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Pending wage settlement — HLL Garden Reach unit workers threaten strike

Kohinoor Mandal

KOLKATA, Oct. 23

HINDUSTAN Lever Ltd (HLL) is contemplating cutting down production and reducing the number of permanent workers at its Garden Reach factory from 1200 to 700, sources say. When contacted, a HLL spokesperson preferred not to answer the query.

The idea, first floated by the management in January 2001 while negotiating a wage settlement , was immediately rejected by the workers. Since then, a fresh wage settlement has been pending. Recently, the temporary workforce (employed through third-party contractors) disrupted activities at the unit over the bonus issue.

The management threatened to announce a "suspension of work'', but the timely intervention of the West Bengal Labour Minister, Mr Mohammad Amin, stopped the matter from spinning out of control.

Mr Kamal Tewary, President of Hindustan Lever Sramik Kramachari Congress, said that during the period when the temporary workers were agitating, the management had tried to force some workers into signing a "no-work-no-pay agreement''. When these workers resisted, they were stopped from entering the factory premises, said Mr Tewary.

"We have also submitted our charter of demands. It includes a fresh wage settlement and an assurance that there will be no reduction in the workforce,'' Mr Tewary told Business Line. The organisation had already served a strike notice and it will be effective for 45 days from Thursday.

In response to a faxed questionnaire from Business Line, the HLL spokesman agreed that the last long-term wage settlement had expired on December 31, 2000.

However, the union had demanded "an increase of over Rs 14,000 per employee per month, which amounts to an increase of 150 per cent over the current wage levels''.

Regarding the alleged "no-work-no-pay agreement'', he said the permanent workers had been asked to undertake loading/unloading activities during the crisis period. The workers had refused to do so and had started a sit-in strike. So, their entry into the unit was "made conditional on their agreeing to undertake work assigned to them''.

A notice had also been issued stating that wages would be paid on the principle of no work no pay. "It is a well established industry practice that payment is made only on performance of the assigned task. Any workman refusing to undertake assigned work is not entitled to wages,'' the spokesman stated.

The West Bengal Government has again intervened and has asked both sides to submit their arguments after a first round of discussion on Tuesday. Another meeting is likely to be held at the end of the month. Till then, the Government has requested both the sides to maintain the status quo.

The Garden Reach factory is one of the oldest and largest production units of HLL. It manufactures leading soap and detergent brands like Lux, Liril, Pears, Lifebuoy, Surf, Sunlight and Wheel, among others.

Mr Tewary alleged that the management was contemplating stopping production of at least seven to eight brands in this factory. Despite a specific question from Business Line on this subject, the HLL spokesman preferred to remain silent on it. Mr Tewary added that the workers had decided to go in for an indefinite strike and follow it up with a hunger strike if their demands were not met. At present, they were waiting to see what action the State Government took.

According to the HLL spokesman, Rs 13 crore had been invested in the unit during 2001 for maintaining its relevance to the emerging industrial scenario. The company had further proposed technological process and productivity improvements.

"But the union is stubbornly refusing to include in the discussions the management's proposals for improvement in the productivity norms.

"The management believes that to sustain the viability of Garden Reach's current operations, its productivity must improve and match that of the best factories with the company,'' the spokesman added.

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