When Workers Challenge Violations of Labour Laws, Government Brands Them ‘Anti-Development’

- Sanjay Sharma

The industrial area demarcated by the State Industrial Development Corporation of Uttaranchal Ltd. (SIDCUL) in Pantnagar, Uttarakhand, may not be an SEZ – but it is certainly a ‘special’ new type of ‘integrated’ industrial estate – the kind where massive workers’ protests are taboo as is unionisation. Since June, workers of the Bhaskar Energy Ltd. (which produces generators under the brand name Kirloskar) have been involved in a movement which has since spread to involve workers of most of the factories in the region, and this movement in the face of all odds, is challenging the unspoken ban on workers’ struggles in this industrial area. 

The Bhaskar Energy Ltd enjoyed a range of benefits, waivers and subsidies given to companies in the name of development soon after Uttarakhand state was formed. But it has been least interested in the state’s development, and only interested in raking in profits. The illegal lockout by the company management since 22 June exposes the reality of ‘development’ and the mockery of workers’ rights in the state.

In October 2006, the DLC Haldwani (labour commissioner) conducted a raid on this company which revealed that workers are illegally being made to work on a contract basis. Whereas workers were earlier recruited through a written test and interview, they were secretly shifted to a contract system within four months. The Bhaskar management, found guilty of violation of labour regulations, tried to escape by scrapping the contract system but also laid off all the workers. Workers were forced to launch an agitation.

After 15 days of the movement, an agreement was reached through the intervention of the Labour Department and District Administration, in which it was decided that the management would immediately take 55 workers on for a 90-day probation period, after which they would all be regularised. The remaining 35 workers would also be similarly taken on probation and regularised as soon as production demands necessitated more labour. The management violated the terms of this agreement after 90 days, illegally extending the probation period by 40 days. Also, some people recruited as overseers were being made to work as workers; whereas under the terms of the agreement, workers were only to be recruited from among those laid off.

The Labour Department conducted several rounds of talks following violation of the agreement. During these talks, the management handed termination-of-service notices to nine workers participating in the talks, and the workers protested by boycotting work. Again, through intervention of the Labour Department and District Administration, an agreement was reached according to which the workers’ representatives were restored to their jobs and the management agreed to regularise 20 workers every month.

The management then bypassed the seniority priority in bringing out the regularisation list at the end of the first month. Holding this to be a violation of the agreement, the Labour Department and District authorities intervened to force the management to issue regularisation papers according to the seniority list. After this the management withheld the regularisation list at the end of the second month and accused workers of violent agitation, issuing an illegal closure notice. This notice, itself illegal, announced closure on 27 May, but the management suddenly and without any intimation closed down the factory on 22 May itself. On 22 May itself, 1000 workers held a procession in the SIDCUL area in which workers from several other factories joined the Bhaskar workers in protest against the illegal closure. Section 144 was imposed in SIDCUL to curb the movement. 

The DLC declared the closure of the factory to be illegal but did not take any action against the management. The owner was summoned to Dehradun by the Labour Minister for two days of talks, but since workers were not included in these talks, one does not know what transpired in those talks. What is known is that after the talks, labour commissioner (DLC) summoned the workers, and told them that either all workers must resign and the factory could reopen, or else the union leaders would be thrown out and only then could the factory reopen. In other words, the DLC was playing advocate of the factory management, and is yet to take any action or initiate any prosecution of the owner for the closure of the factory that the DLC admits is illegal. In protest the workers gheraoed the DLC at Haldwani – but no action has yet been taken.

The movement has continued under the banner of the ‘Save Bhaskar Struggle Committee’ led by AICCTU, supported by some 30 other organisations. This Struggle Committee held a dharna and demonstration on 19 June at Rudrapur Collectorate. The dharna continues at the gate of the Bhaskar factory till date. A Convention was held on 5 July which was attended by a wide cross section of society. After that Convention, a procession was held successfully to break the 144 orders, and the Convention decided to call for an industrial strike on 21 July.

In preparation for the strike, leaflets and posters were distributed by workers all over SIDCUL, and workers of the Bhaskar factory as well as other factories conducted a mike campaign. The Management of other factories regularly threatened workers not to join AICCTU and not to join strike. Yet the workers’ leadership – most of them activists who are very new to such struggles, remained determined and refused to be browbeaten.

The police also kept issuing threats. One week before strike, in Radiant Polymer, another factory where the core leadership belongs to AICCTU, the management hired 30 goons and brought them inside the factory to beat up the workers, but workers spiritedly resisted, and handed over 2 of the goons to the police. The police let them go, and told the press that it was a clash between two groups of workers.    

In another big factory Acme Telepower, the management are continuously threatening workers not to join the strike. Interestingly, to intimidate the workers, the management in this factory displayed some footage on his computer that showed workers from his factory giving speeches at the Bhaskar dharna. This footage came from the CCTV installed by the Bhaskar management at its gates – it was being accessed in Delhi by the Bhaskar management, and shared with managements of all factories in the SIDCUL area to enable them to witch-hunt workers from their factories who were participating in the Save Bhaskar movement. So the workers of SIDCUL had to forge a unity that was capable of contending with this high degree of organised unity of the managements! Despite the intimidation by managements, workers in these other factories openly declared that they would join the strike. Then, three leading workers (AICCTU activists) were dragged off to the police post, threatened and roughed up, incidentally in the presence of representatives of managements of several factories.  

The strength of the movement lay in the fact that it did not rely on workers of the affected factory alone; it reached out to and drew in not only workers of other factories, but also people from nearby villages. This kept up the pressure on the local administration, making it tougher for them to isolate the workers.

On 20 July, on the eve of the strike, Section 144 was re-imposed in SIDCUL, Prohibitory orders announced against any procession or gathering, and police even tried to seize the propaganda mike – but workers thwarted this attempt.  On the morning of the 21 July, the intimidation continued. Workers of the Dabur factory that adjoined Bhaskar had decided to join strike. But the local thana in-charge went inside Dabur to threaten workers, and detained the main leading activist. Workers spiritedly jammed the gate inside the factory itself, and police was forced to release the leader; workers then marched from Dabur to the Bhaskar gate to join the assembly of workers. The entire SIDCUL area was barricaded, the Bhaskar area encircled by police from all sides, and nearly 1000 workers prevented from joining the procession. The local Administration was determined not to allow a procession to take place. Despite this, 600 workers and people from villages nearby as well as families of the workers, joined the procession.   

The protestors broke through the police barricades to march on through the township. Women were at the forefront of the procession, and when they clashed with the police trying to block their way, they were lathicharged. Several women were injured in the lathicharge. In protest the workers sat on a dharna at the spot for around half an hour. Eventually the police was forced to give permission for the procession to proceed onto the Nainital-Delhi Highway, which remained jammed for two hours. The procession also marched through the township. The procession was led by CPI(ML) leaders Comrade Raja Bahuguna, Kailash Pandey, KK Bora, Girija Pathak, Bahadur Singh Jangi, Sanjay Sharma, as well as leaders of many other organisations. The SIDCUL workers’ leaders who led the procession included Comrade Kailash Sharma, President of the Bhaskar Energy Shramik Sangathan, and Deep Tiwary, Secretary of the BESS, Shishupal Negi, Vijay Sharma, and many others. Interestingly, the police slapped fake cases on 200 protestors, 38 of these FIRs are named, and these 38 have been charged under the 7th Criminal Law Amendment. All this, while the actual criminals of the Bhaskar Management who violated labour laws and agreements go free.

The struggle continues; the government is determined to prevent the movement from spreading, and is accusing the workers of disrupting ‘development’ and ‘industrial peace’. But workers are determined to hold a major strike action, and AICCTU plans to take the struggle to the seat of power in the State capital of Dehradun.