Bhopal Century Textile Workers

Bhopal: Jobless Since 800 Days, Thousands Of Birla Century Textile Workers Protest To Reopen Mill Sold 'Illegally' By Group

Showing a loss of around ₹100 crores, the Birla group sold the mill to a corporate from Kolkata, Wearit Global Limited, for a meagre price of ₹2.5 crores.

Around 290 km away from the state capital, in Madhya Pradesh's Khargone district, thousands of employees of Century Yarn & Century Denim Mills, owned and managed by Birla Group's Century Textiles & Industries Limited, are giving a tough time to the industrial giant against the unlawful selling and shutting of the mill.

Since October 2017, the workers have been demanding to reopen the factory which is located at Santrati village of Khargone district, Madhya Pradesh, adjacent to the Mumbai-Indore (to Agra) national highway.

The employees have been fighting a dual battle - one is through the Gandhian way of satyagraha and the second is in the courtrooms.

Timeline Of How The Mill Closed

Showing a loss of around ₹100 crores, in mid-2017, the Birla group sold the mill with 84 acres of land, buildings, machinery etc. to a corporate from Kolkata, Wearit Global Limited, for a meagre price of ₹2.5 crores.

Nevertheless, according to the papers submitted by the Wearit Global Limited in the HDFC and Allahabad Bank for a corporate loan after acquiring the mills, the approximate rate of the factory was around ₹426 crores.

To register their disagreement against the sale of mills, around 900 of the mill workers went on strike on October 17, 2017. They were agitated and refused to work for Wearit Global Limited, as the company is infamous for acquiring and shutting the factories.

"The workers were also upset with the sale because it took place hardly five days after a written commitment was signed by all, the authorised managers of the mills, Revenue and Labour Officer, as well as police official after a sit-in protest by workers," said advocate Mishra.

The officials promised to run the mills or to pay the voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) as per the government rules. The Birla, however, sold the mills without due process of the law, claimed a worker, Rajkumar Dubey.

As the new company acquired the mills, the labour unions INTUC (Congress), AITUC (CPI), Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BJP) and Century Ekta Union, setting aside their differences, challenged the sale deal in the court. However, Wearit Global Limited shut the mills. The closing left around 950 people unemployed including 53 executives and more than 1,100 indirect or daily wage employees.

While hearing the case, the Industrial Tribunal Court, on May 17, 2018, passed two orders in favour of the workers - the first one declaring the Business Transfer Agreement (BTA) to be 'ingenuine' and the second, cancelling the BTA between the Birlas and Wearit Global Limited.

The High Court of Madhya Pradesh also upheld the Industrial Tribunal's conclusion regarding underestimation of the value of the property and the non-payment of stamp fee. In addition, the court ordered the Birlas to reinstate the wages of the Satyagraha workers and staff, who are inside but without any work since May 2018. The workers have since been waiting for the Mills to be opened and work to be started.

Demanding intervention from the government, workers of the mill held a six days long protest in November 2019 in Bhopal outside the Secretariat to no avail.

"Trader Unions Betrayed Workers"

After the court's order to pay salaries, the Birla management initiated a dialogue with the struggling workers and staff members and gave them three options. First, VRS to be paid as compensation for the lost job. The second, the Century mills would be transferred for ₹1 without any liability to the workers' cooperative or any entity and they would have the freedom to run the property as per their wishes. And third, the Birlas would again sell it to some other company, following the "due process" of law.

"We all vouched for 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. But, trader unions betrayed us on the last day of the deal," said an employee of the mill, Santosh Gupta.

However, all trade unions have unitedly passed a resolution favouring VRS - 'Cash, Not the Mills' - without consulting any employees, the protesters claimed.

After the betrayal, the workers approached the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) convener, Medha Patkar, requesting her guidance and support. At present, the NBA and 85% of the employees under the banner of 'Century Satygrah Andolan' are leading the fight, leaving the trader unions at bay.

"This is a textbook example of how trade unions betrayed the employees, by opting VRS instead of mills ownership," said Medha Patkar.

"The court has already cancelled the deal between Birla and Wearit Global Limited And due to the loss, the owner don't want to run it. In those circumstances, we have urged the company to transfer the mills to the workers, as they have offered earlier," Patkar added.

A senior member of the worker Sanjay Chouhan said, "The Kamal Nath-led state government has announced to open four new industrial parks in the state Bhopal, Chhindwara, Dhar and Ratlam, but paying no heed to the Century textile mills."

"CM Nath and Birla have good relations and the matter can be resolved undisputedly if the state government intervene and hold a talk with the company," Chouhan advised.

Final Verdict Of Madhya Pradesh High Court

Delivering the final verdict on the case on the first week of December 2019, Indore Bench of Madhya Pradesh High Court said, "employees can't force the owner to run the factory, but, sensing the gravity of the situation, the company is bound to pay salaries to their employees who have been protesting on until any legitimate deal takes place or factory reopen."
"Either the company reopen it or handover it to the workers to run, as they have proposed earlier," said Patkar.
"Our client is not satisfied with the verdict, so, they are planning to approach the Supreme Court for the justice," said advocate Mishra.
Century Mills' advocate, Sudeep Bhargawa said, "There is no question of handing over the mills to the workers. We'll obey the court's verdict and continue to pay the workers till a final closure is done. Till then, workers are free to opt for VRS."

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Editor : Prateek Gautam
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