Low wages, poor sanitation: Kerala labour dept flags violations by Kitex

Nothing but harassment in guise of inspection; firm has done no wrong, says MD Sabu Jacob

Sabu Jacob's party Twenty 20 had a long-standing political rivalry with both the ruling LDF and the opposition UDF.

Amid the ruckus on the allegations against the Kerala government raised by Sabu Jacob, Managing Director of the Kitex Group of Companies, the state’s labour department has flagged alleged violation of various laws by the group.

The report of an inspection conducted by the labour department has alleged that  Kitex violated various provisions of seven labour related laws including the Minimum Wages Act and the Maternity Benefits Act.

Minimum wages were not paid, proper sanitation and accommodation facilities were not provided to workers, and they were forced to live in tiny and untidy rooms, said the report submitted by the District Labour Officer to the Kerala government. The women workers were not paid maternity benefits and the workers were asked to work overtime without any additional wages, it added.

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Also read: Kitex chief’s tirade against Kerala govt makes him richer by ₹222 crore

A team headed by the District Labour Officer conducted an inspection and inquiry in three premises of Kitex Group companies — those of Kitex Garments Ltd and Kitex Childrenwear Ltd, and the processing unit of Kitex Garments Ltd — on July 8, 2021.  The inspection team allegedly found that the company violated various provisions of the following laws:

The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970

Kitex failed to provide a sufficient number of restrooms to the workers and did not maintain and produce registers and records, the report said. The company has not obtained a license to hire contract labour, and maintained no register of contractors, it added.

The Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979

The labour department found that the company had failed to provide sufficient quantity of drinking water to migrant workers. Nor were they provided adequate and suitable washing facilities, sufficient number of latrines and sanitation facilities. No proper and sufficient accommodation to workers and their families were provided, said the report.

Also, no annual returns or half yearly returns were submitted, as these need to submitted by the principal employer, the report noted. No suitable and adequate medical facilities were ensured for the workmen either.

The Kerala Industrial Establishments National and Festival Holidays Act, 1958

The team found that the company failed to give employees compensatory holidays for working on holidays. The Act stipulates that a worker working on a holiday is entitled to be paid twice the wages. The company failed to accomplish this, too. No statement of holidays was displayed within the working location of the company. No muster roll was maintained or annual returns submitted, the team said.

The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961

No maternity benefits were provided to the women workers, and, here again, the company failed to maintain muster rolls and file the annual returns, said the report.

The Minimum Wages Act, 1948

The inspection team found that several provisions of this Act were violated. The workers were not paid minimum wages as stipulated by the law. They were asked to work long additional hours and no records of these were maintained, it said.

Also read: Kitex chairman at it again, calls Kerala Industries dept a ‘frog in the well’

No electronically generated wage slip was provided to the workers and no records were maintained in the prescribed forms for the purpose of inspection as stipulated in the Act. The company had not paid wages through individual bank accounts as per the rule and failed to maintain registers and records, the team noted. No extra wages were paid for extra hours of work, it added.

The Payment of Wages Act, 1936

The company failed or wilfully neglected to pay wages by the date fixed by the authority, said the report. The payment for those who had been terminated from service was not settled by the stipulated time specified in the Act (according to the law, the payment has to be made before the expiry of the seventh day of the date of salary).

The team further found that the company had imposed unauthorized fines on employees and unauthorised deductions were made, and no register was maintained for recording the same. No date of payments was displayed on a notice board, it said.

The report of the inspection team also remarked that the company failed to comply with various provisions under the Motor Transport Workers Act, 1961.

NHRC directive

According to an officer with the labour department, the inspection was conducted following an order from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to look into alleged legal violations by the Kitex Group.

The health department was also instructed by the Commission to conduct an inspection and inquiry into the complaints that the workers were forced to live in unhygienic living conditions, the officer said. The NHRC acted upon a complaint registered by Benny Behannan, senior Congress leader and Member of Parliament from Chalakkudy constituency, where the company is located.

Explaining the context in which he had lodged a complaint with the NHRC, Behannan told The Federal: “We have been getting complaints from the local people and the workers about the inhumane working conditions. Besides, there were complaints that the workers and the local people who were infected with COVID and those who were quarantined were not getting any support.”

According to labour department officials, notices were served on Jacob citing violations.

Political undertones

Twenty 20, the political party formed by the Kitex Group, won four panchayats in the 2020 local body election, including Kizhakkambalam, where it had been in power since 2015. Twenty 20 tried its luck in the Assembly election held in April 2021 by contesting nine seats but could not win even one.

However, the party could create sufficient headache to the United Democratic Front (UDF) by splitting votes. This is said to have caused the UDF to lose its sitting seat in Kunnathunad constituency (where Kitex is based). In many other constituencies, Twenty 20 could bring down the margin of the UDF candidates who did, however, win.

Jacob, who is Chairman of Twenty 20, has had a long-standing political rivalry with both UDF and the Left Democratic Front (LDF), and the latest spat is seen as a culmination of that. Twenty 20 was born in 2010, when the concerned panchayat, then led by the Congress, denied the renewal of licence to the company citing environmental concerns.

Twenty 20 entered politics offering incentives, freebies and subsidies in abundance, allegedly making use of the company’s CSR fund. However, there have been allegations by the local people that the company withdrew many offers after its defeat in the Assembly election and there were mass resignations from Twenty 20.

Kitex’s version

Jacob has denied all the allegations raised against the Kitex Group. Talking to The Federal, he said Kitex provides better wages than what is being given in other states. He also alleged that the officials of various departments had harassed him in the guise of inspection.

“They have come 11 times for inspection. It is nothing but harassment. They have not served us notice during the time of inspection and have not followed the rules,” he said. He also denied the allegations that toilets and other sanitation facilities were not provided.

However, labour department officials told The Federal the NHRC has served notice on all the concerned departments, such as industry, health and labour. “Every department might have conducted inquiries as they are obliged to do it according to the notice served by the NHRC. The labour department has visited the premises only three times,” said an official.

An officer, on condition of anonymity, told The Federal inquiry and inspection are different procedures, and that they followed the rules meticulously. “We visited the sheds in which 1,200 labourers were living. There were around 100 toilets, but half of them were not in usable condition,” the officer told The Federal.

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