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Sikkim Workers’ Agitation in Absence of Unions

Despite the absence of labour unions, an isolated incident led to the coming together of workers from different companies operating in Sikkim.
Sikkim Labour Laws

What first began as an isolated labour dispute in Sikkim, quickly morphed into a general agitation for labour rights. Questions pertaining to the lack of labour regulations for contractual or casual workers in Sikkim have also appeared in this connection. The issue began on February 1, when an altercation broke out in an Alembic Pharmaceutical plant in Samardung, South Sikkim. According to local news sources, the altercation resulted in a scuffle and one casual worker’s employment was terminated. When the other workers inquired about the reasons for that worker’s dismissal, they were informed that they should get back to work and that their demands would be looked into. On February 7, the Gujarat-based company terminated the services of 15 casual workers without stating any reason. This was the last straw, and a section of the workers began a march on February 11, from Singtam to the Labour Secretary’s office in Gangtok.

The specific demands presented to the Labour Secretary regarding Alembic were- the company reinstate all the dismissed employees, salary be increased to Rs. 20,000 per month and the immediate withdrawal of arrest warrants against them. They also demanded that the house rent allowance be increased from Rs. 600 to Rs. 2,000 and that the company give an undertaking not to victimise any workers.

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At a broader level, the workers demanded that there should be no mistreatment of any worker in any company in Sikkim, as well as the abolishment of the labour contract system. They demanded that the Employees’ State Insurance, accident insurance and other welfare measures be extended to all of the workers in Sikkim. They also demanded that there should be an assurance on minimum safety measures for all workers and that there should be medical check-ups for workers twice a month.

On March 5, the workers had served the Commerce and Industries Department an ultimatum that their demands be acceded by 2 PM the next day. However, Alembic Pharmaceuticals instead announced their plant’s closure on March 6. By this time, the protesting workers had been joined by workers from other companies in various sectors. The workers from two pharmaceutical companies, Aishwarya Healthcare and Mankind Pharma Limited had been a part of the agitation almost from the start. At the present protest, they were joined by the workers from Yuksom Breweries and National Hydro Power Corporation Teesta Stage-V.

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The workers assembled in front of Shram Bhavan in Tadong on the outskirts of Gangtok at around 3 PM demanding the Labour Minister to meet them. Later in the day, some workers led by Laten Sherpa of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) blocked the Labour Secretary’s vehicle from leaving the premises. After the Labour Secretary assured them that he would discuss their grievances with the Principal Secretary of the Commerce and Industries Department the next day, the workers dispersed. In Sikkim, the person seen agitating the most for labour welfare is Laten Sherpa of the BJYM.

However, on that day the Labour Department issued a press release wherein they stated that they had held a meeting with Alembic on February 13 regarding the workers’ demands. According to the release, the company had said that they could not reinstate the workers as they had violated the rules and norms of the company by assaulting management staff and that a police case had been registered against them. In lieu of reinstatement, the company offered three month’s pay as a ‘goodwill gesture’. The company also said that they were willing to withdraw the case but not reinstate the workers.

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The press release also stated that nine out of the fifteen workers had accepted three month’s pay in lieu of reinstatement. However, regarding the remaining six workers, the Labour Department assured them that they would try to find them temporary employment in other companies till the case is disposed and a court acquits them. The release also stated that upon acquittal, the Labour Department would be in a better position to speak on their behalf and have them reinstated.

On the day of the press release, the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) at a press conference revealed that they had held meetings with Alembic to reinstate six of the expelled workers. They alleged that the plant’s closure was done on the advice of the incumbent Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) government. The Save Sikkimese Soul (SSS) the next day accused both sides of playing politics, and came down hard on the opposition, accusing them of walking out of assembly sessions when they disagreed rather than debating the core issues.

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From March 8, a section of the workers appealed to the six expelled workers to accept the company’s offer and end their agitation. The reasoning they put forth was that due to the actions of some workers, they had to lose their source of income since the plant shut down. However, Clause 10 of the standard Memorandum of Understanding that the Government of Sikkim signs with investor companies clearly mentions that investors cannot close, transfer or sell their units in Sikkim without the state government’s permission. It further states that all temporary and permanent workers are to be adequately compensated if the unit decides to close down.

Labour Laws in Sikkim

The stumbling block for applying laws passed by the Parliament in Sikkim is the operation of Article 371F of the Constitution of India. In particular clause (n) states that “the President may, by public notification, extend with such restrictions or modifications as he thinks fit to the State of Sikkim any enactment which is in force in a State in India at the date of the notification;”

Clause (o) states: “if any difficulty arises in giving effect to any of the foregoing provisions of this article, the president may, by order, do anything (including any adaptation or modification of any other article) which appears to him to be necessary for the purpose of removing that difficulty: Provided that no such order shall be made after the expiry of two years from the appointed day;”

When read together, the two provisions depend on a time frame of two years from the appointed day. This has repeatedly been interpreted as the date on which this Article was notified, i.e. May 16, 1975. Needless to say, the two-year window has closed. This leads then to a strange situation where the state government notifies laws passed by Parliament in the state gazette.

An archived copy of the Government of Sikkim’s Department of Labour website lists eighteen labour laws applicable in Sikkim. Whereas the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment lists forty labour legislations in India. Out of the forty legislations, sixteen laws passed by Parliament are applicable in Sikkim. The notably absent legislations are, the Trade Union Act, 1926 and the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. However, laws such as the Workmen’s Compensation Act, Employers’ Liability Act, Minimum Wages Act among others are applicable to Sikkim. Yet a loophole exists as the workers to these companies are often hired through labour contractors who become the principal employers. Hence, laws that would be applicable if the workers were direct employees of the companies become inapplicable regarding the workers’ relationship with the company.

In his May Day address last year, Sikkim chief minister, Pawan Chamling announced that he would abolish the contract labour system by amending the Sikkim Labour Protection Act. However, the term of the present state government and assembly has come to its end.

According to the Commerce and Industries Department’s website, Sikkim has around 29 companies operating in the state. However, considering that Alembic Pharmaceuticals Limited was not listed on the website, the number of companies is probably much higher. According to the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) Handbook of Statistics on Indian States, until 2009, there was no data on factories in Sikkim. Between 2009 and 2010, there were 46 factories operating in Sikkim. The last figures available are for 2016-17, where the number has risen to 71. Similarly, the number of workers (industrial) has risen from a little less than 5,000 in 2009-10, to over 13,000 in 2016-17.

As compared to many other states, the figures hardly amount to anything. But considering the small population of Sikkim – around 6 lakh according to the 2011 census – it would correspond to roughly 2 per cent of the state’s population.

According to local sources, many of the factory workers in the state come from ‘across the river’, meaning from the Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of North Bengal. This could perhaps explain the lack of political will regarding labour issues since these workers are unlikely to be voters in the state.

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