An Indian consumer goods giant, ITC Ltd. (ITC) received notices from trade union groups asking the company to explain its recent announcement targeting the employees who were absent at work stations during the lockdown prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.
India is facing third phase national lockdown, which was extended at least till May 17, and thousands of workers left for home due to the Indian government’s decision for closing almost all economic activities in the country amid the fear of the virus spread.
ITC’s Warning against Missing Workers
ITC has recently warned to take disciplinary action and pay cuts against those workers who were absent for work during the coronavirus crisis. Problems at ITC food plants in Maharashtra and in Karnataka emerged due to the shortage of labor, who were forced to return to their villages since the government issued notices to halt business operations in India.
As one of India’s top consumer goods companies, ITC has annual sales of $11 billion, producing staples such as flour, noodles, and biscuits as well as being the country’s biggest cigarette manufacturer. With the apprehension of the shortage labor, the company sent notices dated April 29, to employees informing to report their presence to the manufacturing plants as the factories remained open during the lockdown.
Since food production is included in a category of essential items, the company continues its business by enforcing several safety measures for the existing workers at its factories and aiming “tremendous co-operation” by workers to meet the demand of essential goods. However, the company claimed that it paid more than 50,000 workers in the last month, irrespective of their presence.
Notice Letters from Workers’ Unions
Following ITC’s announcement regarding taking “disciplinary actions” and deduction of pay against absentee workers, the ITC Foods Employees Union in Pune wrote to the company condemning the move, pointing out that many workers were back in their villages or staying in areas still under lockdown.
The union’s letter, which was dated April 30 and also seen by Reuters, mentioned, “You are forcing more workers to report to duty which may put us all in danger.” IUF India Campaign Officer Pravin Khotkar said that the Geneva-based International Union of Food Workers has supported the position of the ITC’s Pune union and helped to reach a resolution with local management.
A union member told Reuters on Monday, May 4, 2020, that only around 100 of the 217 factory employees were currently reporting for work at ITC’s Pune food plant since some workers were still back in their villages around 300 kilometers (186.41 miles) away. The union member stated, “People were scared initially so they left,” adding that “They are still scared, but figuring how to come (back) after the company warning.”
In a response to a similar warning notice in early April from ITC, the union members in Kolar district, Karnataka had written to ITC stating that several families were worried about their members returning to work and added that no wages should be deducted for the absentees.
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