apology, FEFSI had to take the decision to expel them. The expulsion was not contested by any other affiliated union at that time. Secretary of the Technicians union maintains that their union had clearly responded, stating the reasons for their actions and also highlighting the gross mistakes committed by producers in wage payments. He also said that they were expelled at the behest of the producers council as a condition for negotiations. Calls made to FEFSI Secretary for their comments on some of these issues were not answered.
Inspite of the expulsion, TNPC decided to unilaterally publish their ‘General conditions’ that advertised for new (i.e. non-unionized) recruits for their production units. This prompted FEFSI to go on a strike from 1st September to 12th September. On 12th September, a framework agreement was reached to reduce ‘journey bata’(bata given to workers for outstation shoots) by half and recognition of the FEFSI workers to be engaged by producers council. But this agreement does not cover technicians as their representative union did not participate in the discussions.
Since the expulsion of the technicians union from FEFSI, the producers have begun to pay less per schedule to the technicians. For example, a team of 3 camera technicians used to be paid Rs 7500 for a call sheet. This was reduced to Rs 6000. Similar reductions were also made to the sound technicians and other categories represented by technicians union. The producer’s council also approached the outdoor unit supplier companies (like Anand Cine Service and others),asking that the service providers not send workers associated with the technicians union.
These actions have placed the technicians in a very vulnerable position. They have not been employed for over 20 days now. The outdoor unit operators are insisting that they leave their union membership if they need employment. There is also fear that more workers from Kerala and Mumbai are being brought in to replace the technicians. Though the cost of hiring workers from long distance will be a burden on the producers, if they are able to persist, it might have ruinous effect on workers here. While there were disruptions in shooting schedules immediately, reports indicate that most of the big budget movies have recommenced shooting.
According to the Technicians Union’s leaders, the issue predates BillaPandi. They said that Vishal Film Factory, owned by Vishal Krishna, had defaulted on wage payments to workers during the production of Thuparivallan, a recently released movie. When the default went in excess of 30 days (over 13lakhs), the technicians complained and the union advised them to not work until the dues are settled. This infuriated the producers (incidentally Vishal Krishna) because the union refused to accommodate them. However, they had to pay the money before the second schedule could go on set. This had caused a severe rift between Vishal and the union leadership. These actions by TNPC is viewed as acts of revenge by Vishal and coterie of ‘non-producing’ producers.
FEFSI might claim victory in the recently concluded negotiations but that is grossly inaccurate. The major issue that prompted the conflict was the non-payment of wages by producers. It is reported that such defaults are very common and often cheques are dishonoured by banks for non-availability of funds. Though this is a criminal offence, unions have arbitrated to get workers the wage without taking criminal action on producers. Resorting to ‘on set’ strike has been the time tested method to force producers to pay their dues. FEFSI by insisting that such actions should not be resorted to makes workers vulnerable to long arbitrations and greater threat of defaults. By taking severe punitive action against the technicians union without sufficient cause, they have also reduced the bargaining capacity of other unions. If the expulsion is not revoked unconditionally, it will set a very bad precedent for the future.
The reduction in ’journey bata’ by half will also hurt certain crafts disproportionately. Journey bata is only levied by few crafts such as lightmen, production and technicians. These craftsmen have to handle and transport heavy equipment and also safe keep these until they are returned to the service providers. It is this that makes them eligible for journey bata. To reduce this will make them lose wage on work days. While the lightmen union did contest it initially, they have agreed to this in the light of stern action by FEFSI.
While FEFSI’s principal demand was that non-unionized workers should not be employed by producers, with the technicians being hired without union affiliation, it will create a situation on the sets where unionized workers will be working alongside non-unionized workers. The lack of protection for one group will affect the rights of the other. This will also create the possibility for future outsourcing of work, leaving workers increasingly without protection.
Thus, the only way to restore the balance, enhance the workers’ rights and protections and retain their collective strength will be for FEFSI to unilaterally and unconditionally revoke the expulsion immediately and work with the cine technicians union to commit producers to wages as agreed under the previous agreement with TNPC and restore reasonable ‘journey bata’ for the workers.
It is also surprising to find that the left trade unions and political parties have neither engaged the cine workers union nor offered their support to the struggle.