A distraught Surendra Malik expected a peaceful retirement after serving for 33 years at the Sonepat unit of Milton Cycle Industries Limited, a premier bicycle and spare parts producing company. However, his hopes are vanishing now as he stages protests along with 250 other colleagues in front of the factory's gate. The unit's owners are now in a legal battle in the National Company Law Tribunal over the division of property and have suspended work for more than six months. The workers allege that the owners stalled production and suspended work without any prior notice. Without any job, the workers are struggling to run their households and fund their children's education.
Malik told NewsClick that the situation is so grim that the workers are selling their ornaments to run families.
"The company cut the salary by half in the initial months of the year owing to production cuts amid the pandemic. We accepted it because we wanted a continuation of work. But in March, the shocker came in the form of closed factory gates and suspension of operations. We were told that the owners had suspended the work. We were entirely clueless about it. Now, neither they are resuming the production nor settling our accounts by paying us our unpaid salaries, gratuity and the bonus of two years," Malik said.
Set up in 1951, Milton Cycles and Atlas Cycles were run by the Kapoor family. Milton Cycles would act as a subsidiary to Atlas by providing bicycle parts. Later, the company developed into a full-fledged cycle production company. In 2003, the ownership shifted to Jaidev Kapoor, whereas the Atlas Cycles were run by Rajiv Kapoor, Arun Kapoor and Vikram Kapoor. Both companies shut their production last year due to a family feud and a legal battle over the division of property.
Malik added that the trauma of losing work has hit workers so terribly that five workers have lost their lives. Sitting under a yellow tarpaulin to save himself from rain, Chander Pal Kumar, a worker from Rajasthan now settled with family in the city, said that he sold his ornaments to support the family.
"Although I have been working here for the last 25 years, I am still a migrant. I live in a rented house, and my household depended on my salary. The grocer will give you ration on debt for a month. The schools are open now, but we cannot send our children because we have no money. For now, I have sold my chain and ring to arrange the money," Kumar said.
The workers highlighted that the joblessness came as a twofold blow amid raging inflation. A worker said that some of the workers tried to find work in other factories but were denied employment because their matter had still not been resolved, and they remain Milton's employees.
Anand Sharma, Secretary, Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) Sonipat, said that the companies have been misusing the provisions of the Industrial Dispute Act to deprive their employees of work if they are pursuing a case for their benefits.
"Since the companies keep a digital profile of the worker, they can check their previous employment. When these workers approached the labour commissioner's office for resolution, the other factory managers cited the rules. Why should the workers bear the burden of joblessness if owners are not willing to run the factory? Indeed, it is a violation of the basic human right of equal opportunities of work," Sharma said.
Prem Singh Bhangu, Senior Advocate, Punjab and Haryana High Court, told NewsClick, "Section 25 of the Industrial Dispute Act maintains that the employee needs to prove that he worked for 240 days at the site and was removed illegally from his job. Until the matter is settled, the employee cannot work anywhere because the employer can accuse the employee of taking double benefits. If the court finds that workers were removed illegally, the employer will have to pay for entire suspension work."
Sunil Nandlal, Assistant Labour Commissioner, Sonipat, who is dealing with the complaint, told NewsClick, "I cannot comment anything as the matter is sub-judice. The court will take appropriate action."