Braving heavy rains, a lone woman has been staging a protest on the Enchakkal -Kazhakuttom bypass in Thiruvananthapuram city. The protest began in June after she and six of her colleagues were sacked from their job. They were all employees of a petrol pump at Enchakkal. The protest turned into a hunger strike five days ago as 38-year old Preetha continues to fight a lone battle.
It all began with the sacking of seven staff members of a petrol pump in March. "During the lockdown, we were granted leave with salary. But we hadn't been paid the salary as promised. There were 16 staff members at the petrol pump. But when we asked for our salary, the owner sacked seven staff members including me. We complained to the Labour Department and the Labour Officer held talks and the owner was directed to reinstate us but it wasn't followed," Preetha Babu told TNM.
Hailing from the coastal village of Vallakkadav, Preetha began working at the petrol pump in September 2019. According to her she was paid a monthly salary of Rs 10000 and the owner kept on paying the same salary though it had been hiked to Rs 13,300. Out of the 16 staff, the rest of the people were retained. Of the seven people two people were above sixty and are not allowed to work, as per labour laws. "We pleaded with the owner to reinstate the rest of us, but he didn't listen," Preetha says.
She lodged a complaint with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and also with Thiruvananthapuram Mayor K Sreekumar. The Mayor too, she said, directed the owner to reinstate her, but the owner didn't yield.
"I became the target as I was the one who questioned the breach of labour rights here. The staff hadn't been paid for overtime duty, were not allowed to sit even a bit during the work. Also when the staff who work for more than three months are sacked they should be given a show cause notice, that was also not followed" Preetha said.
The token strike began in June. Preetha also said that she had begun to protest as per the direction of the Thiruvananthapuram Petrol Pump Workers Union District Secretary Perumthanni Raju, but he too stepped back from backing her later.
"I continue the protest as this kind of injustice shouldn't be done to the poor people who are working for meagre salary for hours," she said. Her husband Babu is a daily wage labourer. She has three children and her youngest daughter is differently abled.
Union refutes the claims
However Perumthanni Raju told TNM that the seven staff weren't reinstated as the business of the petrol pump suffered a setback in recent times.
"The seven people were hired as temporary staff. The seven workers were sacked after the business became dull. Once we were informed, I gave notice to the District Labour Officer and three rounds of discussions were held with the District Labour Officer," he said.
According to him, the petrol pump owner took the stand that he can't afford all the employees. "He agreed that one monthâ€™s salary would be given for all. Two agreed to it and quit. But the Union insisted on giving work for the rest of the three excluding the two who were above 60. The owner then made the condition that they should find another job after that three months. One worker agreed to it, was reinstated and is still working there while Preetha and another person Umesh didn't agree to sign the condition. The matter has been referred to labour court now," he said.