Bengaluru: ITI lays off 80+ employees after unionising efforts

Some of these workers have been sent to install and maintain defence equipment at multiple locations across the country including international borders.
Bengaluru ITI workers at the protest
Bengaluru ITI workers at the protest

For 10 days, 34-year-old Famidha has been sitting in protest outside the Indian Telephone Industries Limited (ITI) unit in Bengaluru, where she has been working for the last decade. On December 1, Famidha and many of her colleagues were sacked without notice. “Like any other day we had come to work, but we were stopped at the gates,” she told TNM.

Famidha and her colleagues allege that they are being “punished” for collectivising and demanding pay for the period of the lockdown. “Only those of us who joined the union to demand our payment dues have not been allowed to join work. But the remaining people, around 40, have been allowed to work,” Famidha added. Around 80 workers who were working as subcontractors, some for three decades, have now been retrenched. Company officials informally told the workers that their contractor’s term had ended.

ITI is a public sector company under the Ministry of Communication with units across the country. The unit in Bengaluru’s KR Puram makes telecommunication tools, including military communication equipment deployed in border areas. During the pandemic, workers also manufactured ventilators to meet the surge in demand.

Hemanth Kumar R, another worker who has been protesting, had joined the unit in 2016. He said, “Some of us have been working here for 35 years. Suddenly they have thrown us out saying that we no longer have jobs. Without any intimation, they put barricades in front of the gate and we were told by the security staff that we no longer have our jobs.” Hemanth is now one of the leaders of the protest and the president of the Karnataka General Labour Union (KGLU), affiliated to the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU). Workers like Hemanth and Famidha have to be paid over Rs 1 lakh, including arrears.

The labour union contends that the system of involving a contractor is a sham as it undermines the workers who have been with the company for many years performing core functions. They allege that the system is put in place to deny workers their rightful employment conditions.

Start of the dispute

Tension between the workers and the ITI management began in June 2020 when the workers were told that they wouldn’t be paid their salaries for the first lockdown. When the workers approached the officers, they were asked to approach the courts for redressal.

“This is the root of the problem. We formed the Karnataka General Labour Union and pursued litigation against the company, demanding two months of pay, eight months of Provident Fund and employees’ state insurance, five months of overtime and 10 months of salary arrears that the workers are due. The case is still pending in the labour court,” Hemanth said.

The workers also highlighted that their retrenchment is in violation of the instructions passed by the Regional Labour Commissioner. Workers like Hemanth and Famidha have now been told that they can appear for an interview with the new contractor for human resources. They will be reinstated if the contractors find them satisfactory. But the protesters are strong in their resolve to contest the termination of employment by the public sector company that they believe goes against existing labour laws.

“Now the management is telling us that a new contractor called Sai Communication has been roped in and we have to appear for interviews again. We have already been working here for years. How is it fair that we have to appear for interviews for jobs that we have been doing?” Hemanth asked.

Until 2020, workers like Hemanth were working on contract basis under two cooperative societies run by former ITI employees. Then in June 2020, Pooja Security Services, a new contractor, came in place to replace the cooperative society and they started working under them. “They don’t do any work, they are there for namesake and earn commission from the management,” Hemanth claimed.

At the time, around 400 workers, including firefighters and janitorial staff for guest houses, were told that they would be removed from their jobs. While the janitorial workers and firefighters were reinstated by the management, the 120-odd workers, including those who unionised, were not immediately taken back. It was only after intervention by local MLA Byrathi Basavaraj that they were reinstated.

Hemanth said that since the workers have been working with ITI for many years, they are eligible for regularisation and cannot be treated as contract workers. Even the Regional Labour Commissioner too in dispute redressal meetings held in September-November 2021 advised the ITI management not to terminate the workers until the dispute was resolved. Section 33 of the Industrial Dispute Act imposes prohibition on the employer from altering the terms of service of its workmen to their prejudice or terminating their services during any pending proceedings, including conciliation proceedings, with respect to any industrial dispute.

AICCTU writes to Union Minister

The AICCTU has now written to Ashwini Vaishnaw, the Minister for Communications, Electronics & Information Technology and Railways, regarding the termination of the workers by ITI. The letter said that many of these terminated workers have worked in defense projects across the country, in harsh weather and in border areas. It cited labour laws and contended that the termination of the workers is illegal, especially in light of the advice of the Regional Labour Commissioner. It also cited Section 33 of the Industrial Disputes Act which protects workers from any alteration of employment conditions during pending proceedings.

The letter highlighted that ITI being a public sector undertaking needs to act as a model employer and recognise the act of unionisation and other fundamental rights. “The actions of the management of the Bengaluru plant of M/s ITI Ltd is illegal and an unfair labour practice prohibited and punishable under law. By throwing workers to the streets, M/s ITI Ltd is pushing their families to the streets, including their children (sic),” the union added.

Despite multiple attempts, TNM could not reach senior managerial staff of ITI.

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