Pricol killing: Labour at the receiving end?
The killing of a manager at a factory in Coimbatore by workers, sparked off by the sacking of dozens of their colleagues, can in no way be condoned, but it raises questions on the state of labour in India in a time of economic pain.
These employees were fired after they disrupted work, company officials say. A senior official was quoted as saying George was targeted because he was “weaning away” employees from a union that was leading the protests.
Pricol workers have been agitating for over two years against the hiring of contract workers and on the non-payment of pay and other benefits. The firm has said these strikes have hit profitability and they could shift base.
The Tamil Nadu government in June prohibited the firm from employing temporary workers in core operations and ordered it to hike wages, implicitly validating the demands of the workers.
If one reads Pricol’s latest annual report, the firm itself blames the economy for its poor financials. There is no mention of an impact from labour unrest.
The International Labour Organisation, in its fundamental convention, says workers must have protection against harassment for being members of a trade union.
The ILO also makes it a priority that wages must be decided through negotiations on an equal footing by workers, employers and the government.
India’s Industrial Disputes Act too provides for protecting workers from being fired for reasons like worsening sales. Severance payments have to be made and these workers must be re-hired when conditions improve.
Many firms have sought to bypass these rules by increasingly hiring casual labour, a trend India’s labour ministry says is on the rise in the automobile sector.
Pricol is not an isolated case of worker action in the state. Tamil Nadu has seen a spate of agitations in recent times, most prominently in the factories of tyre-maker MRF, South Korean car firm Hyundai and mobile phone giant Nokia.
It also brings to mind a similar incident last year, when the chief of the Indian unit of an Italian industrial gear maker was killedby employees. This too was preceded by disputes over hundreds of dismissed employees.
Asian peer China too has seen its share of worker unrest as the communist nation moves towards a market economy and as workers fret and riot over the security of their jobs in a weakening global economy.
In July, workers in a steel mill threw their boss down some stairs to his death, as he was managing the sale of the state-owned plant to a private firm.
The question is thus, are such unfortunate situations brought about by labour practices?
Court rulings in India have made it clear the right to life includes the right to practice a dignified livelihood. Do arbitrary hiring and firing practices run counter to this?
And are these made harsher by the slump in the automobile industry, which has forced firms to cut production and reduce the number of workdays per week?
Did the Pricol incident come about due to criminal elements or was it an outcome of frustration with the course of peaceful agitation?
And would such incidents scare away investors into the state and the country?
(PHOTO: A man throws stone at police during a protest by Honda workers in Gurgaon July 26, 2005. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/Files)