O n December 1, 2021, R. Hemanth Kumar (31), a quality assurance engineer employed as a contract worker at Indian Telephone Industries Limited (ITIL) at Dooravani Nagar on the north-eastern outskirts of Bengaluru, reported for work at 8 a.m. as usual. Strangely, the entrance of the public sector telecommunications equipment manufacturing unit was barricaded, preventing his entry into the factory. According to the security guards stationed outside, Hemanth Kumar, along with 79 other contract workers who had been working at ITIL for between three and 35 years, had been dismissed from employment and could not enter the premises.
Speaking to Frontline , Hemanth Kumar said: “We did not have the slightest clue that we would be dismissed. The decision to terminate our employment was a shock to us. All the 80 contract workers who were terminated are members of the Karnataka General Labour Union-ITI Unit (KGLU-ITI) [affiliated to the All India Central Council of Trade Unions, or AICCTU] and it is clear that the [ITIL] management has targeted us unfairly because we unionised and demanded our rights as workers.”
The dismissed workers have been sitting on a day-and-night protest from December 1 opposite a barricaded lane leading to the ITIL factory. The barricades were placed at the spot when the protest began. The workers are demanding that they be redeployed and that the company pay them all pending dues.
The protest marked 100 days on March 10. Clifton D’Rozario, Central Committee Member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, said that the protest was a “landmark” as “no public sector workers’ protest has lasted for such a long period in many decades”.
100 days of protest
When this correspondent visited the protest site on the 100th day, the protesting workers were camping in a tarpaulin tent by the side of garlanded pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Savitribai Phule and Bhagat Singh. Coincidentally, March 10 was also the death anniversary of Savitribai Phule, and the protesting workers, a quarter of whom are women, commemorated it. Red, blue and green flags were festooned on a pole at the site, displaying the convergence of various organisations that had endorsed the protest. While the red flags represented the workers’ interests, the blue flags represented the support of Dalit organisations since nearly half of the protesting workers are Dalits. The green flags represented the support lent by farmers’ organisations.
Hemanth Kumar, who was employed at ITIL for almost four years before his dismissal, explained the background of the termination of the 80 contract workers while cooking a meal of rice and sambar for the protesters. Helping him were Babu T. (41), who worked in production/manufacturing and had been employed for 16 years before his dismissal, and G. Thilakavathy (57), who had worked at ITIL for 35 years as a contract worker before her peremptory dismissal on December 1, 2021.
According to the trio, the trouble began in March 2020 during the first nationwide COVID-19 lockdown when around 400 contract workers were asked not to report for work. When there was a relaxation in the lockdown guidelines on July 1, the company dismissed 250 of these workers. The rest were allowed to rejoin work but they were not paid the salary for the lockdown period.
Babu, who is also the assistant secretary of KGLU-ITI, said: “It was at this time that we formed a union with the help of the AICCTU to demand our salaries and safeguard our jobs.”
Some 80 contract workers joined the union, which is distinct from the union of the permanent employees of ITIL.
Maitreyi Krishnan, member of the Karnataka State Committee of the AICCTU, said: “These workers, though in the services of ITIL, were illegally guised as contract workers, which in itself is an unfair labour practice. Since they were denied their lockdown wages and threatened with termination, the workers formed a union under the KGLU after the lockdown was lifted and immediately raised the issue that they be treated as employees of ITIL, since the contract was a sham.”
Organising under the aegis of a union had its benefits as the workers stood by each other and demanded their rights unitedly, but it also had its disadvantages as the union members were specifically targeted by the ITIL management.
Hemanth Kumar said: “We were treated like slaves and mentally tortured.” Elaborating on the “torture”, Babu said: “We were employed to work at the factory, but members of the management would make us do all their personal work, such as picking up groceries, cleaning, painting their houses and driving their family members around.” Hemanth Kumar added: “They would abuse us and make us do unnecessary labour. I’ll give you an example: Buildings are spread out inside the ITIL premises and can be half a kilometre away from each other. I would be asked to take a file from one office to another, and once I would reach the second office, be asked to return with the same file. I was recruited as an engineer but was given the tasks of a peon or an attender. It was just a way to torture us.”
Thilakavathy, who assembles circuit boards, also mentioned that contract workers were charged more than permanent employees for their meals at the canteen. She said: “Our meals are subsidised, but while we pay Rs.10 for a meal, permanent employees are charged only Rs.1.75 for the same meal. Both categories of workers do the same work.”
The management found another way to penalise the unionised workers in July 2021 by reclassifying experienced workers, whose salaries had increased over many years, as lower-skill workers and slashing their salaries. Babu said that his salary, which was around Rs.20,000 a month, had come down to Rs.12,000, while Thilakavathy also reported a decline in her salary to Rs.12,000 from Rs.17,000.
While this tense relationship between the workers and the management continued through 2020 and 2021, the workers who had unionised were summarily dismissed on December 1, 2021. This was clearly a punitive measure because the contract workers who had not unionised continued to remain employed at ITIL. Speaking about the company’s tactics, Hemanth Kumar said: “We were told on December 1 that the contractor who was responsible for the contract workers, Poojya Security Services, had changed and that we now had to reach out to the new contractor, Sai Communications, if we wanted to be re-employed.” Under the terms of the new contractor, only workers under 30 could be recruited, which made it clear that the management did not want these workers. “There are only 10 workers among the 80 of us here who are under 30. What about the rest?” Babu asked.
This is the core of the unequal tussle between the management and the workers at ITIL that has also revealed itself in several conciliation proceedings that have taken place so far. The management insists that the employees have not been directly employed by ITIL but have been hired via a middleman, that is, a contractor, and the company is thus not responsible for their employment.
In a letter dated February 25, 2022, the ITIL management explained its position to the Deputy Chief Labour Commissioner, Bengaluru. It said: “The term of the contract expired on November 30, 2021, and the new contractor has been selected following the transparent and due process of tendering. As per ITI Limited’s requirements, the new contractor is providing the requisite contract manpower from Decemebr 1, 2021. Hiring and selecting these contract workers is solely done by the contractor and ITI has no role in it…. ITI is the principal employer and has no employer-employee relationship with the contract workers of the contractor.”
Sham contract system
However, the KGLU-ITI argues that the contract system itself is a “sham” and a “bogus system” and that the workers are, in fact, permanent employees of ITIL. A fact-finding report on the termination of these workers jointly authored by an independent group of civil society members, including Akash Bhattacharya, Malini Ranganathan, Rajendra Narayanan, Sushmita Pati and Juhi Tyagi, reiterated this aspect after extensive interviews with the dismissed workers.
The report said: “These testimonies collectively reveal the complexity of their jobs, the vital functions they perform, and the extremely demanding conditions under which they have worked with ITI. Given the long association with ITI as workers, they see themselves as employees of ITI and not as employees of contractors. The fact-finding group therefore found that though the sit-in by the workers has been triggered by the termination of workers, the trouble runs far deeper than that. The workers have been consistently denied their dues and subjected to arbitrary contractual conditions and humiliating and discriminatory labour practices.”
Members of the AICCTU said that ITIL had recruited 175 new contract workers after December 1, casting aside the 80 protesting workers who were penalised only because they formed a union.
Maitreyi Krishnan said: “This is a violation as the Supreme Court in State of Haryana vs Piara Singh (1992) consistently held that you cannot replace one set of contract workers with another set of contract workers.”
Members of the KGLU-ITI said that they had raised their issues with the Regional Labour Commissioner (RLC) in Bengaluru, who instructed ITIL on two occasions, in October and November last year, to not alter the condition of services of these workers as it would violate Section 33 of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.
To be reinstated
On December 14, 2021, the RLC once again instructed the ITIL management to reinstate these workers, but the management has refused to comply. Considering that ITIL comes directly under the purview of the Central Ministry of Communications, there is a demand that the Central government should intervene to address the grievances of the workers.
The 80 protesting workers remain steadfast in their demand for redeployment, although, as some of them said, the lack of a regular salary that is rightfully due to them is straining their resources and impacting their families. On March 17, in yet another round of conciliation talks, ITIL agreed to take back 35 workers immediately and the remaining 45 workers on priority. Until the 45 workers were taken back, it agreed not to take any other workers in their place. ITIL would send a fortnightly report to the Deputy Chief Labour Commissioner on the taking back of the 45 workers, and conciliation would continue until they were all taken back.
Many of the workers are in the unskilled and low-skill category and are also the only earning members in their families. Several of the protesting workers also displayed testimonials from the ITIL management commending their skills, clearly showing that they had performed their jobs competently.
Hemanth Kumar said that the protest reminded him of films that he had seen in his childhood. He said: “I used to see this [protests] in films where workers would be protesting against an indifferent management, but it is very real now. This is not a film but our lives are at stake,” he said, as he joined his fellow protestors in the sloganeering chorus of “we want justice” and “inquilab zindabad”.