Roy George, Wave of Violence and Bitter Truth

Is violence returning to the labour scene? That’s the question everyone is asking, one TV Channel interviewed some union officials and HR managers, including yours truly. I think the question itself is wrong, lacks basic understanding of industrial relations.

But before I express my views on the subject, I must make three points: Firstly, I am not a leftist, in fact, one of the well known editors is on record saying that he considers me to be otherwise! That too I disagree with. I would like to say that I stand for what is just and fair. Secondly, I would like to express my condolences to the family members of Mr. Roy George, the slain VP-HR of Pricol. Thirdly, we confuse between industrial disputes and industrial relations, treating them as synonymous.

Let us talk about the Pricol incident in which Roy George, VP-HR, lost his life. What facts emerge after the mist of emotional responses is cleared?

Mr. Roy George had joined Pricol according to press report in Hindu Businessline just a few months back. Ms Vanitha Mohan, Executive Director said that George was ‘specifically targeted’ because he took measures to wean away workers from CPI[ML] Union. Pricol dismissed 42 workers from service because of ‘persistent go-slow tactics.’

Pricol’s financial performance is not good [PBT has dropped from a profit of Rs. 218 Mn to a loss of Rs. 383 Mn] and their annual report does not mention labour strife as the reason. Press reports say that the strife is on for the past two years. Pricol Workers’ Union is agitating against use of contract labour in industry. This is what the union has to say about its dispute with Pricol[as found on CPIML’s website]:
“On 15.04.2009 the Government issued a detailed advice to the management not to engage apprentices in direct production. The Government stated that on this issue it was prima facie satisfied by the documents shown to it. The management did not pay heed to this. In an unprecedented move, the Government ordered a spot inspection on 21st and 22nd May 2009 and the spot inspection report categorically stated that apprentices and contract labour were engaged in direct production and that the permanent workers are prejudiced.

The unions asked the Government to pass the necessary orders which would only be the logical culmination of its earlier steps. Of course, this was accompanied by a powerful indefinite fast from 15.06.2009, carried on when the assembly was in session. Thousands of signatures were obtained asking the Government to concede the demands of the fasting workers. More than 1 lakh leaflets were issued. Ultimately the fast ended successfully on 16th day, on 30 June, after the Labour Minister, responding to Calling Attention Motion in the TN Assembly on the fast, acknowledged the various unfair labour practices by the management and assured of action to safeguard the workers’ legal rights.”

If Ms Vanitha says that Roy George tried to wean away workers from CPIML Union surely it cannot be without the express instructions of the management of Pricol. Whether we like it or not, no union is going to ignore it. Dismissal of 42 workers, it appears, came as a surprise and shock to workers. In industrial relations, the basic rule to be followed is not to catch the other party by surprise. There are many organisations which dismiss their workers as a last action and ensure that their action is not seen as vindictive, but only fair by employees. Quite often this requires giving long rope to delinquent workers and it only enrages middle level managers for they take it for being ‘weak’. So the job of the HR Manager becomes very unenviable and he has to engage in communication to a very biased audience. If management is not supportive, you have a big problem on hand.

I am not defending the murder of Roy George; it must be denounced, I am saying that it was clearly avoidable. And the blame cannot be entirely on workers who are easily swayed by mob fury. The management of Pricol clearly operated in maladroit way, failed to anticipate the reaction and has found it convenient to blame it exclusively on workers; those who have seen tense industrial relations would not agree with Pricol’s stance. It is interesting to note here that Pricol’s Corporate Mission says ‘‘We will make our customers, employees, suppliers and shareholders feel proud of our association and want a long-term relationship with us!”

It is interesting to read: “Mr Jayakumar Ramdass, President, Southern India Engineering Manufacturers’ Association (Siema), Coimbatore, said unchecked, such incidents could lead to the return of labour militancy to Coimbatore,” we find that the basic understanding of industrial relations is missing. For every case of industrial strife, it is possible to show a case where managements and workers have been able to resolve their issues through mutual understanding.

Violence as a tactic was used by the noted union leader RJ Mehta who himself got assaulted by Datta Sawant [do not mistake him for Dr Samant] of Shiv Sena. Dr. Datta Samant also followed it because these two leaders were convinced that unions and workers could get their dues by extra-legal means alone. To some extent the oppressive provisions of BIR Act and then MRTU&PULP Act were responsible for creating the hopeless situation. There is a social context to violence erupting everywhere. One incident in Pricol cannot create the wave of violence, things have changed. We must distinguish a bad incident from a ‘trend setter’ one.

I think we miss the point when employers react in the way Siema did. In the auto industry the use of contract labour in place of permanent workers is widespread. [Nokia, in similar situation, has taken the settlement route giving labour big pay rise to contain labour dispute.] It generates friction and industrial disputes. Will the Government do something about it? That is the basic issue.