Situated in a little corner of Madhya Pradesh called Khargone, the Century Mill now tells a tale of the power of unionisation in the face of autocratic tactics of the corporates. A year into the struggle for their right to livelihood, the workers at the mill are sprinting in the legal fight against the Birlas.
The 900 workers of the mill staged a walkout in October 2017 to mark
their protest, as the Birlas sold off the mill to Wearit Global Ltd., a corporate entity based out of Kolkata. The workers, who have been agitating for a year now, allege that the Birla’s sold off over 84 acres of land, buildings, machinery etc. for a meagre price of Rs 2.5 crore to Wearit.
Speaking to Newsclick, Saurabh, an activist with the Janta Sharamik Sangh, said, “The Birlas have been in a legal tussle over the land, wanting to get rid of the property, leaving the fate of the workers hung. This did not go down well with the workers who have been calling this unit home for the past 25 years, hailing from different states across the country. The skills acquired at the mill cannot be put to use anywhere else.
He added, “The fact is that the workers here believe that the Birlas wanted to sell off the company. In order to do so, the company wanted to show that it was not making any profit. It was convenient for them to shut the venture down, making the workers anxious, leaving them with no livelihood.”
With the subsequent intervention of Medha Patkar and the Janta Shramik Sangh, the workers found legal representation as well as a sense of being united against the Birlas. With enormous pressure building over the Birlas through regular protests, the issue was also addressed by the Industrial Tribunal. The Tribunal passed two orders earlier this year in favour of the workers. The first one declaring the Business Transfer Agreement (BTA) to be ‘ingenuine’, and the second order cancelling the BTA between the Birlas and the Wearit Ltd.
The High Court of Madhya Pradesh also upheld the Industrial Tribunal’s decision regarding underestimation of value of the property as well as non-payment of stamp fee.
The workers had been participating in the mass agitations, It was in this context that the Birla management initiated a dialogue with the struggling workers and staff members after May 2018. Bowing down to the workers’ demands, they agreed to negotiate, putting forth a few options.
The options put forth by Birlas were three:
1. VRS allowance to be paid as compensation for the lost job for each year of past service and future years till the retirement age.
2. The Century Mill would be transferred at the cost of Rs 1 to the workers without any liability to the workers’ cooperative or any entity, and they could run the mill are do whatever they wish with the property.
3. Third option was that Birlas would again sell the mills again to some other company, following the due legal process.
Saurabh added, “The workers did not want to take a VRS, and wanted to work, also, they did not want at any cost their mill to go to another organisation so it could be sold off again, hence they decided that they would take over, and run the mill.”
The transfer of property is being seen as a huge victory for the workers’ unity in the region. Currently, the logistics of the transfer are being discussed with all the stakeholders. On December 3, the workers have submitted in writing their acceptance of the proposed settlement.
The story of Century Mills is one of the multiple struggles being currently led against the corporates and the hand in glove approach of the Shivraj Singh Chauhan government. Shedding light on the movement ahead, Medha Patkar, who has been leading the struggle, said, “The crony capitalist society has always exploited the poor and labourers, and the state has failed to act against them. We will not let ourselves become victims of exploitation until we get our justifiable dues."