How to Manage Industrial Violence Effectively

Industrial Violence is not new to the industrial scenario in India. In the 1980s violence was very common and Kerala and West Bengal were known for violent agitations by workers. The Left Governments kept supporting violence and decline of Industrial relations in India under the guise of supporting labour movements. However, the Judiciary was pro workers and the procedure for closure/lay offs was difficult, therefore even in impossible business environments closure of factory or lay off was almost impossible and productivity remained very low.

In case of employee disciplinary action, the prescribed procedure was difficult to follow. The Judiciary would intervene in punishments on the ground that workers should not be terminated and termination was equated with capital punishment. Therefore, even in cases of theft or similiar employee misconduct, courts would look into the past records of the concerned workers and the amount of money involved. If the past record of the worker was good and the amount involved small, the courts would give reinstatement, sometimes even with 50% back wages. Political parties were supportive of the trade union movement and therefore amendments effected in Industrial Disputes Act in 1982 were never brought into effect.

With liberalization, industry started growing. As a part of dealing with growth, the industry started outsourcing activities through contract labour. Though as per the provisions of Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act the deployment of contract labour is restricted to 120 days, almost all industries today employ workers through Service Providers in core areas. At many places, outsourcing of labour is carried out under the guise of training schemes through various institutions and even through institutions created by the industry. Some of the industries outsource entire operations through Service Providers and there are many outsourcing agencies providing outsourced labour with employment running into thousands.

Large deployment of workers through the system of outsourcing and change in the government’s policies towards monitoring the implementation of labour laws in India have resulted in the growth of the system of outsourcing labour and have controlled trade union movement. The active trade unions started reducing and professional trade union leaders started replacing political cadres of trade union leaders. Various governments started disclosing in their industrial policy their soft approach on deployment of contract labour. Between 1995 and 2002, a large number of organizations came up with Voluntary Retirement Schemes and the government also amended Income Tax Act to allow employers to announce Voluntary Retirement Scheme and the amount received as a voluntary retirement benefit was granted certain tax benefits.

With liberalization the word spread in India that indiscipline in factories was affecting Indian industry and the industry was at the receiving end. With liberalization, the approach of the judiciary changed. In case of liberal approach of interfering with punishments, judiciary started refusing to interfere with employment misconducts like misappropriation, theft, assault. The Bombay High Court reinstated worker who committed theft of Rs.10/- petrol in the 1990s. Today, the High Courts have laid down laws to the effect that, what matters most is the act and not the amount involved. Theft or misappropriation of even a rupee is seen as gross employment misconduct and deserves dismissal.

The current trend is to deploy a large number of contract employees or trainees and keep a minimum number of skilled employees on the payroll of the company. The disparity in income between permanent employees and employees of the contractors is phenomenal. Liberalisation came with concepts like stock options for managerial employees, salaries and benefits in the software industry improved and pay packets of managerial staff increased drastically. The disparity between managerial staff and permanent workers became quite high. Disparity between managerial staff and permanent workers on one side and contract labour on the other side is beyond imagination. Though such a disparity is bound to remain due to job qualification requirements and other factors, the fact remained that disparity began to widen.

On this background, over the last two years inflation has been shooting up and rates of interest are forever growing. The working class has been lowered to lower middle class or middle class levels and have started borrowing money from banks to pay for housing, vehicles, consumer goods and even education. In every manufacturing unit in Western Maharashtra, one can see most workers including contract labour reporting to work in two wheelers rather than bicycles. Consumerism has resulted in pushing lower middle class and middle class into buying white goods such as TV/Motor Cycle/Cell-phones, etc. Inflation has started controlling the desire to buy. In a span of twelve months, petrol prices shot up from Rs.47/- per litre to Rs.72/- in Maharashtra. The prices of other day-to-day items such as grocery/medicines also shot up. However, neutralization of cost of living in terms of rupee increased to around Rs.700/- per month for engineering industry. However, the burden of fuel itself was around Rs.500/- per month. Therefore, permanent workers started creating trouble and contract labour started reacting violently. The Government records show that man-days lost on account of strike/lockout rose drastically since 2009 and newspaper reports reveal that incidences of industrial violence resulting in ghastly acts like murder have become commonplace in India, these are only the reported cases. Unreported cases of assault and violence are many more.

On this background, one has to also observe social behavioral patterns. In society today, tolerance levels are plummeting. Road rage is dangerously high. On road, even educated people get into fights and use filthy language. Women get into fights readily with not only other women, but also with men on small issues like a scratch on the bumper. Women are not only abused, but also assaulted by men ignoring their age or occupation. Assault on Traffic Police is also very common in cities. The reasons for such low social tolerance can be many, but this is affecting even the industrial relations scenario in factories where employee misconducts are high. Therefore, this may also be another reason for increase in violence.

The solutions to avoid violence are difficult to define. However, a careful study of industrial violence will reveal that violence is an outcome of something growing in the factory for a long time. The records, wherever violence has taken place, will reveal that something brewed for a long time and the issues were uniformly ignored. Newspaper reports will reveal that in a certain factory in Noida, where labour unrest was going on for a long time, the Chief Executive Officer was murdered by the workers a few years back. Timely ventilation of such anger could probably have saved the murder.

Now, Post violence scenario is most difficult to handle. Post violence scenario can be divided into two parts –

Industrial Relations Point of View :

After industrial violence has occurred, reopening the factory and bringing back normalcy is a most challenging job. On one side the management has to give confidence to the non-workmen that they will be protected, there will be no further violence and assurance must be given to them that the earlier acts of violent would be punished. On the other side, the workers will have to be assured that there will be no victimization and normalcy in relationship with management shall be restored. This can be achieved through constant dialogue alone. In a certain factory, after violence had occurred, the management had elaborate one-on-one discussions with the non-workmen category and everybody was assured of protection and support. The Chairman and the entire Board gave a lot of time for one-on-one interactions and almost 1000 non-workmen employees were covered by such conversation. The Chairman and the Board Members even visited residences of the non-workmen to show their solidarity and commitment. The Management requested state machinery to join in their efforts to give confidence to the non-workmen that they will be protected and there will not be repetition. This confidence building exercise helped the Management in generating support to start early operations. As far as workers were concerned, the Management divided the shop-floor managerial team into small groups. Each group was trained in communicating with a small group of workers. The group was briefed not only about what they should say, but also about what they should not say. Each group formed by the Management started interacting with small groups of 30 to 40 workers. The entire workforce of around 5000 workers was covered through the exercise. Letters communicating such approach of the Management were delivered at the residences of the workmen. The factory was located in a semi urban area therefore the Management briefed local influential people, such as Village Head, Teachers, Gramsevaks about violence, probable consequences and approach of the company. The local credit society heads, government officials, such as Post Office Master and similarly placed officers were also informed. This helped the company to create a favourable opinion towards the management. Effective communication with the workers along with local support helped the company to come out of post violence.

The difficult part of dealing with violence is sustaining termination in the Courts of Law. A Company can terminate services of a workman without enquiry on the ground that holding enquiry is not possible and therefore, termination simplisitor may be opted for. The management under such circumstances is required to lead evidence before the Tribunal to justify such a dismissal. The Tribunal, while allowing liberty to lead evidence, may grant interim relief of some wages to the terminated workers. The officers who are assaulted are not willing to come forward and give deposition. Though law of evidence applicable to criminal trial is not applicable to domestic enquiry, the evidence to pinpoint the role of the terminated workers is essential. Invariably, when proceedings are pending in Labour Court, proceedings are also pending in Criminal Court. The Criminal Courts are governed by Evidence Act and chances of acquittal in case of violence are very high. Therefore, workers try to procure a Criminal Court order in their support. The evidence sometimes is common and trials are always prolonged. Delay in trial keeps witnesses away from the courts. Moreover, the managerial staff are always reluctant to come forward to give evidence. If the employee is not in service, he may not come forward as a witness and if called through court summons may change his testimony by giving evasive answers. Therefore, the most challenging job post violence is to justify termination in the Court of Law.

In a case of major violence in one company, a staff member who was assaulted quit his job as, during the pendency of the cases, promotions were denied. The management was at the receiving end when workers insisted on examining the victims. Such assaults are collective acts and it is always difficult to prove the role of every individual worker. Therefore, in the reports there may be a reference of 40/50 workers involved in the assault yet there may be charge sheets against only the initiators. Therefore only few end up getting identified whereas the rest are left. Therefore, placing evidence in court is most crucial.

One common approach followed by a few managements in such a scenario is good guideline. Though assault and violence are severe employment misconducts and the judicial view is in support of the management, sometimes it makes sense to settle the matter by paying a lump sum compensation rather than contesting the cases at various forums. In some matters even the courts have granted compensation as a relief since the management failed to prove employment misconduct. Cost of litigation, arranging witnesses in the court and leading evidence is a herculean task. The witnesses are threatened in open court. In one incident in a Thane Court the witnesses were assaulted in the court premises. Therefore, arranging witnesses and proving a case in court is a daunting task. Therefore, one approach is to settle matters through payment of compensation, as the outcome of contesting the matter is uncertain. There is a strong opposition to this approach by a few managements as their opinion is that, such a settlement may lead workmen to believe that even after assault, he can get away with misconduct. However, analysis of the cases settled by the managements after assaults show that nothing has repeated. Though in industrial relations nothing can be predicted, one can always examine trends and patterns in the industry.

Every management has its own philosophy and problems are dealt with by them following their own philosophies. In many cases even termination of services has not controlled violence. Therefore, it is for the respective management to decide what is right in their own interest and take steps accordingly.

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