New Tricks of the Union-Busting Trade

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workers-strikeWe transferred Calcutta people as they were creating problems… transfers, suspensions, terminations… they were all done through my letters. If I go back to that mode, you will be crying and doing nothing else…I will make a few of you cry…I’m telling you in advance, take it as a warning… all of you will cry, saale (an abusive word in Hindi). I will take only two minutes to do this. I know the treatment very well…I have done it all 10 years back… let’s do it again — now that I have become expert in labour, labour laws also”.

Though the above sounds like a villain’s dialogue from a Bollywood masala film, it is quite the contrary. This is a threat given by a senior manager of DHL Express, the Indian division of Deutsche Post DHL, a leading German multinational that specialises in postal and logistics services. This ‘abusive delivery’ of the senior manager was recorded by dhl employees on 27 December 2013 in the premises of Delhi airport. The manager’s tirade came after some workers (known for their association with trade unions) in the Delhi office of the DHL opted not to work on Christmas day, a national holiday.

Emboldened by the action he had taken against the workers union in Kolkata previously, the manager threatened to employ methods “three times more crooked” than the workers to break the union. That such threats coming from a company which assures that “excellence” will be “simply delivered”, that boasts of adhering to accepted labour rights in Europe and other western countries is disconcerting.

Examples of mncs violating basic labour rights, especially the right to collective bargaining and rights of contract workers, are replete in new industrial hubs of India like Greater Noida, Manesar, Gurgaon, Dharuhera, Ludhiana, Sriperumpudur and Pune- Chakan belt. This double-faced attitude of respecting labour laws and standards in home countries and refusing to abide by the same rules in third world countries is becoming a major tool in the profit maximisation drive of mncs. Scholars working on industrial relations have often identified “denial of collective rights” and “individualisation of employment relations” as tools increasingly being used by mncs. The result is industrial unrest which often erupts in violence.

The labour problems in dhl India perfectly fit into this framework. The multinational, which acts like a “gentleman capitalist” in Europe, behaves differently with its workers in India. Industrial unrest is brewing in all centres of dhl Express in India, especially at its Delhi centre. In stark contrast to the claims made about the company’s commitment to workers’ rights as well as basic human rights, dhl premises are witnessing protest marches, work stoppages and other forms of worker unrest.

“The management acts like a feudal lord to teach “discipline” to workers. The lesson is simple: Management will not respect even the statutory labour laws and other constitutional protections for workers. No worker should question this”, says Kalyan, a courier who got transferred from Kolkata to Delhi in 2004 for supporting union activities.

“The crux of the dispute in dhl is right to association and right to collective bargaining by field couriers in Hay grade (low-level management grades). It all started in 2004, when DHL surreptitiously started transferring couriers in workmen grades into Hay grade,” says N Vasudhevan, president of the DHL Employees Union. “The process accelerated in the last few years with several workers finding themselves trapped into signing the consent letter. Once they signed, DHL argued that courier workers would not come under the Industrial Disputes Act (IDA) since they were part of the management cadre.”

In several communications with the Labour department, DHL has reiterated that Hay grade workers are largely performing administrative and managerial functions. DHL has also maintained that it was a “voluntary decision” of the workers to apply for management positions in lieu of more benefits from the company.

However, when Tehelka interacted with dhl workers at the Delhi centre they had an altogether different story to narrate. “Most of the couriers didn’t know what they were doing. And nobody explained that by signing the consent letter they would lose their legitimate rights for collective bargaining. Almost all of them were pressurised or misled to sign the consent document,” says Pavan Singh, a courier with DHL in Delhi. “Vulnerability of contract workers was particularly exploited. Large numbers of contract workers who had toiled several years for dhl were categorically told that if they need regular employment they should sign the consent letters.”

The workers also produced an interesting dhl document, copy of a letter that makes changes in their designations — from workmen courier to managerial cadre. “With reference to your application… congratulations on your selection to the Hay grade position as courier,” it reads. “Who gave applications, who is dhl congratulating and for what? They should congratulate themselves for this fraud,” say workers. They also show some appointment letters as Hay Grade couriers, which clearly state that there won’t be change in terms and conditions of work. Practically, it means that there is no difference between worker couriers and Hay Grade couriers apart from the fact that the latter cannot strike.

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