Around 80 workers of the Indian Telephone Industries (ITI) have been protesting for nearly 107 days now, against their termination in ‘s Doorvani Nagar, Bengaluru, Karnataka.
On 1 December last year, about 80 workers, who worked as subcontractors for nearly three decades, were sacked from their jobs. The public sector company, which comes under the Ministry of Communication, had informally told the employees that their contractor’s term had ended.
The employees alleged that the company terminated them because they formed a union and demanded for their rights.
The terms of the “contract was changed and the management didn’t inform” them about it. According to the new contract, the workers “had to go in as a fresher”. The 3-35 years of working experience was discounted and an age barrier of 30 was set. The contract also stipulated that no “PF, ESI, back wages amount” would be granted to the workers, said Hemanth Kumar R, president of the Karnataka General Labour Union (KGLU), to Maktoob.
The management has to pay nearly 2.5 to three lakhs amount to the labourers, including the two months of lockdown salary, Provident Fund, Employees’ State Insurance, some 10 months arrears, five years bonus, according to the labourers.
“The bondages are more, nearly about 2.5 lakh to three lakh per head, which they have denied to pay. This is the only reason we formed a union and we went to the labor court,” Hemanth said.
“We have applied this regularization case in the labour court saying that we are working here from 3 to 35 years and we want to be treated as an employee. It may take time whether it may be one year, two years, five years or 10 years, but we will fight for our rights and protest till we get justice,” he added.
Speaking to Maktoob, the union president said, “We have been protesting for more than three months now and we all have families to feed. We want our rights to be given.”
Around 80 workers, between the age group of 20 to 58 years, have been sitting in dharna (protest) for more than three months now. All these employees, who are almost in old age have families to feed.
Advocate Maitreyi Krishnan, state committee member of All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), told Maktoob, “The workers were all stopped because they had unionized and demanded their rights. They have been working in the company from between three to 35 years but still they have been termed as contract workers. They’ve been denied all their rights, so they came together and formed to put forth their demands. They were not even paid lockdown wages.”
“On 14 December, the regional Labor Commissioner had in fact instructed them to take all the workers back. Unfortunately, they have not bothered to do this. They say that the contractor has changed. But even if the contractor has changed, the workers must remain the same. That’s what the law says,” Krishnan said.
Accusing the ITI of specifically targeting the 80 employees, the activist and advocate went on to say: “They have been victimized and thrown out of work. However, the struggle will continue. What has been done against the workers is absolutely unjust and illegal – majority of whom are Dalits and women. They’ve all worked for a long period of time. In fact, there are several people here who have gone to border areas to install defence equipment and they have been thrown out.”
The ITI unit in Bengaluru manufactures telecommunication tools, including military communication equipment in borders.
There was a dispute pending, she said adding, “If there’s an industrial dispute pending, you’re not supposed to remove any worker. You’re not supposed to victimize the worker for unionizing. It’s completely illegal, inhumane and the workers are struggling. We will fight till justice is served.”
“When you sacked these workers, you did not throw them out, you’re throwing their families to the streets,” Maitreyi Krishnan, who is leading their struggle said to Maktoob.
To mark the 100th day of the protest, a fact-finding committee released a report titled ‘Fact Finding Report on the Unlawful Termination of Workers at ITI, Bengaluru’ on 11 March. The report mentions the timeline of events and testimonies of the employees.
In the 25-page report, the committee members have demanded the management to immediately take back the workers. “We also demand from the Labour Ministry that penal action should be initiated against the management for repeatedly refusing to abide by the instructions of the Regional Labour Commissioner(RLC).”
RLC K.A. Sebastian was not interested to comment over a call.
Speaking to Maktoob, 31-year-old Hemanth said, “Last week, Safai Karamchari Commissioner and SC ST Commissioner had visited both the tent and ITI management. They had a negotiation saying that out of 80, they would be taking 40 of them now. In the phase-manner, they’ll be taking another 20-20 within one month or two month. But the next day in the court hearing, they said we’ll take only 15.”
“Again, there was a negotiation talk, but they were on their own stand of taking only 15 employees back. When the Deputy Chief Labour Commissioner advised the management, they agreed to him but they first needed to talk to their upper level management. They’ll tell us their decision on 16 March. So, we’re waiting to see what they’ve decided.”
Meanwhile, Maktoob was not able to reach out to the senior ITI staff and one of the HR staff has refused to talk with the media.
Rabia Shireen is a journalist based in Bengaluru