“Nee Hodha Marudina” (The day after you left), an Ambedkarite song played in the background while the protesters arranged the tarpaulin mats for fellow workers. It was April 29, and they were marking the 150th day of the Indian Telephone Industries (ITI) workers’ protest in front of one of the gates of the ITI premises at Doorvani Nagar, Bengaluru.
The ITI is one of the city’s oldest public sector units. The PSU is primarily engaged in the manufacturing telecommunication equipment, laying fibre optic cables for defence purposes in remote border locations as well as the processing of security and surveillance data.
The workers are protesting against what they call the company’s “anti-workers policy”. Even a photograph with a few ITI contract workers joining the protest against the now repealed farm laws had resulted in the termination of two employees on grounds of union-related activities.
ITI had laid off 240 workers in July 2020. The workers had not been paid for two months during the pandemic induced lockdown. They are also due their provident fund, employees’ state insurance, and about five years of bonus money, said one of the protesting workers.
The protestors had earlier joined the Karnataka General Labour Union (KGLU) and the All-India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), Karnataka. Soon after, a complaint was filed at the Regional Labour Commissioner’s (RLC) office regarding outstanding payments and the credit of payment less than the minimum wage rate, according to a fact-finding report by independent researchers released on the 100th day of the protest.
“I was just an employee [on contract since 2018] who entered the ITI premises at 8 am and left at 4 pm,” recalls Hemanth Kumar, president of the Karnataka General Labour Union which was formed in August 2020. “After a discussion with the permanent employees we came to realise how inconsequential our lives were. I decided to mobilise fellow contract workers and form a union”.
This was followed by the RCLC advising the ITI management that under Section 33 of the
Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, the conditions of service of the workers in question should not be changed. On December 1st, 2020, when 80 were stopped at the gates from entering the company premises, the agitated workers organised and marked the first day of the protest.
Determined to continue protest
Despite the protest, the work at the factory goes on. The 80 contractual workers who were ousted were replaced by a new batch of contract workers.
Citizen Matters tried reaching out to the ITI management but there was no response. The Labour court case had been transferred from the Regional Labour Commissioner (RLC) K A Sebastian to Regional Central Labour Commissioner (RCLC) Anajanappa. There was no response from either of the Commissioners.
At the end of 150 days of sitting in protest, the protest site was marked with worn out tarpaulins used as mats by the protesters. The site full of flags of allied organisations including the AICCTU, the Dalitha Sangharsha Samithi (DSS), etc. and the extended solidarity of the Pourakarmikas of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and the Street Vendors’ Association of Karnataka.
The workers sit in dharna 24/7 in their fight for dignity and for regularisation as full-time employees. “The company knows that if they clear all our outstanding money, we will not have much of a problem sustaining the protest here in terms of food and water,” said Hemanth Kumar. “But they are deliberately making things difficult for us”.
T Babu, Assistant Secretary, KGLU, another ousted worker joins our conversation. “While we sit and protest, we have to make ends meet,” says Babu. “So many of us are working as delivery persons in Swiggy, some of us are driving autos, we sell vegetables, some sell flowers. I don’t know why the management is doing this. They enjoy watching us in misery. Two of our people got terminated because we ask for our rights? One of them had been working here for 11 years and another for 5 years”.
“There have been some small wins for the union, for instance, the mobilisation of all the ousted workers to form a union and the supportive, pro-labour orders from the Regional Labour Commissioner, for the union,” said Hemanth Kumar. “But, the biggest win for me, as a contract worker, was in December 2020 when I was referred to as ‘Sir’.” (By the permanent employees’ union members and the ITI management). There is now no going back for Hemanth Kumar.
Casualisation of labour
Casualisation of labour in the private sector has been going on for quite some time now. Now, there is a rise in such casualisation in PSUs too, like the ITI where the trend is to increasingly to replace full time workers with contract employees.
It may not be a coincidence that a majority of ITI’s dismissed workers are Dalit women. According to Professor Khalid Khan of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, scheduled tribes and scheduled castes have the greatest percentage of temporary workers who have no social or employment security.
“Casual labour makes up 21% of total workers overall but among these, 29% are STs, 39% SCs and 26% Muslims,” Khan told News18. “A similar pattern is observed in states like UP, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh”.
Lakshminarayana Bingi, a student at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, who visited the protest site alongwith fellow students, told Citizen Matters that this is also a class and a caste struggle. “We, the youth, should acknowledge this and help the workers take forward the protest to eradicate such discrimination and stop taking away jobs from the poor,” said Bingi.
Hemanth Kumar points out that a ‘highly skilled’ permanent employee is given all formal sector benefits while a temporary contract worker with same skill level and employed for years would paid much less and get no benefits. Kumar tells how a ‘highly’skilled (permanent) employee is paid Rs 40,000 per month including all employee benefits while the contract workers get Rs 864 per day. (The per day wage changes every six months with no clarity on how and why)
The way ahead
Despite the difficult circumstances for the workers and their families, there was a breeze of hope and determination. “Over the past five months and with the support of AICCTU, we have filed more than 300 cases against the ITI,” said Hemanth Kumar. Due to absence of the ITI management representatives, the Labour court hearing regarding the pending dues and reinstatement of the 80 workers, that was scheduled for May 2, 2022 happened was to have been held on May 10th. The ITI management however asked for a stay (in High Court) on the ongoing conciliation stating that, “they have no confidence in the Labour Court,” Hemanth Kumar told Citizen Matters. The next hearing is scheduled for May 18th.
The protesting ITI workers have garnered support from other movements and unions
Joining the discussion, S Gangaraj, Assistant Secretary KGLU adds: “If we don’t stand up for ourselves and our families who will? We have decided come what may, we will stand together and not lose hope”.