The ongoing protest at Muthoot group and the Kerala government's dilemma

The company's plan to shut branches does not augur well for the state, however employee unions say the Left government cannot compromise their rights.
The ongoing protest at Muthoot group and the Kerala government's dilemma
The ongoing protest at Muthoot group and the Kerala government's dilemma
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For over two weeks, the state of Kerala has been witnessing a mounting conflict between the employees union of a prominent gold financing company and its management. Like every protest by a trade union, the protest by the employees’ union of the Muthoot Finance Limited in the state has also attracted its share of supporters and detractors.

The Muthoot Finance Employees’ Union (MFEU) under the banner of Non-Banking and Private Finance Employees Association (NPFEA) began an indefinite protest on August 20 citing various reasons such as poor salary payment, reducing incentives, salary cut for failing to punch in and so on.

Even as scores of employees belonging to the union, which is backed by the Left leaning CITU has ensured that almost 350 branches out of the 600 or more branches in the state cease operations, the Muthoot Finance management as well as several employees of the company claims that a large number of its employees are happy with the company and are willing to work.

This has been the argument that has been continuously used against the protesting employees, who according to the management are just a handful compared to the majority who are happy with the company. This in turn has lead to allegations that the demands put forth by the union are either unreasonable or their accusations against the management are false.

On September 2, when the protest entered its 14th day, TNM had spoken to the protesting employees, many of whom worked in the clerical department and belong to the lower ranks of the company’s hierarchy. Some of them had stated that despite working in the company for more than two decades, there had not been any notable increase in their salary and that they are also experiencing salary reductions for unreasonable reasons. 

However, speaking to TNM, Ency, an employee of the Aluva pump branch of the company in Ernakulam, who has been working with Muthoot for over 25 years says that there is absolutely no reason for a protest of this sort. “The very fact that many of the protesting employees has worked for more than 2 decades shows that they have been treated well by the company. As someone who has worked for 25 years, I can say that the Management of Muthoot is one of the best when it comes to giving incentives and other benefits to their employees,” she said. 

Ency goes on to add that the indefinite strike has now caused a major loss of confidence among their customers who are now calling them everyday asking if they will get their gold back. “What can we tell our customers? We are standing outside our branches everyday, threatened and bullied by the CITU staff, who do not allow us to work,” she said. Ency is one of the managers of the branch she is working in. 

However, Sholitha, who is a branch manager of the Pothencode branch in Thiruvananthapuram counters this and says, “Almost 90 percentage of the employees who are not protesting are managerial level staff, who receive decent pay. But most of the employees who are protesting are JRE’s (Junior Executives) and Substaff, whose gets pitiable salaries.”

She goes on to say that she is also a manager and gets good pay. “But it is necessary to understand the problems faced by the people who work with you. Just because we get good pay does not mean we should ignore the struggle of our fellow colleagues,” says Sholitha. 

Closure of Branches:

Ever since the protest began, there have been reports that Muthoot Finance is planning to shut down all the non functioning branches. On Wednesday, the company management had published an advertisement in newspapers stating that it was shutting down 15 of their branches in Kerala. And before that, there were reports of the company will further shut down 300 branches.

Reacting to this, Babu John, the Deputy General Manager of Muthoot Finance said, “The reason why we said that we will close down 300 to 350 branches is that these many number of branches have been closed for a long time. And whenever we try to open it, CITU is forcefully shutting it. Because of this, we are getting a feeling that they don't want us to operate in Kerala.”

Ency says that there is a genuine fear among the employees regarding the closure of their branches which in turn will lead to them losing their jobs. “Muthoot is our bread and butter. We are getting proper salary here. Where will we go if this company closes here? We will not get a salary like this anywhere else.”

CITU involvement

The CITU, which is the trade union affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has said they are not  leading the protests, however it is now amply clear that the union is part of the strike. In a press meet on Tuesday, Muthoot Managing Director George Alexander stated that there was not a single employee of the Muthoot headquarters in Ernakulam who were protesting instead it was lead by the members of the CITU. Emphasising on this, Babu John said that the headload workers of the CITU wearing their blue uniforms had come to the Muthoot head office on Tuesday and prevented the employees from entering the office.

When TNM enquired about the allegations to Anathalavattom Anandan, the Kerala State President of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), he responded by stating that the NPFEA is one among the hundreds of organisations which is affiliated to the CITU. “The protest is organised entirely by the employees and CITU is just giving them our support,” he clarified.

Explaining the incident that took place about the Muthoot head office, the CITU leader said, “A few of our employees from different branches in Ernakulam had gone to protest and close the head office. When the MD along with a large number of staff tried to enter the office, CITU workers went to help the protesting employees. That’s what we do. We offer our help in protests.”

The Government's stand

Caught in the middle of all this is the Kerala Government. On one hand, the state's Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is trying to promote business and bring in investments into the state, therefore closure of Muthoot business due to trade union protests can be a huge setback for the government. On the other hand, the protest is spearheaded by a union of the Communist Party itself and if the company does exit the state, the blame would fall on the CPI (M).

Anathalavattom Anandan says that though the government has to worry about how the company will react, it cannot compromise the interests of hundreds of employees.

Speaking to TNM, a bureaucrat said that the government does not want Muthoot to shut down its branches. “Government does not want any business house to shut down its offices in the state, and is trying to avoid that. The Labour Minister has convened one more meeting,” he said. 

Labour Minister TP Ramakrishnan had called for a truce meeting between the union and the Muthoot management on Wednesday but with the representatives of the management failing to show up, the meeting has been postponed to September 9 in Ernakulam.

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