“This is not the first strike staged against the prevailing anti-labour measures within the Muthoot Finance organisation,” said Thomas K J, State Vice President of Muthoot Finance Employees’ Union (MFEU), “an indefinite strike which lasted for 17 days was observed in 2016 as well against the retributive transfers and suspensions of the union members by the management.”
Thomas was speaking about the 2016 stir which had arisen when Muthoot Finance’s management transferred 125 union members and suspended around 40 others in response to the unionisation of the employees. He served as a manager for five years in Muthoot Finance and according to him, was the only one to be terminated then.
However, on August 29, the media got its hands on the internal message of Muthoot’s Managing Director George Alexander Muthoot, which warned the protesting employees that the company would be forced to shut down the non-operational branches in Kerala. Thereafter, scores of media reports started appearing, initiating a media trial against the trade union.
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It has been portrayed that there is no history to the ongoing Muthoot employees’ strike, which has entered its 12th day. On top of that, it was propagated that only a minority are taking part in the strike that was observed under the banner of Non-Banking & Private Finance Employees Association (NPFEA) – a Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)-affiliated union.
“More than 2,000 employees out of the state’s workforce of 3,000 are currently striking against the Muthoot Finance’s management, demanding formulation of a salary structure,” Thomas told NewsClick.
“Not to mention that it is recurring victimisation of the union members and dishonouring of the commitments previously made by the management that has forced us to observe another strike,” he added.
Unionisation Is the Political Right of an Employee
MFEU was formed in 2016 in order to address the wage-related issues faced by the employees of Muthoot Finance. According to the striking employees that NewsClick spoke to, no proper salary structure is in place within the organisation. Wages are incentive-based, which often gets affected by the whims and fancies of the higher officials. The situation is similar for all the employees working in Muthoot Finance across India.
To organise the struggle of the employees in the state, the employees sought NPFEA’s affiliation and registered the union. In retaliation, the management targeted the union members by transferring them from their home branches or suspending them altogether. Interestingly, the unfair treatment began even before the newly-formed MFEU had raised any demands.
“It was very clear how Muthoot Finance’s management is totally against its employees to exercise their political right of unionising conferred to them by the Indian law,” said Elamaram Kareem, Kerala CITU General Secretary. An indefinite strike was staged in which all the branches in the state remained closed. The strike was withdrawn after 17 days when the management agreed to take back the transfer and suspension orders in presence of the state’s Labour Minister.
“Leaving aside the fact that the management, even after giving it’s word, took months to revoke the transfer and suspension orders, a series of measures were taken to ensure harassment of the union members,” Kareem said.
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At first, the union members were deprived of their incentives. According to Thomas, the company has a policy of issuing employee stock options – a right for the employees to purchase the company’s shares – which was not made available to the employees who joined the union, despite them being eligible as per the company’s own criteria.
“There was a sense within the management that since the company recorded losses during the 2016 strike, the employees who belonged to the union should be kept away from such schemes,” Thomas told NewsClick. In the meantime, employees were also transferred without any standing order which goes against the rules and regulations in place. Numerous attempts were made from the union’s end during the period demanding for a dialogue between representatives of both the parties.
Management Not Ready To Conduct Secret Ballot Referendum
Considering that no initiative was taken from the management’s end, a 14 days strike notice, as per the Industrial Dispute Act, 1947, was submitted by the union, in response to which State’s Labour Commissioner called for a meeting on August 17. The meeting, however, didn’t produce any results and the workers continued with the strike plan, starting the strike from August 20.
“The main issue, as is evident by Muthoot group’s own statement, is of non-recognition of the union,” Kareem said. In the internal message to its employees, Muthoot claimed that in the last three years, “only a negligible number of employees have joined the trade union… this trade union is not required to be recognised by the Company as per the present regulations in place.”
“The union has already conveyed its assent in conducting a secret ballot referendum in order to clear any doubts regarding the strength of the MFEU,” said Kareem. According to him, the Indian law mandates recognition to the union which secures 15% of the support of the workforce.
However, while on one hand, the management is campaigning against the union alleging that it speaks for only a “minority”, on the other hand, it has declined the proposal of conducting a referendum, which was even recommended by Kerala’s High Court when the management approached it last week, he added.
Left with no other option, the union is continuing with the strike with the employees now planning to protest in front of the Muthoot Finance Head Office in Ernakulum on September 3.
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When asked about the videos that have gone viral on social media, allegedly showing the “forced closures” of Muthoot Finance branches in the state by the union members, Thomas replied, “This is not a political fight, but a fight for our labour rights and we shall not end this fight only because of a few, who are forced to stand with the management.”