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National TUs' betrayal? Birla-Century workers seek coop ownership

Counterview Desk
Well-known civil rights organization, Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which claims to have championed the cause of 900 protesting workers of the Birlas-owned Century mills in Madhya Pradesh, has taken strong objection to established unions such as INTUC (Congress), AITUC (CPI) and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BJP) for failing to consult the workers in agreeing to choose the option of voluntary retirement scheme (VRS), one of the three offered by the Birlas.
Seeking wider support, an appeal signed by NBA leader Medha Patkar and others on Century workers’ year-long struggle says that most of the workers prefer to run the Mills as a workers’ cooperative, which also happens to be an option offered by the Birlas.

Text of the appeal:

It was exactly an year ago, on October 17, 2017, that more than 900 workers of Century Yarn & Century Denim Mills, located at village Santrati, district Khargone, in Madhya Pradesh adjacent to the Mumbai-Indore (to Agra) national highway, walked out of the factory premises owned and managed by Kumarmangalam Birla group’s Century Textiles & Industries Ltd. They refused to join Wearit Global Ltd, a corporate from Kolkata to whom Birlas claimed to have sold the mills with 84 acres of land, buildings, machinery etc. for a meager price of Rs 2.5 crore.
The workers were upset with the sale also because it took place hardly five days after a written commitment was signed by all, the authorized managers, revenue and labour officer, as well as police official. The agreement was a result of a peaceful sit-in by workers, once they came to know about the likely transfer or sale on August 17, 2017. The promise was about Century to run the mills or to pay the voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) as per the government rules.
However, the mills were ‘sold’ without due process of law, and hence the Industrial Tribunal passed two orders, the first one declaring the Business Transfer Agreement (BTA) to be ‘ingenuine’ and the second order (May 17, 2018) cancelling the BTA. The High Court of Madhya Pradesh also upheld the Industrial Tribunal’s conclusion regarding under estimation of value of the property as well as non-payment of stamp fee!
The courts also agreed with the workers that they were never on strike. On the other hand, they have been awaiting the Mills to be opened and work to be started. The companies lost the battle on this count too and hence the payment of wages has been on from May 2018 onwards till date to the Satyagrahi workers sitting outside the campus and staff, who are inside but without any work.
They all are, however, in disagreement with the Birlas not paying them the salaries for six and half months from October to April 2018 and the arrears as per the agreement in 2012. A relay fast is on in this issue since last 100 days, at the Satygraha Sthal, the company gate while the Labour Commissioner’s orders too are yet not fully complied with by Century-Birlas and the legal battle is on before the Industrial Tribunal, too.
It was in this context that the Birla management initiated a dialogue with the struggling workers and staff members after May 2018. The workers, who approached Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), requesting us to guide and support them in October 2017, were frustrated with the Unions including Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Century Ekta Union and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS).
Yet NBA insisted on taking them along. In their name, the legal proceeding were carried forward while all the workers unitedly participated in mass action to legal action and myself too pleaded before the Labor Commissioner as well as the Industrial Tribunal, whenever needed.
The options put forth by Birlas were three:
  1. VRS to be paid as compensation for the lost job which was after much debate and deliberations was settled on 35:25 days salary for each year of past service and future years till retirement age. The Birlas refused to consider any higher amount as according to them, they are making a favour even when there are no rules for private companies to do so. 
  2. That the Century mills would be transferred for Re 1 without any liability to the workers’ cooperative or any entity and they could run the same and do whatever with the property. 
  3. Third was that Birlas would again sell it to some other company…. following the “due process” of law(?) 
We all have worked very hard on the second option, preparing ourselves to run the mills, seeking support and advice from experts, traders, bankers, etc., and are about to reach the final stage of registering a proper legal entity and signing the agreement with Birlas-Century.
However, there was a sudden blow when we found that all trade unions (the so-called authorized ones) have unitedly passed a resolution favouring VRS i.e ‘Cash, Not the Mills’. This is signed by a handful of their office bearers, while more than 90 percent of workers and 40 percent of staff have made their notarized affidavits about the choice of the option to run the Mills.
The unions uniting beyond party lines, i.e. AITUC, INTUC, BMS and independent internal union, have certainly not even consulted the workers or staff nor have they thought it necessary to take a pro-worker position. They have not even taken in the workers as their members and yet they act as the ‘authorized’, against the wishes of the majority workers! They were with us in deliberations throughout and accepted going for whichever option the workers would select with us, the core representatives.
Can you imagine the Birlas avoiding a reply or response to the letters by representative group large number of workers? They cannot, and they should not, being fair, just and following the law.
The workers and the committed staff take it up as a challenge and have asked the Century to deal with and bring a settlement with the workers’ force, and not the Unions without united strength. During the celebration of the first anniversary of struggle, on October 17, we have issued a public notice to Birlas, “Hold discussions with us within 72 hours or the agitation will be further intensified for sure”.
Workers, with women and children, who too have been a part of the struggle for rightful alternative, over a year, have warned Century “not to back out from the offer”. They have been given October 31 as the deadline for the option to be chosen, that too by the Unions through their letter dated October 15. We have put up the banner saying: “These mills and resources belong to the workers and staff of Century Mills as a source for employment”.
The workers opt for becoming owners of the mills, which contributed to the nation and the company’s wealth with their toil over 25 full years, changing and challenging the present system!
Be with us! Do whatever you can please!
  • Write and appeal to the Unions like AITUC and INTUC to follow the workers’ wishes. 
  • Help us raise working capital worth crores through millions of workers and supporters across the country. 
  • Come forward to support the challenging task as professionals, experts, financiers, lawyers and co-strugglers. 
  • Do send your suggestions, visionary inputs, in this unique move forward, with due urgency.
  • Write to century.narmada@gmail.com.

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