Witch Hunt Must Stop, Justice Must Prevail
The tragic death of a senior management representative of auto part manufacturer Pricol in Coimbatore on September 22 has triggered a frenzied reaction from the Pricol management, the Tamil Nadu police and sections of the corporate media. Roy George, Vice President (Human Resources) of Pricol had reportedly suffered head injury in the course of talks with a group of workers on 21 September and succumbed the next afternoon in a city hospital.
The company describes the tragic end of its VP as ‘planned and premeditated murder’ and attributes it to a conspiracy hatched by the leadership of the fighting union of Pricol workers (Kovai Mavatta Pricol Employees’ Trade Union) as well as the central trade union (All India Central Council of Trade Unions) to which it is affiliated. The Coimbatore police have already arrested some thirty workers and a witch hunt is on against several other worker activists and their leaders including Comrade S Kumarasamy, President of AICCTU.
Newspapers and TV channels have all noted the similarity of the Coimbatore case with a similar incident that happened exactly a year ago in Greater Noida in which the local head of Italian firm Graziano Transmissioni was reportedly beaten to death by a group of sacked employees. It was reported that the Graziano incident was sparked off when goons hired by the management beat up workers who had been summoned on the pretext of talks. A similar incident has recently been reported from Gorakhpur. Meanwhile at Gurgaon, the killing of a worker by management ‘bouncers’ during an agitation against sacking of employees who were leading the struggle to unionise, has sparked off a massive strike in Gurgaon. A few incidents involving mill managers have also been witnessed occasionally in the jute mills in West Bengal notorious for huge PF defaults and most anarchic and arbitrary labour practices by the mill owners. The recent suicide of Manikandan, a worker at Pricol for the last 19 years, is the latest addition to the toll of human life taken by the undemocratic and repressive tactics of the Pricol management.
Yet instead of highlighting the common causal thread that runs through such cases – absence of industrial democracy, rampant violations of labour laws and complete denial of the right to unionise, miserable working and living conditions of workers, and recurrent violence by management against vocal workers, to name just a few causes – or helping us understand the incident in the context of the deep anxieties and uncertainties fuelled by the recession, most media reports have tended to join the corporate chorus defaming the organized trade union movement and calling for labour reforms to give still greater freedom to capital to dictate terms to labour. Some have even gone to the extent of demanding a ban on the AICCTU and CPI(ML).
The Pricol management has been notorious for its record of rampant violation of labour laws, court verdicts and government orders. Far from recognizing the union supported by the overwhelming majority of workers, it has constantly victimized workers for siding with a ‘Marxist-Leninist union’, hoping to break the union through coercion and intimidation. In recent months, in the name of facing the recession, it has resorted to harsh wage-cuts, robbing every worker of tens of thousands of rupees. On top of this, came the September 21 termination of 40-odd workers and the dam of workers’ patience burst asunder.
Even in the face of such a vindictive and arbitrary management, Pricol workers have actually been waging a protracted and patient battle exploring every legal avenue available for bringing the management to justice. From Madras High Court to Supreme Court to the floor of the Tamil Nadu State Assembly, the contention of the fighting workers has been upheld time and again and notice issued to the management for legal compliance. The tragic incident of September 21-22 should not blind us to this real history of Pricol workers’ struggle.
Suicide by desperate Pricol worker
A Pricol worker, Manikandan, has been driven to suicide by the ongoing witch-hunt and vindictiveness of Pricol management.
On 22 September, Coimbatore police started hounding Pricol workers and many went into hiding. Manikandan, who had put in 19 years of regular service in Pricol Ltd, went for his shift duty on 23 September, even though he apprehended arrest. That evening after shift, he reached home, left his cell phone at home and left home without telling anybody.
On 24 September our comrades received a call from the government hospital, that a Pricol worker named Manikandan has consumed poison, and was admitted to hospital by a bystander who found him lying on the roadside. He was identified by his identity card in his pocket.
Our comrades went to the hospital along with his family and he was brought home after treatment. Next day as he was still anticipating arrest, his brother took him to Palghat, his native place. There he again attempted suicide, was admitted in the government hospital and died there on 26 September. His brother has given a complaint in the Perianaickenpalayam police station against Pricol management.
Our comrades tried to organize a condolence meeting in Coimbatore but even that was not allowed by the local police. Police gave permission on the condition that the meeting would only be a condolence meeting and it would not speak about anything else. Our comrades made arrangement for a hall meeting. The police went to the hall owner and threatened the hall owner and after this the hall owner was not ready to allow our comrades to conduct the meeting.
By launching a witch hunt against Pricol workers at the behest of the Pricol management, and framing the all-India leadership of a recognized trade union centre like AICCTU, the DMK government is now playing its bit to intensify the state-corporate assault on industrial democracy and basic trade union rights. The trade union movement and the broader democratic opinion must resolutely resist this assault and stand by Pricol workers for fulfillment of their just demands.
The Centre too is trying to use Pricol-Graziano-type incidents to discredit the working class movement and push for the corporate-sponsored agenda of ‘labour law reform.’ In other words, instead of correcting the course of rampant violations of labour laws by managements which led to such tragedies, the Centre is planning to institutionalise and legalise those very violations!
The Pricol tragedy cannot and must not be allowed to be utilized as a corporate handle to coerce workers and suppress the voice of justice. The deaths of Roy George and the worker Manikandan in Pricol, and of Gurgaon worker Ajit Yadav should serve as a warning bell to the Government to strictly act against the anarchy perpetrated by managements across the country, legislate in favour of workers’ right to form unions, sternly penalise every violation of labour laws, and uphold principles of industrial democracy and collective bargaining.
The Pricol Story
At Coimbatore, a single day’s tragic incident is being deliberately sought to be used to prejudice public opinion against the Pricol workers and suppress the truth of the nearly one thousand days of their united and determined struggle.
Pricol: Confirmed Violator of Labour Laws
Among other basic things, a key demand of Pricol workers has been for the recognition of their unions which enjoy the support of the overwhelming majority of workers while the management has been constantly pressurizing workers to withdraw from the road of struggle and sever ties with the ‘Marxist-Leninist’/‘Maoist’ leadership.
In this long struggle of Pricol workers, the government of Tamil Nadu has repeatedly censured the Pricol management. The state government has issued three advices, passed one government order (GO) prohibiting the continuance of lockout, passed three GOs ordering references, passed two orders under section 10B of the Industrial Disputes Act (ID Act) 1947.
On 29th of July 2009 the state Labour Minister, while replying to a calling attention motion moved on the floor of the assembly by AIADMK, PMK, Congress, CPI, CPI(M), catalogued the various unfair labour practices indulged in by Pricol Ltd, and stated that the workers had given up their indefinite fast which had been continuing for the 15th day as their demands were accepted by the government. He further assured that the government would not let the workers down.
Have things completely changed in a few months and more particularly on a single day with the unfortunate death of an executive? In the heat and passion generated by this tragic incident, can we allow rational reasoning to become a casualty?
Will TN Police Consult TN Labour Department on Pricol Ltd?
Rampant violation of labour laws, court verdicts and government orders has been the trademark of the Pricol management.
Some highlights of Pricol’s notorious track record in the arena of industrial relations:
• Vindictive transfers.
• Refusal to engage in collective bargaining in good faith with the majority union.
• Illegal partial lockouts.
• Break-in-service orders.
• Stoppages of increments.
• Termination of more than 1000 employees
• Illegal deduction of wages and incentives running into crores of rupees; promises by the management to pay all these withheld dues if the workers leave the unions.
• Employment of apprentices and contract labour contrary to certified standing orders and the Contract Labour (Abolition and Regulation) Act, 1970.
• Most recently, dismissal of 44 workers without any domestic enquiry.
In almost all these issues the state government has intervened under sections 10 (1), 10(3) and 10 B of the ID act 1947.
In fact Comrade Kumarasami was trying to get the Labour Minister convene a meeting at the earliest to resolve the simmering discontent and this fact is known to the Labour Department.
Yours sincerely, Bob Crow, General Secretary, National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), UK; John Leach, National President, National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), UK; Avtar Singh Jouhl, General Secretary, Indian Workers Association GB, UK; Eve Turner, Secretary, Ealing Trades Council, London, UK; Oliver New, National Executive, RMT, UK; Harpal Brar, Editor, Lalkar Magazine, UK; Naeem Malik, South Asian Alliance, Birmingham, UK; Kalpana Wilson, South Asia Solidarity Group, London, UK
The management does not want Comrade Kumarasami to defend the Pricol workers in the High Court as well as the Supreme Court on the 29th of September and other subsequent dates. This is the main reason for implicating Comrade Kumarasami, the national president of a centrally recognised trade union.
Mr. George's Unfortunate Death:
Neither Pre-planned Nor a Conspiracy
Comrade Kumarasami addressed the general body meeting and one office bearers' meeting on 19 and 20 September 2009. As a practising labour lawyer in the Madras High Court for nearly three decades and AICCTU's national and state president, he is fighting all the Pricol cases in Madras High Court as well as the Supreme Court. Going to Coimbatore basically to reassure the workers not to worry about the delay, as the Pricol case would be coming up for hearing on the 29th of September before the Madras High Court, he categorically cautioned the workers not to get provoked by any vindictive action of the management. He also proposed a padayatra from Coimbatore to Chennai to highlight the demand for a trade union recognition Act and several other burning issues of the toiling people. It was also planned to celebrate the 1000th day of the struggle to counter the frustration being caused by the delay in legal struggles and the recalcitrant attitude of the management.
Can by any stretch of imagination these proposals to impart a stronger mass political dimension to the protracted struggle of Pricol workers be construed to be part of any conspiracy, ‘Maoist’ or otherwise?
Respect Industrial Democracy, Stop Witch Hunt Against Pricol Workers
If lawyers and TU leaders who defend and guide the workers are framed in conspiracy cases as during British days, the government will only be sending a loud message: “No healthy, strong collective bargaining will be allowed. Industrial relations in times of globalisation are back to the pre-1926 colonial days."
Should we allow the unfortunate death of Mr. George to be turned into a weapon for witch-hunt of workers and suppression of trade union rights – instead of treating it, in conjunction with the death of Gurgaon factory worker Ajit Yadav, as a poignant issue for remedial action? Should not rather such unfortunate incidents motivate all parties to take remedial measures that will help resolve the real underlying issues?
TN government and central government should not act on the basis of one-sided corporate hue and cry. TN government should come to the aid of Pricol workers, their families and their leaders, as it has promised on the floor of the assembly, stop the ongoing witch hunt and force the arbitrary Pricol management to respect industrial democracy and implement government orders.
Pricol Struggle Update :
Subsequent to the incident at the Pricol automotive parts manufacturing company at Coimbatore on 21-22 September 2009, the police initiated a crackdown on innocent workers and their leaders. Murder cases were fabricated against more than 20 workers, including two women. The charges of murder and of damages to properties were framed against the union’s all-India President Comrade S Kumarasamy. The same cases were also foisted against many workers’ leaders and vanguards at factory level who are under suspension or dismissal and who are not entitled to enter the factory. More than 26 innocent workers, including eight women, were arrested within 24 hours on non-bailable offences, digging up some old cases of unlawful assembly that alleged to have happened in March 2009. These arrests were made two days prior to a meeting of an AICCTU delegation with the Deputy Chief Minister and the day before the anticipatory bail petition for S Kumarasamy was filed in the High Court of Chennai. At the next hearing of the bail petition of S Kumarasamy on 15 October, the police gave an undertaking to the Court not to arrest him until the anticipatory bail hearing was complete.
Workers on Warpath in Gurgaon against Killing of Worker
Workers at the Gurgaon-based auto component factory RICO had been agitating for several weeks against sacking of 16 workers who had been leading the struggle for the right to unionise. On 18 October, agitating workers were attacked by ‘bouncers’ employed by the factory management – and a young worker Ajit Yadav succumbed to injuries sustained in the attack. Subsequently, nearly a lakh workers in the entire Gurgain-Manesar belt observed a general strike in response to the strike called by the AITUC.
Pricol, Graziano, Gorakhpur, Gurgaon, – all are signs of times: times where private companies, including in the prestigious automobile industry, emboldened by the Government’s own moves to ‘reform’ labour laws, are openly flouting labour laws, and workers who demand their rights are brutalised either by police or directly by goons hired by the companies.
Around 26 workers arrested on charges of unlawful assembly were released on bail on 7 October after having been jailed for over a week. The workers of Pricol wanted to participate in struggles on 1 October as a part of all-India Protest Day called by AICCTU at national level. The police denied permission for the demonstration. On 3rd October, a Solidarity Committee with Pricol workers sought permission to hold a demonstration in support of the struggle and was denied by police. Hundreds of supporters of the struggle courted arrest violating prohibitory orders.
On 2nd October, a state level delegation of AICCTU led by N K Natarajan and comprising of state deputy general secretaries A S Kumar and Bhuvana, G Radha Krishnan and two Pricol workers, met the Deputy Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M K Stalin. The delegation urged him to initiate suitable actions to establish the rule of law and to discipline the Pricol management which is responsible for industrial anarchy.
An all India delegation of AICCTU led by its all-India General Secretary Swapan Mukherjee, and comprising all-India Vice-President V Shankar, Secretaries N K Natarajan and Balasubramanian visited Coimbatore on 6th October. When the delegation went to address the press at press club, more than hundred policemen cordoned off the place to create a situation of terror. The delegation also addressed a well attended convention of workers of Pricol on the same evening. In spite of heavy repression and prevalence of terror situation, workers participated in the convention in good strength and displayed utmost struggling spirit and a sense of fighting unity. The convention was symbolic of the renewed vigour and resolve of workers to carry forward the struggle. The convention also paid homage to a Pricol worker who committed suicide unable to bear the management’s victimization of workers and the police harassment.
The delegation also met the State Labour Minister, State Labour Commissioner and the state police Chief, the Director General of Police and submitted a memorandum demanding withdrawal of false cases against Comrade S Kumarasamy and other innocent workers. The delegation also demanded suitable legislative amendments for recognition of trade unions that enjoy the support of majority workers.
A peace meeting on 7 October was called, under the guidance of the Deputy Chief Minister, by the Deputy Commissioner of Labour Mr. Marimuthu at Coimbatore who served notices to the union and the management. The management chose to stay away from the meeting while the union attended it. The Pricol management continues to arrogantly defy any steps for peace.
The management also declared a differential bonus formula for different groups. While the majority workers in the union were unilaterally offered the statutory minimum bonus of 8.33%, the minority loyal workmen represented by treacherous unions were offered 20% bonus plus gift. This is also a sufficient indication that violation of laws by the management is going on unabated and there is no political or legal authority competent enough to prevail on the Pricol Management. This is the usual story of corporate or MNC influence and control over the State authorities instead of the reverse.
It is heartening that almost all Left trade unions like AITUC, CITU, AIUTUC and HMS offered support to the workers’ demands at national and state level. They also readily signed the joint statement. The struggles, rallies and demonstrations emphasizing the Pricol workers’ demands, are on in Chennai on every other day since 29 September. All India Agricultural Labour Association also joined the protest in support of workers in rural areas displaying the sense of unity with workers. Students and women too, joined the voice of protest in the state of Tamil Nadu.
The struggle of Pricol workers’ continues – even as the Congress-led UPA Government at the Centre is pushing the agenda of ‘reform of labour laws’ – a euphemism for rollback of labour laws to appease the corporations and to intensify the liberalization offensive.
Following the witch-hunt of workers and attempt to frame and implicate the AICCTU National President Comrade Kumaraswamy in the death of a Vice President at PRICOL industries, Coimbatore, there have been a flood of protests – not only in Tamil Nadu bur nationally and even outside the country.
In Delhi, AICCTU held a protest at Jantar Mantar on 24 September. On the same day, there was a demonstration in Ambattur industrial estate in which over 500 workers participated. TIDC workers held a gate meeting. Demonstrations were also held in Namakkal, Pudukottai district Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts too.
100s of protest telegrams were sent from all over the State to the Tamil Nadu CM and Governor. The Madras High Court Association passed a resolution against the false implication of Comrade Kumarsami.
On 25 September, a demo was held in Villupuram district. On 26 September, the first State Conference of AISA in Tamil Nadu was held in Chennai. The delegates staged a demo demanding withdrawal of the false charges against AICCTU National President and an end to the police hunt of workers.
TIDC workers held another gate meeting on 27 September. On 29 September, a demonstration was held in Chennai in which over 150 workers participated. Another demonstration took place under the banner of the Workers’ Solidarity Forum at Kumananchavadi near Poonamalli.
An AIPWA team met the State Women’s Commission Chairperson and demanded to stop police harassment on women workers. She appointed a one-woman Commission to look into the issue.
On 30 September, representatives of all Central Trade Unions in Tamil Nadu issued a resolution against the implication of AICCTU National President in the case and against violations of labour laws in the State. Demonstrations were held in Tirunelveli, Pudukottai and Tiruvallore districts.
The Progressive Advocates Association and MRF Workers Seeramaippu Movement of Tiruvottiyur releases posters on the issue.
1 October was observed as National Solidarity Day by AICCTU. Protest demonstrations were held at Ranchi, Lucknow and other centres. A demonstration was held in Chennai in which 1000 workers participated. CITU, AITUC and AIUTUC leaders attended the demonstration. Demonstrations were held in Villupuram, Kumbakonam, Cuddalore, Namakkal, Kanyakumari, Trichy, Salem, Dindigal and Madurai. In Tirunelveli, signatures collected were submitted to the Collector. A public meeting was held in Pudukottai town.
Pricol workers who arrived Chennai on 30 September met the State Labor Minister and demanded that the police harassment should be stopped. New Democratic Workers’ Union staged a demo in support of Pricol Workers.
On 3 October AIPWA and Workers Rights’ Forum held a demonstration. In Coimbatore, over 120 people led by democratic forces held a rally. They were arrested and released later. A joint demonstration by many TUs was held in Ambattur.
On 4 October, TN Democratic Construction Workers Union organized a demo in Chennai. A Public meeting was held in Suthamalli of Tirunelveli district. On 5 October a demonstration was held in Kanchipuram and a memorandum was submitted to the Collector. A demonstration was held in Tiruvallore district by AICCTU-AIALA.
On 6 October, a hall meeting attended by 300 workers was held in Coimbatore addressed by AICCTU National General Secretary Comrade Swapan Mukherjee, Vice President Comrade V Shankar, Comrades N.K.Natarajan and S Balasubramaniam. AIPWA also held a demo in Chennai.
Also on 6 October, the Chennai Labour Court observed a boycott in solidarity with Pricol workers. On 9 October, a Court boycott was observed in Tirunelveli.
On 7 October, hundreds participated in a protest march in Chennai. A demonstration was held at Salem and Villupuram, and a public meeting at Tirunelveli. Protests continue across Tamilnadu.
The MRF Workers case:
Madras High Court Judgment on the Recognition of Trade Unions
The MRF Workers lodged a complaint before the ILO Governing Body’s Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) highlighting the violation of the freedom of association and collective bargaining rights of the workers in the Arakonam factory by the management of MRF Limited. In November 2007, the CFA published its 348th Report that contained its conclusions and recommendations.
The CFA emphasized that the management should recognise the workers’ union and engage in collective bargaining, indicated that secret ballot would be the best way to establish the most representative trade union, and recommended that the Government take appropriate measures to obtain the employer’s recognition of the union for collective bargaining purposes.
The union filed a Writ Petition before the Madras High Court seeking the implementation of the recommendations of the CFA, particularly the recommendation relating to the recognition of the union by the management of the company.
The stand taken by the Government of Tamil Nadu was that there being no central or state law on the subject of recognition of trade unions, neither could the recommendation of the CFA be implemented nor could its suggestion to hold a secret ballot be acted upon. However, it was open to the union to undergo the procedure for recognition laid down under the Code of Discipline by submitting a petition to the State Evaluation and Implementation Committee.
The employer and the management operated union took the stand that the CFA’s recommendations are not binding and therefore need not be implemented. Furthermore, the management took the stand that it is a matter of absolute discretion for the management to recognize or not recognize any particular union as there are no statutory provisions in this regard.
On September 8, 2009, the First Bench of the Madras High Court passed orders in the Writ Petition.
The verdict held observed that MRF workers had tried to establish the legitimacy of their chosen union through a secret ballot in 2006, but the representatives thus chosen were asked to resign by the management, and a pro-management union was then “given the facility of deduction of membership fees from the wages of the workmen.”
The verdict held that “....the desirability to have a truly independent and representative union of workmen to represent their cause cannot be lost sight of. A Management may think that the leadership of a particular trade union is militant, yet even such a union when it obtains a recognised status, it has to act within the four corners of law and discipline. … the question as to who should be the representative of the workmen is an aspect which has to be decided by the workmen themselves. It cannot be left to the Management that it will recognize a particular Union which it considers to be representative of the workmen. The Trade Unions Act, 1926, which is an Act to provide for the registration of Trade Union, is there on the statute book for the last over 80 years. It is no longer permissible nor possible for any management to disregard a trade union registered under the Act, and having a large following. If it does so, it would be at its own peril.”
Section 25-U of the Industrial Disputes Act 1947 (as cited by Madras HC verdict of 8 September 2009) provides that “any person who commits any unfair labour practice shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months or with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees or with both.” Unfair labour practices as defined by this Act include “threatening workmen with discharge or dismissal, if they join a trade union,” “threatening a lock-out or closure, if a trade union is organized,” other forms of coercion or intimidation of workers for forming a union, and “Refusal to bargain collectively, in good faith with the recognized trade union.”
Most authorities accepted that the Pricol management was guilty of all the above described unfair labour practices. Yet even the extremely mild punishment prescribed above was never invoked by the Government against the management. WHY?