The Travesty of Justice: The Death of a Bihari Migrant Worker at Erode

A Report of the Fact Finding Team (FFT) by AICCTU & AILAJ

A migrant worker from Bihar working in SKM Food Oil Mill, situated at Erode of Tamil Nadu, was killed in an industrial accident. 40 workers imprisoned in connection with violent protests.

Summary of the incident:

A migrant worker, named Kamoth Ram, from Bihar was hit by a coconut cobra loaded transport truck and he died on the spot inside the SKM oil refinery company premises located at Modakuruchi of Erode on 6th April 2022 around 9 PM.

All migrant workers working inside the campus assembled on the spot and did not allow authorities to remove the deceased worker's body seeking justice and assurance regarding the amount of compensation.

Instead of considering the genuine demands of the workers, the management and the police resorted to lathi charge and took away the body forcefully by an ambulance. In the melee, both sides sustained injuries. Six policemen were said to be admitted in the hospital.

A complaint was filed, in this connection, by Mrs Deepa, the Inspector of police and an FIR (79/2022) was registered. Around 40 workers were taken into judicial custody and remanded at Coimbatore Central prison.

The Fact Finding Team was led by Balasubramanian (AICCTU) that comprised Venkatesan,  Namakkal, Rajasekar, Karur, Muthu, Social Enlightenment Movement, Advocate Bharathi Mohan, AILAJ, Comrade Balu, RYF, Tirupur. The FFT enquired the incident and the related happenings by speaking to all stakeholders in detail and the information collected are summarised below:

Information collected in conversation with the workers.

The objective of FFT was not only to collect information from workers, employer and police but also to ascertain the genuineness of the news items published in various periodicals.

Following are the summary of details collected from three workers who were present at the protest site (Verified from other sources as well):

Deceased Kamoth Ram arrived at the refinery factory premises at 9 p.m. on 6.4 .2022. He walked along the right side of the road to reach his workspot. In the meantime, Quilon transport truck loaded with coconut copra, after weighing at a weigh bridge, instead of running on the left side of the raod, went to the right side and hit Kamoth Ram. He, in turn, fell down, caught under the back wheels of the lorry and got killed instantly.

On hearing the news, all migrant workers in the factory assembled at the spot of occurrence. The Supervisor In-charge informed of the incident to the Modakuruchi police. Inspector Deepa along with 7 police persons arrived to take the body of the deceased by the ambulance owned by the company. But, workers did not allow to take the body demanding justice and also compensation. Their immediate demand was a written assurance for a compensation of Rs15 lakh from the company. The management first promised 5 lacs and after repeated insistence by workers, they raised it to 7 lakhs. But, both the police and the management were not ready to give any written assurance as demanded by workers.

Since workers were not relenting, special armed Police force was called and more than 20 policemen arrived at the spot. This shows their intention to remove the body of the victim somehow.

By midnight, around 12 AM, the police force resorted to lathi charge on workers.  In the chaos around lathi charge, some of the window panes of the company security room got broken, 7 policemen also suffered bleeding injuries while several workers sustained internal injuries. The police reports that the workers retaliated.

When we had a chance to meet two workers, one of them was still with a wound near his eye due to police high-handedness. During the mayhem, the deceased body was taken for post-mortem.

After the dispersal of the police deployment, workers felt a sigh of relief and went to their labour camps around 12:45 AM.

In the wee hours of the next day, when workers fell asleep, around 200 armed policemen entered the camp and indiscriminately assaulted the workers with lathis. Then as per the name list prepared by them, they took more than 100 workers into custody. All of them were kept in a marriage hall owned by the SKM company for a few days. They were all assaulted ruthlessly.

On 7.4.2022, the next day evening, 40 workers, out of hundred detained, were identified, produced before the Judicial Magistrate 3 and were taken into judicial custody. While 38 of them were remanded in the Central prison at Coimbatore, two juveniles were produced at borstal school.

Information gathered while talking to HR manager of SKM Company.

When our team wanted to visit the labour camp, we were told  by the security personnel to meet the HR manager. We met the HR manager and his answers to our questions are given below:

Total strength of the workmen in the factory is more than 5500 out of which 900 - 1000 are Bihari migrant workers.

The diseased Komadram joined the company by November last year. He met with an accident on 6.4.2022 at 8.50 pm. After workers protested demanding immediate relief, the shift supervisor assured of compensation on the spot of the occurrence of the accident. Unsatisfied with the assurance by the supervisor, workers continued their protest by not allowing to remove the victim's body.

Even after discussions with the ADSP Mr Goyal, even after explanation in Hindi, they continued their protest disbelieving the oral assurance. When we questioned about the discrimination between local and migrant workers in terms of providing tokens worth Rs 50 for refreshments when they worked for 12 hours, the HR said that migrant workers did not like to take tea and they prefer only pan masala and Gutka.

When answering to the question regarding compensation to the deceased family, HR manager said that the company will provide a compensation (legal entitlements) of Rs.8,94,182 which includes wage arrears and dues of PF, EDLI, ESI after verifying legal documents of his wife on her arrival. (In case of the victim's family going for litigation, a settlement of Rs 20 lakhs was possible.

When queried about some past incidents of denial of compensation in such cases at the intervention of agents, he denied and said that the company has not engaged any middlemen or agents.

Agents in the veil of workers

When the team asked for permission to meet migrant workers, the HR manager denied initially and then, accepted later, on our insistent request. One worker introduced to us is Bupendra, aged 36, from Bihar. He is an agent in the veil of a worker. He identified himself as leader. When we raised further queries about his leadership role, he revealed that he is working as a loadman for three years and also supplied 30-50 labourers who are are engaged by the SKM group companies. He claimed to have a vast experience of working in various industries of Tamilnadu for the last 20 years.

Then, when asked about the incident that led to the killing of the migrant labour, he claimed to have been part of the negotiating team. After company's oral assurance, a group of workers including himself were willing to allow the body to be taken for post-mortem while another group of workers were not willing. In such a situation, he said, the police resorted to Lathi charge to disperse the crowd of workers and to remove the body which led to clashes. In his opinion, it is not the mistake of the police or the management. He also said that more than 200 workers returned to their native after the incident.

In the course of interviewing Bhupendra, the team found that the refinery supervisor and another official staff kept on intervening in the name of assisting him. After initially refusing permission for the FFT to visit the accident spot, advocate Bharathi Mohan was allowed later which helped him to take photographs.

General information collected from workers

Workers get a daily wage of Rs.480 per day for 8 hours and Rs.720 per day for 12 hours.

As for as the SKM refinery is concerned, all migrant workers are engaged as helpers in jobs such as loading and unloading, handling of chemicals such as Phosphorus, citric acid, caustic soda etc. Local workers are given a coupon worth Rs.50 for 12 hours work while the same is denied for migrant workers. There is no provision of subsidized food in the canteen. One meal costs Rs.65.

The contract employees’ wages are to be disbursed in the presence of the principal employer's representative, as per the payment of wages act. This is not being followed. Instead, wages are paid to workers through their agents. Because of this arrangement, the agent pays after deducting Rs 500 from each worker. This is an illegal practice being resorted to by the management. Workers are not provided with any payslip or ESI cards and the same are retained by the agents themselves to exercise their control over workers.

Information gathered from imprisoned workers at Coimbatore Central prison

We were able to meet five workers out of 38 remanded in the prison. No one is able to recollect mobile numbers of their family members or friends.

When policeman entered their camps on the next day of the accident at about 4 o'clock in the morning, not only that the workers were beaten up and tortured, but also their belongings including mobile phones and cash worth Rs.3 lakhs were taken away by the police. The workers in prison were told that the SKM management would take them out in bail in 5 days and all the arrested would be released. The workers are still languishing in jail with a hope that the management will take them out on bail.

The team also met the Joint Director of Industrial Safety and Health at Erode and gathered informations.

When we raised a question whether any enquiry was conducted about the accident, the Joint Director replied that a prima facie enquiry was over and company would be served a notice, to be replied within 90 days, as to how the accident took place.

When we raised the issue of the arrest of two juvenile workers with regard to the incident and asked about the action taken, he said that action will definitely be taken if it is proved in the enquiry.

Demands of the FFT to the Employer

• Ensure minimum wages to its employees.

• Ensure equal pay for equal work

• Deposit monthly remuneration to the workers' account directly.

• Strictly enforce Migrant Labour (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act.

• Neat upkeep of workers' residential areas. Provide restrooms and other facilities as per the Factory Act 1948.

• Provide food and tea through canteen at subsidized rates as per the Factory Act.

• Provide ESI cards to the concerned workers.

• Prohibit movement of heavy vehicles during opening and closing hours of shifts or provide alternate route.

• Those workmen who left the job and who completed 5 years of service shall be given gratuity.

• Compensate the price rise with an yearly increment in addition to Dearness Allowance.

• Recruit workers directly and not through intermediaries/ agents.

Recommendations to the labour department of Government of Tamilnadu

• Ensure distribution of PPEs to all workers.

• Labour department officials should regularly meet workers to remedy their grievances.

• Initiate criminal prosecution against the employer for not complying with labour laws.

• An officer from the Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health may be appointed for monitoring safety arrangements.

For the consideration of state government

• A considerable proportion of migrant labour are involved in the manufacturing and services sectors of Tamilnadu. It is estimated that 15 lakh migrant labourers are working in the state. On various occasions, the industrialists in the state assert that their labour is an essential part of their business.

• The management of SKM and policemen of Modakurichi station (for their lack of skill in handling the situation) are eventually responsible for the untoward incident that took place at SKM factory premises. It is unjust to blame workers alone. Detention of workers under various sections of IPC including 307 is unjustified. Tamil Nadu government should withdraw the cases on migrant workers and initiate action for their immediate release.

• Instead of pacifying the agitated workers upon their colleague's death, the Modakurichi police acted at the instigation of the management and resorted to lathi charge which is against the law. It shows their inability in handling such a situation in a responsible way. The State government should take departmental action against such policemen. They should, at least, be transferred.

• The Occupier of the SKM factory should be given a stringent punishment for violations.

• It is the responsibility of Inspector of factories to inspect and initiate action for non-compliance of labour laws.

• Certain outfits with their narrow outlook view the incident as the problem created by Hindi workers and called for deporting them. The Government should suitably handle such outfits and take action for indulging in hate politics.

• Provide compensation of Rs.50 lakh to the deceased migrant labourer's family.

• Order a judicial enquiry by a sitting Judge of the High Court regarding the death of the migrant labourer and the subsequent happenings inside the SKM factory and publicise the report.

• Ensure workplace safety of all workers including migrant labourers in the state.