Working together

Print edition : February 27, 1999
V. SRIDHAR

IN their struggle to cope with the crisis in the textile industry, mill owners in Coimbatore have found their allies in mill workers.

The Joint Action Committee (JAC), a common platform for trade unions, which was earlier an ad hoc body that negotiated the annual bonus with the mill managements, is now a permanent body meant to protect the interests of workers. As part of a joint effort to save the industry, the JAC has backed the industry's demand for reliefs from the State and Union governments. However, the JAC is critical of the policy of economic liberalisation, particularly the policy of delicensing, which is seen to be the principal cause of the current crisis. It has demanded governmental intervention to prevent the crisis from spreading to the powerloom, hosiery and other sectors.

The trade unions of Coimbatore have joined the managements in calling for an immediate halt to any expansion of spinning capacity. They have demanded that low-interest credit be made available to mills and that the export of cotton, which has destabilised prices, be stopped.

With some of the powerful players in the industry demanding that at least one-third of the capacity be closed down, there is a real danger of loss of jobs. Sources in the South India Mills' Association (SIMA) told Frontline that up to one lakh workers may be retrenched.

Some trade union leaders admit that the unions' support for the mill owners is not without problems. There is a possibility that the unions could be "used" by the mill owners to draw public and political attention to their own plight.

A. Subramaniam, general secretary of the Coimbatore District Textile Workers Union, affiliated to the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), said: "We have a stake in the revival of the industry. We do not have any illusions that the mill owners are really worried about us. We also realise that they may abandon our interests. But we will not allow that. They can ride on our shoulders but they cannot sacrifice our interests. We will support mill owners in their efforts to revive the industry but will not allow mills to be closed down."

The trade union movement suffered a setback during the bonus talks last October when four trade unions in the JAC, including the unions affiliated to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazha-gam, broke away to sign an agreement with SIMA. Subramaniam alleged that SIMA encouraged the split so that it could settle agreements for lower bonus rates.

More than two lakh workers are on the rolls of mills in the State. About 50,000 workers, euphemistically called apprentices, learners, trainees or badli workers, are employed on a long-term basis but are paid only wages that suit casual employment. They have borne the brunt of the recession: in many cases they are the first to be sacked by the mills, without compensation. In many mills even permanent workers have been laid off; mills work with "skeleton staff". In several mills that work at reduced capacities, a system of "rotational lay-off" is in practice: workers take turns to be laid off.

Subramaniam said that for many months workers had not been paid wages in time, if they are paid at all. Moreover, he alleged, contributions to the Employees' Provident Fund and Employees State Insurance schemes, which had been deducted from workers' salaries and which amounted to a "few crores", had not been remitted to the Government. Even Life Insurance policies of workers have lapsed because of the mills' failure to pay the premiums after deducting the amounts from their salaries. Workers' dues to their credit and cooperative societies, deducted from their sala-ries, have not been passed on to the stores.

Trade union sources in Coimbatore said that mills had been laying off workers for some years now. About 20 mills had closed in the last two years and at least 10,000 workers had lost their jobs. The sources also said that several other mills had been "unofficially closed". Some mills have gone in for "partial closure".

In one of the National Textile Corporation (NTC) units, the workforce has dwindled from 1,500 one and a half years ago to about 550 now. The spindlage in this unit has been reduced from 78,000 to 36,000. Workers say that only two of the 13 NTC mills in Coimbatore work near capacities.

Several big mills, including NTC mills, have implemented Voluntary Retirement Schemes (VRS). M. Nanja-ppan, general secretary, Coimbatore District Mill Labour Union, said that the private mills offered much lower compensation than what NTC mills offered under the VRS.

Subramaniam said that the National Renewal Fund (NRF) was intended as much to finance schemes to retrain workers as to finance VRSs. The NRF's objectives had not been met, he said, and added: "More than 90 per cent of the funds have been used to finance retrenchment." Of the thousands of workers who lost their jobs, some are employed as casual workers in the smaller mills where they earn less than half the wages they earned earlier, he said. Others were "just drifting along". The establishment of new mills in the Dindigul and Udumalaippettai areas, where wages are about one-fifth to half the wages in Coimbatore, has had a dampening effect on wages in Coimbatore. Besides, the crisis has led to increased workload on those who are still at their jobs.

A letter from the Editor


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