Working Class
PRICOL Workers’ Struggle: Hard-won Victory

For the past two years in Coimbatore, workers of PRICOL, a leading auto components manufacturing factory supplying components to most leading auto majors, have been engaged in a protracted struggle against violation of labour laws by the management. Finally at the end of June 2009, they won a victory, forcing the Government to pass orders under Section 10 B of the Industrial Disputes Act 1947 against violations of labour laws, such as employment of apprentices and contract labour in direct production activities and denial of DA and wage increase as per settlements. Apprentices and Contract Labour are engaged in direct production contrary to law in almost all public and private sector units for decades. This is a rare occasion on which a Government has invoked its powers against such violations.

Two Years of Struggle

The PRICOL struggle is remarkable for the fact that permanent workers, ancillary unit workers, and contract labourers have joined a single union led by the AICCTU and launched a united battle; women workers have been at the forefront of the struggle; and the struggle is supported by other workers, law students, civil rights activists, and dalit organizations.

The struggle has been waged against the management’s policies of violating contract labour laws through sham Contract Labour and Satellite Vendor systems, victimisation of workers through closure of so-called Satellite Vendor units, termination of workers and denial of DA and wage increase as per the settlements, and transfer of leading Union activists through illegal transfers. The workers had been demanding that the government pass orders under Section 10B of the ID Act.

Throughout 2007 and 2008, thousands of workers defied all attempts to divide and rule, braved all sorts of victimisation, and succeeded in making strikes lasting several months a popular issue for the wider society of Coimbatore beyond the factory.
Throughout the management played every devious ploy possible, and tried in vain to alternately threaten and woo workers to desert the Union led by what it mischievously branded as a ‘Maoist-Leninist’ leadership.

The Victory

The Government order 393 dated 29.06.2009 referred the following 3 issues for adjudication to the Labour Court Coimbatore under Section 10 (1) of the ID Act 1947:

1. Is the demand of the Unions that the management of PRICOL Limited plant 1 and 3 should not engage apprentices and contract labour in direct production, justified? If so, what should be the relief?

2. Is the management justified in unilaterally declaring holidays and thereby depriving incentive from the wages of the workers from December, 2008? If not, what should be the relief?

3. Is the management justified in denying DA and Wage increase as per 12 (3) Settlements dated 29.09.2004 and 03.03.2004 on the ground that workers have not fulfilled their obligations? If not, what should be the relief?

In order to pass 10B Orders imposing conditions on employers and employees in the interests of employment, industrial peace, public order etc., it is a prerequisite to cause a reference under Section 10 (1) of the ID Act
1947. Having done that in GO 393 on 29.06.2009, the Government simultaneously passed 10 B Orders in GO 394 on 29.06.2009 to the following effect:

(i) The Management of PRICOL Ltd. Plant 1 and Plant 3 shall not engage Apprentices and Contract Labour in direct production activities, affecting the work, wages, incentive of the permanent workers.

(ii) The management of PRICOL Ltd. Plant 1 and 3 shall pay respectively an interim relief of Rs. 500/-, Rs. 400/- every month along with salary to the workers with effect from 01.06.2009.

The Union amassed all the evidence of the violation of laws by the management. By an unsigned notice its own, the management had stated that it was not paying DA and wage increase to the workers from July 2007 onwards. The management stated that it would pay the amount due to the workers in instalments if the workers leave AICCTU, a ‘Marxist-Leninist-Maoist’ Union.

The management while dismissing the workers, is bound to give a month’s notice pay to them, while seeking approval under Section 33 (2) (b) of the ID Act, 1947. If the management fails to pay full month’s salary, its approval petition will be dismissed. Therefore, while dismissing the workers, management paid the withheld DA and wage increase in the month’s notice pay. The union pointed out to the Government that workers were being paid these amounts on dismissal which were denied to them while working.

In March 2009, the Government issued a prosecution notice to the management for violating the settlement. The Government also issued a show cause notice for the unfair labour practice of denying wage increase on the ground of being members of a union which is not acceptable to it.

The Union produced before the Government many authentic documents to show that apprentices and contract labour are engaged in direct production. On 15.04.2009 the Government issued a detailed advice to the management not to engage apprentices in direct production. The Government stated that on this issue it was prima facie satisfied by the documents shown to it. The management did not pay heed to this. In an unprecedented move, the Government ordered a spot inspection on 21st and 22nd May 2009 and the spot inspection report categorically stated that apprentices and contract labour were engaged in direct production and that the permanent workers are prejudiced.

The unions asked the Government to pass the necessary orders which would only be the logical culmination of its earlier steps. Of course, this was accompanied by a powerful indefinite fast from 15.06.2009, carried on when the assembly was in session. Thousands of signatures were obtained asking the Government to concede the demands of the fasting workers. More than 1 lakh leaflets were issued. Ultimately the fast ended successfully on 16th day, on 30 June, after the Labour Minister, responding to Calling Attention Motion in the TN Assembly on the fast, acknowledged the various unfair labour practices by the management and assured of action to safeguard the workers’ legal rights.


The ‘Maoist’ bogey

The Hindu dated June 4, 2009 quoted from a press release issued by the PRICOL management, which said the management was willing for dialogue directly with the workers, but “The management has adopted a stand in principle not to recognise the Maoist-Leninist outfit. The recent ban by the Centre on Maoist outfits justifies our stand as our own actions were based on upholding the peace and harmony of the society as a whole.”

In the Business Standard dated Wednesday August 19, 2009, Vanitha Mohan, Executive Director, PRICOL was reported as saying that a labour problem started by a union “following the ideologies of CPI-ML” in 2007 had had a severe impact on the company's performance for the last two years.

What was this ‘labour problem’ caused by the troublesome Union?

Ms. Mohan said that the workers had struck work “demanding that only permanent workers be involved in direct production activities.”

Is the stricture against employing contract labour in direct production some CPIML or Maoist dogma?! Or is it the law of the land?

Who are the lawless ones here – the Union led by left revolutionaries or the company bosses?

Ironically the Union’s main demands in this struggle were hardly ‘ideological’ – they were mainly asking for the country’s own laws to be upheld. It is the management which, unable to present any defence for its violation of labour laws, is left with the purely ideological weapon – of branding the struggle as an extremist threat to ‘peace and harmony.’

It is no accident that the Centre’s ban on Maoists is being used in this way. That ban sets the stage for every determined people’s struggle – be it of peasants and tribals against land grab and police atrocities in W Bengal, agricultural labourers in Punjab or workers in Coimbatore – to be branded a threat to order. And of course, the management can claim that its illegal victimization of workers for their political affiliation and its very thievery from workers’ pockets are all virtuous acts to “uphold the peace and harmony of the society as a whole”!

Their ploy to discredit the struggle was foiled only because the workers, with foresight and determination, made it a point throughout their struggle to reach out to wider society all over Coimbatore – making the workers’ struggle a genuinely mass-based people’s movement. With that, they ensured that the management’s ‘Maoist’ bogey failed to cut any ice was defeated politically.

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