Protest against termination of 97 airport cargo workers

97 cargo workers in Chennai airport have been terminated. They are employed by the contracting company Bhadra International. The workers have not been able to go to work since 21st December when their airport entry permits (AEP) passes were seized. The company terminated their service on 25th January, then deposited a settlement amount in their bank accounts. The terminated workers have not been provided any legal communication and they do not even have an understanding of why they have lost their jobs. About 400 workers of the Airport Authority of India (AAI) Bhadra Union organized a day long hunger strike in Pallavaram on 30th January demanding the reinstatement of the 97 workers. Since then, the Bhadra management has targeted and victimized workers who participated in the protest.

Airports in India are managed by the Airport Authority of India. The cargo and ground handling services in Chennai airport have been contracted by AAI to Bhadra International. Bhadra currently has contracts to provide similar services in 11 airports across India. Workers in Bhadra are employed under contracts of 3-5 years.

AITUC has a strong presence among Bhadra workers in the Chennai airport. They have 9 unions, which include unions of cargo workers, trolley pullers, car parking workers, house keeping and contractors. The unions have been negotiating collective bargaining for workers since 2009. There are 2000 cargo workers in the airport, of which 1148 are in the union. The remaining workers mainly consist of supervisory staff whom the management does not allow to join the union. The terminated workers are loaders, part of the cargo workers’ union, and at that level all the Bhadra workers are in the AITUC union.

The sequence of events
The spark that led to the termination of workers was a relatively minor incident that occurred on 21st December around 10 pm. As narrated by Comrade Waheeda, President of AITUC, a worker asked his supervisor for 2 days leave, as his mother had passed away. The supervisor refused, leading to a verbal exchange. At about 10:20 pm, the HR Manager of Bhadra contacted the union, and the President of the Union told workers to go back to work. By this time, the situation had subsided.

However, soon afterwards, personnel of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) seized the Airport entry permit (AEP) passes of 92 workers who were present at the spot. This spot is just the workplace for the loaders, so it was not unnatural for them to be present there. The CISF is an armed police force under the Central Government that is mandated to provide security to major critical infrastructure installations of the country which include airports. After their passes were seized, the workers were rounded up and taken out of the airport in a Bhadra van. Without their passes, the workers couldn’t go back to work.

The management of Bhadra has claimed that workers voluntarily handed over the AEP passes to the CISF. However the workers say that the passes were seized by force without any warning. And the passes were contained in pouches where some workers kept their drivers licence and cash in some cases. These pouches themselves were seized, and the process was so sudden that workers could not even remove their other belongings. In order to reclaim these belongings, the union has sent letters but has not received a reply.

The union filed a complaint with DCL Chennai soon after the events of 21st December. There was a meeting with the Deputy Commissioner of Labour (DCL) Chennai on 28th December.
Prem Bajaj, MD of Bhadra, gave an account of the events of the day to the DCL, which according to the workers, is completely fabricated. In his version, the standoff with the workers had created a dangerous situation in a high security area of the airport. He said that ‘the belly of an aircraft was open’, ‘there were 1750 tons of oil in the aircraft’, ‘a single matchstick could create a massive fire’, and ‘there were 21 aircrafts in the bay’ which could have caught fire. The MD also said that the management did not call the CISF. He said that the take-off and landing of certain flights was disrupted, and the CISF arrived because of messages sent by pilots and air traffic control.

The management put out a circular, naming seven workers as those who had started the problem. The circular stated that
disciplinary action would be initiated against these seven workers.
Since the management had only named seven in the circular, out of the 92 whose passes had been seized, the union asked that the remaining 85 workers be allowed to go back to work. The management agreed and gave an ‘agreed notice’ signed by the MD and Vipin Mahajan of the Bhadra’s Finance department . But the next day, when the workers went to collect their passes, they were told that the passes were with the AAI and had to be collected by the union and HR.

A few days later, the company issued a show cause notice to a group of 97 workers. It is still mysterious to the workers why five additional workers were added to the list. They just happened to work in the same location. The workers responded to the notice. According to law, the company should either accept the response as satisfactory or conduct an internal enquiry. The company did not give a formal response and instead kept postponing when they would give the passes back.

On 22nd January, the union filed a 2K petition under the Industrial Disputes (ID) Act. Three days later, on 25th January, a settlement amount was deposited into the account of the 97 employees. Workers were given a discharge simpliciter terminating their service. They were told that they had been given a ‘full and final settlement’. In the discharge simpliciter, the workers have been charged under the Airport Authority of India Regulation Act 2003. However, Bhadra does not have jurisdiction to charge any one under that Act. Only AAI can charge under this Act.

In the mean time, the company has hired migrant workers, which is a violation of the contract. Comrade Waheeda sees this incident as orchestrated by the management to break the strength of the union.

Hunger strike protest
A hunger strike protest was organized by the AAI Bhadra workers union on 30th January, demanding the reinstatement of the 97 workers. Besides cargo workers, other workers in other AITUC unions participated in the protest. Most major trade unions including INTUC, CITU, LPF, AICCTU, HMS, AIUTUC gave their support, and their leaders gave speeches at the protest. The union leaders said how these workers weren’t alone in their fight. The incident was part of the larger attack on labour led by the Modi government, which has emboldened managements to take such illegal and drastic actions. In particular, many speakers critiqued the union government’s ‘fixed term employment’ draft notification (see, as this would allow companies to ‘hire and fire’ labour.

Workers feel a serious loss of respect because of losing their jobs — in fact many of them have not told their families about the termination. The hunger strike was planned to include the families of workers, but it did not work out that way.
To counter this fear Comrade Waheeda told the workers about the 41-day strike by Neyveli Lignite corporation (NLC) workers. Their struggle was strengthened many fold because of their families joining and courting arrest. Further, since the Bhadra workers have not done anything wrong, why should they fear telling their families and go on struggling alone, said Comrade Waheeda.
She said that the only way to face the combined onslaught of Bhadra, AAI and the larger government machinery, is for workers to launch a relentless struggle.

Updates after the protest
After terminating 97 workers illegally, the management is continuing to target and victimize workers. During the hunger strike protest, a person employed by the managment was found to be videographing the event to see which workers were attending the protest. Later the management suspended a worker because his photo with T Pandian, taken during the protest, appeared on Facebook. They have put out a circular saying that workers should not join protests against the management.

On Friday 2nd February, the 97 workers filed individual 2A petitions (under the ID Act) at the office of the DCL, Chennai. They have also given a letter to the management saying that until they get legal redress, they would use the settlement money deposited in the accounts for monthly expenses, by withdrawing a fixed amount every month.

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