Mumbai: Fired unfairly, 75-yr-old and 94 co-workers get justice after 23 yrs

Retrenched by a shipping corporation in 1992, the workers’ legal battle from the Industrial Court all the way to the Supreme Court stretched so long that 20 of them passed away while it was on; in February this year, the SC finally ruled in their favour, and asked the company to give them their due, including back-wages, within 6 weeks

It took a long time 23 years to be precise but R S Samant and 94 other employees of a shipping corporation will finally get their due. Samant and the others were retrenched (laid off) in August 1992 by Mackinnon Mackenzie and, since then, they have been fighting every day from the Industrial Court right to the Supreme Court for their wages and to prove that they had been treated unfairly.

Samant says he had joined the company in 1965 and was 52 years old when he was laid off. Pic/Sameer Markande
Samant says he had joined the company in 1965 and was 52 years old when he was laid off. Pic/Sameer Markande

Their fight stretched for so long that 20 of the 95 employees passed away while it was on and, finally, in February 2015, the court asked the company to pay the back-wages of all the employees within six weeks, failing which 9% interest would be levied on the amount. Samant claims he will get nearly R40 lakh now and, according to him, the total amount that the company will have to pay out will be nearly R45 crore.

Grinding to a halt
In 1992, Mackinnon Mackenzie was into shipping management, ship owning and operations, travel and tourism, clearing and forwarding, overseas recruitment and property owning and development. The company had nearly 150 employees in various departments.

On July 27 that year, a letter (notice of retrenchment) was issued, announcing that some divisions would be shut on August 4. The company claimed it was incurring losses and the proprietors had taken the decision to rationalise its activities.

Relentless pursuit
When the company retrenched the employees, Samant had been with it for 27 years and still had his job. He, however, decided to help the employees approach the Industrial Court, because of which he was also allegedly laid off within 15 days. The workmen filed a complaint before the Industrial Court alleging unfair labour practices by the company.

In March 1996, the Industrial Court answered the points of dispute and relevant contentious issues framed by it in favour of the concerned workmen, and set aside the notice of retrenchment served upon them. The court further directed the company to pay arrears of all such wages to the retrenched workmen from the date of alleged retrenchment.

After this, the company went to the High Court, asking it to quash the award by the Industrial Court. The High Court dismissed the petition and upheld the Industrial Court’s order in 2006. The company then approached the division bench of the High Court, which also upheld the Industrial court’s order. The company then approached the Supreme Court, which gave its order (see box) on February 25 this year.

Elated
Samant, a Thane resident, coordinated with all the employees for all these years to ensure that the fight went on. “I worked as a secretary with the company since I joined it in 1965. I was 52 years old then and had some 8-9 years left in service. But, when the company found out that I was helping the retrenched employees, they removed me from my job as well.”

He said he and his fellow employees are elated that the SC ruled in their favour, but added that he doesn’t want to count his chickens before they hatch. “The judgment has come in our favour after a 23-year-long fight and we all are happy. But, let’s see when the money comes in, because judgment se pet nahin bharega (the judgment cannot fill our empty stomachs),” said Samant.

Company speak
Rear Admiral P K Sinha (Retd.) the executive director of Mackinnon Mackenzie said, “The Supreme Court, which is the supreme body, has given the order and we will see how to comply with it.”

Judgment
The SC judgment reads: “Since the concerned workmen have been litigating the matter for the last 23 years, it would be appropriate for us to give direction to the appellant-Company to comply with the terms and conditions of the award passed by the Industrial Court by computing back-wages on the basis of revision of pay scales of the concerned workmen and other consequential monetary benefits including terminal benefits and pay the same to the workmen within six weeks from the date of receipt of the copy of this Judgment, failing which, the back-wages shall be paid with an interest at the rate of 9% per annum. The appellant-Company shall submit the compliance report for perusal of this Court.”

Timeline
>> July 1992: Retrenchment notice was issued
>> August 1992: Employees were retrenched and were not allowed to work.
>> March 1996: Industrial Court gave an order in favour of the retrenched employees.
>> 2006: Bombay High Court upheld the Industrial Court’s award
>> 2006: Company moved the Supreme Court and filed a civil appeal
>> 2008: The Appeal was admitted.
>> February 2015: The SC gave an order in favour of the workers

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