May 4, 2020 / 11:06 AM / 21 days ago

India's ITC faces union backlash over coronavirus work warnings

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian consumer goods giant ITC (ITC.NS) has warned some workers of disciplinary action and pay cuts for missing work during the coronavirus crisis, prompting a showdown with at least two unions, letters from both parties show.

FILE PHOTO: A man talks on his mobile phone as he walks past an ITC office building in Kolkata September 4, 2012. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

The problems at ITC food plants in Pune in the western state of Maharashtra and in the southern state of Karnataka underscore labour issues facing firms in India, where a lockdown forced thousands of workers to return to their villages.

ITC is one of India’s top consumer goods companies with annual sales of $11 billion, producing staples such as flour, noodles and biscuits as well as being the country’s biggest cigarette manufacturer.

In notices to employees of at least two food factories dated April 29, which were seen by Reuters, ITC said the attendance of some workers in April was irregular while some had not reported at all, even though factories were open.

ITC said in a statement it had seen “tremendous co-operation” by workers to meet the demand of essential goods, and it had taken adequate safety measures at its factories.

And it said more than 50,000 workers have been paid in the last month, irrespective of their presence.

Food production has been classified as essential by the government during the nationwide lockdown.

While ITC had so far not taken any action against workers, the company notices said “absence without leave” would lead to salary cuts and “disciplinary action”, without elaborating.

‘IN DANGER’

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.

While ITC said in its notice it had taken adequate safety measures, the union said some workers were travelling in unsafe conditions without masks and social distancing.

“You are forcing more workers to report to duty which may put us all in danger,” the union said in its letter, which was dated April 30 and also seen by Reuters.

The Geneva-based International Union of Food Workers is helping ITC’s Pune employees union reach a resolution with local management, IUF India Campaign Officer Pravin Khotkar said.

At ITC’s Pune food plant, only around 100 of the 217 factory employees were currently reporting for work, with some still back in their villages around 300 kilometres (186.41 miles) away, a union member told Reuters on Monday.

“People were scared initially so they left,” said the union member on condition of anonymity. “They are still scared, but figuring how to come (back) after the company warning.”

India on Friday said its lockdown will continue until at least May 17, with some relaxations. But it could take people working or living in far flung areas time to get back to their jobs, with travel delays due to safety concerns.

“It is unfortunate that a few employees ... have chosen to absent themselves from work ... It is disheartening that a union is taking this unfortunate stand to defend the errant workers which undermines the diligent workers,” ITC said.

Reacting to a similar warning notice in early April from ITC, the union in Kolar district, Karnataka had written to ITC stating there was panic among families about returning to work, and it urged that no wages should be deducted.

ITC did not comment on whether it had sent similar notices to workers in its other food factories, which number 10 in all according to its 2019 annual report.

Reporting by Aditya Kalra; Editing by Euan Rocha, Robert Birsel and Alexander Smith

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