The gates of all facilities at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in Bengaluru were shut for the third day in a row on Wednesday by workers demanding fair wages. The workers of the aerospace public sector undertaking are determined to continue the strike until their demands are met.
"We will continue our agitation the government intervenes or our demands are accepted,” said Suryadevara Chandra Sekhar, the General Secretary of the Hindustan Aeronautics Employees Association (HAEA).
Around 12 km away, authorities who addressed a press conference on Tuesday at HAL's corporate office and said that the two-year delay in revising salaries could not be attributed to the HAL management. “The HAL management made a fair and reasonable offer, which was rejected by the workers," VM Chamola, the HAL’s Director of Human Resources, said.
There have been eleven rounds of negotiations between the All India HAL Trade Unions Coordination Committee (AIHTUCC) and the HAL management over the percentage of revision of wages, among other demands.
HAL workers protest for fair wages
This issue, which dates back to 2017, has now reached an impasse with most of the 20,000-strong workforce of HAL in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Koraput, Korwa, Kanpur and Lucknow and Nashik, on strike.
Only HAL’s skeletal staff, essential to the organisation’s functioning, are currently working, according to the protesters. This is the biggest agitation in the company’s 79-year history, the workers said. There was a similar struggle for wage parity in 1981 which disrupted production in HAL facilities.
HAL’s management said that the reason for the delay in negotiations — since 2017 — is due to the workers’ multiple demands. “The first delay was over the periodicity of the revision of wages. We wanted it to be revised once every 10 years and the workers wanted it to be every five years. Eventually, after a few meetings, they (workers) agreed for the periodicity to be 10 years," VM Chamola, the HR director, told TNM.
HAL officials CB Ananthakrishnan and VM Chamola addressing a press conference on October 15, 2019
Workers’ wages were revised in 2007 and 2012, while officers’ wages were revised in 2007 for a period of 10 years. According to HAL’s management, the wages of workers have been revised twice in the last ten years. However, workers contest this and say that a single wage revision was done in two parts — in 2007 and 2012.
Periodicity was later decided upon for a period of 10 years, but the percentage increase in the basic salary and perks became the main flashpoint as workers and officers in executive positions were given different rates of increase. Most of HAL’s employees are non-executive workers, and include technicians, inspectors, tool designers, tool planning who build aircraft parts.
As part of the protracted negotiation HAL had with the workers, the last offer made by HAL was a gross salary hike of 9-24% with an average hike of 15-16%. The gross salary is the monthly salary considered before deductions. The percentage of hike in gross salary is decided either based on seniority or time spent in the organisation.
Dissension between officers and workers
HAL consists of both workers and executives, who allegedly get different percentages of raises. Workers have contested the management’s claim regarding a hike of 9-24% and demanded that they receive a similar hike as officers in the organisation. According to the workers, executives are given a 15% hike in basic pay and 35% increase in perks, and want the same percentages as well.
Workers contended that HAL’s financial situation is good, an observation they made based on the company's annual report presented by the management to its shareholders in April.
In 2019, HAL recorded a turnover of Rs 19,400 crore and a profit of Rs 2,282 crore (after tax). It was also a record turnover for the aerospace major.
For the future?
HAL has said that their financial condition is stable, but added that they are negotiating with the workers to ensure the growth of the company in the next ten years.
“The financial condition of the company is healthy but it is based on contracts signed for products in the past, which are being delivered now," said CB Ananthakrishnan, Director of Finance at HAL.
According to him, the company needs to be cautious about labour costs. “The orders (currently being negotiated by HAL) would be sufficient for the company's growth for the next three years. We need to get more orders to ensure that the workers are not kept idle. We need to be careful of labour cost while maintaining growth," he added.
Workers reject management offer
However, workers refused to accept the offer the management made on Sunday, which was its final offer after the last round of negotiations.
“The management's offer will result in reduction of wages for a section of employees who have worked for as long as 15-20 years in the organisation. This is unacceptable," says Suryadevara. The workers released data claiming that under the management’s revision rates, employees would see their salary and perks reduce.
Workers of HAL's aerospace division stage protest in Bengaluru
HAL hasn’t answered this claim in detail so far, and has maintained that the revision of wages would not result in a reduction of perks for employees.
The protesting workers intend to continue their agitation. "We are ready to sit across the table and negotiate again but there is no question of reducing our demands," said Suryadevara.
This year, the PSU became the subject of a political tug-of-war between the Congress and the BJP over the alleged Rafale fighter aircraft deal. In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi alleged that Anil Ambani's Reliance Defence was picked over HAL in the offset contract for the procurement and manufacture of the Rafale jets.
HAL produces and services fighter aircraft, jet engines and helicopters. The management stated that the company is currently negotiating orders for 83 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas fighters and 15 Light Combat Helicopters (LCH) with plans to develop light combat helicopters and their variants, and light utility helicopters.
The company did not comment on whether they were referring to the economic slowdown in the country while referring to their business constraints but they announced plans to reduce the workforce in the future. "At present, the labour cost is around 24% of the company's revenue. We will try and bring this down to 20% by optimising our workforce," CB Ananthakrishnan said. The management hinted that it would increase the number of employees hired on a contract basis to achieve this.
But the management's first task will be to convince its workers to return to their jobs by negotiating an acceptable revision of wages. "Ultimately, the workers are a part of our organisation and we do not consider them adversaries. We are confident that we will be able to resolve this issue without the intervention of the government," Ananthakrishnan added.