29 workers of SICAL Logistics warehouse in Minjur, Chennai and their families are on an indefinite protest near the warehouse, since 5th Feb (Monday), demanding that they be reinstated in their work and their wages raised to match with new recruits. Since July 28th 2017, these workers have been denied work at the warehouse after they protested discriminatory wage between them and the new recruits for the same job. While the issue has been pending before the Assistant Commissioner of Labour II (ACL), these workers have been left in limbo as to their work status. With little progress in conciliation talks since August 2017, the workers have decided to move their protest to a public space. Since 5th Feb (Monday), they have begun an indefinite protest to pressure the company and the government to look into their case. The workers are members of the Minjur regional General Workers Union (Minjur pakuthi pothu thozhillalar Sangam) affiliated to CITU. SICAL Logistics is a public company promoted by Coffee Day Group owned by V.G Siddartha, son in law of former Karnataka Chief Minister SM Krishna.
SICAL logistics is a multi crore freight logistics company with operations along all the coastal states of India. In Chennai, as part of its logistics operations, it operates a Customs Bonded Warehouse in Minjur, close to Kamarajar Port. All categories of cargo are handled from the ware house. While the numbers often change, there is at an average, around 100 ‘staff’ and 100 casual labour (CL) who operate the inbound and outbound containers and cargo. Workers maintain that all categories of workers were involved in all types of work, with the staff having additional responsibilities like documentation, computer system operations, machine operations and other skilled work.
Many of the workers in the protest have worked for several years at the warehouse and are well experienced with the work. Yet they were being paid a net salary between Rs 7000/- and Rs 13000/- depending on their designation. Over time, they have only received marginal wage increases.The casual labour were paid even less, and their wage was well below the minimum wages for unskilled manual work.
However, over the last couple of years, the work force has been expanded with the inclusion of contractual workers at all levels. These contract workers were being paid a higher wage starting from 15000/-. For example a supervisor with over 10 years of experience and having a post graduate degree is being paid Rs 13000/- while a new recruit to the position is being paid Rs 35000/-.
The dispute began in late 2016, when old workers started demanding parity in pay scales and a significant increase in the wage to match with Minimum wages. With no reaction from the management, workers began to resort to short ‘stop work’ protests. Finally on 16th Feb 2017, workers went on whole day ‘stop work’ forcing the manager to agree to revise wages. Instead of continuing the negotiation, workers allege, the managers tried to intimidate them using ‘bouncers’ from outside. When the workers resisted the bouncers together and threatened police complaint, the company manager agreed to settle the wage issue by 31st July 2017. They also agreed to confirm 10 workers who were on contract for many years and gradually confirm all workers. On 28th July, all workers were called for receiving their revised wage slips. They were in for a shock as they had only got a 7%-8% increment instead of wage parity. Though 10 contract workers were confirmed and brought into company pay roll, all their wages remained significantly lower than the those of the new recruits. This led to a spontaneous protest at the office with nearly 80 workers demanding immediate action on their demands.
Little did they know then that it was an elaborate plot as the company had already filed a complaint of possible unrest and danger to property. The police acting on the compliant were already at hand. They cordoned the workers demanding that they disperse. When the workers refused, the Deputy Superintended of police arrived around midnight of 28-29 July, and threatened to file charges of theft and damage to property. As a concession he promised to organize a ‘peace committee’ meeting between officials and workers mediated by Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO – Ponneri).
The peace meeting was held on the morning of 29th July, and was attended by representatives from the company, workers and police. The workers also raised other grievances like discrimination between staff and contract workers on canteen facilities, lack of first aid, toilets etc. After a day long discussion, the RDO recommended that the demands of the workers for improved first aid, sanitation and food be immediately taken care by the company. The RDO asked the workers to take up the issue of wages with the labour department. The company officials signed with protest, the advise offered by the RDO.
Rather than act upon the RDO advise, they moved the Ponneri Court obtaining an injunction against 33 workers and their collaborators including family members from protesting or hampering in any manner the operations of the company. The court restrained the workers from any protest within 200 meters of the warehouse. The company also denied work to nearly 80 workers who had participated in the protest. It also struck out of payroll the ten workers who had been confirmed. On 31st July, the workers lodged an industrial dispute with the ACL claiming this to be a partial closure of the operations without prior notice.
After about two to three weeks of the workers filing the dispute, the company reinstated 51 workers (including some on contract). But it has refused to reinstate 29 workers of which 13 workers were in the pay roll of the company. The company argued that it has transferred them to its warehouses in Vizag and Tuticorin. Because they had not reported to duty, they have not been provided work. The workers argue that they never agreed for such transfers and that the company has to clarify their status and provide them with meaningful compensation if they have to migrate to other cities to work. The issue of the 16 CL is in limbo. The workers allege that in the 6 months after filing the dispute, the company has not engaged in negotiations, and has only attempted to delay the process.
With the legal process reaching a stalemate, the workers decided to mount an indefinite public protest before the company. On 5th February, the workers, along with their family members, including elderly parents, assembled close to the warehouse. The police had already arrived in force. They even had women constables. After an initial attempt to engage in negotiations with the management having failed, the leaders decided to begin their sit in demonstration on the side of the main road. The women were against the move as they felt the company would care little for such symbolic actions. They sought an immediate resolution to the issue after all these months. They demanded that they either go to the gate and protest or block the high way to force the company to negotiate. As the women began to move towards the company, the police quickly formed a cordon. The men, taking the heed of the leaders, were reluctant to move ahead and began squatting on the simmering service road. They began erecting pandals for overnight stay.
SICAL is a logistics company with a turnover of over Rs 800 crores and with a profit after tax of Rs 45 crores in 2016-17. Workers estimate that the Chennai warehouse caters to about 8000-10000 TEUs (20feet containers) a month. The company reports claim over a 6 lakh TEUs annually across all its warehouses. SICAL was initially promoted by AC Mutthaih. Subsequently V Siddhartha bought over 50% of the shares through Coffee Day group for Rs 121 crores. Now Tanglin Retail Reality Pvt Ltd, promoted by V G Siddhartha has a share of 52% in the company.