New Delhi: India’s labour ministry may refer a labour dispute between former employees of Sahara Airlines Ltd and the Sahara India Pariwar to a tribunal, two years after the domestic carrier was bought by Jet Airways India Ltd.
Some 140 workers of Sahara Airlines moved an industrial disputes court against the Sahara India Pariwar in November 2007, alleging irregularities in the manner in which they were redeployed within the group.
Sahara Airlines was acquired by Jet Airways, India’s largest domestic carrier by passengers, for Rs1,405 crore in early 2007 and later rebranded as JetLite.
Though a majority of the employees at Sahara Airlines retained jobs in JetLite, some were redeployed within the Sahara India Pariwar, according to a staff re-allocation formula worked out in the merger and acquisition (M&A) deal, the details of which were not disclosed.
At a loss: A file photo of former Sahara Airlines employees at the labour commissioner’s office in New Delhi. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
In February, 16 months after the complaint was registered, assistant labour commissioner A.C. Katoch, who is presiding over the case, noted in a filing: “Both the parties are given various suggestions for the amicable settlement... The workmen are ready for arbitration, but the suggestion is not acceptable to management.”
The matter is now before the labour ministry, which will decide whether it merits consideration at a tribunal. “We have asked Sahara for the record (pertaining to the agreement between the two companies on engagement of employees). But they have not submitted (it),” said a labour ministry official, who declined to be identified.
Anil Abraham, Sahara India Pariwar’s deputy general manager in New Delhi, did not reply to a questionnaire sent by Mint. Jet Airways, too, refused to give details on the matter, but the company’s public relations manager said “the manpower allocation and distribution exercise has been continuous” since the time Jet Airways acquired Sahara Airlines. A total of 1,300 people are currently employed by JetLite, the person said.
“It’s a gross delay, where a large number of workers are involved who are all suffering. The entire purpose of labour laws and beneficial legislations is defeated,” said Amita Gupta, a Supreme Court advocate, who is advising the workers. Some aggrieved workers say they were redeployed to Sahara India Financial Corp. Ltd, the country’s largest residuary non-banking finance firm, that has since been asked not to accept public deposits for maturities that extend beyond 30 June 2011, for violating the Reserve Bank of India’s norms.
Sanjay Kumar, 34, who was employed as a record keeper and engineering helper for 13 years at Sahara Airlines and earning Rs8,105 a month, was dispatched to Jhalawar in Rajasthan. On arrival, he was told that he was not entitled to any weekly offs.
Peon Sher Singh was sent to Ahmedabad, but no one there was aware about his new appointment, he said. Loader Dilip Mondal was sent to Shandila, 49km from Lucknow, to work as a sweeper. And when Vinod Kumar, who was part of the airline’s transport staff, was dispatched to Ajmer, Rajasthan, he said he could not locate the office.
Most of these workers, who say they were given new postings in mid 2007, have returned home, some serving less than a month in their new positions.
Trade unions have been demanding better job security for workers at a time of economic slowdown. “Employees are not protected in case of mergers, particularly in banks and airlines. And it’s happening both in the private and public sector,” said Amarjit Kaur, national secretary of All India Trade Union Congress, a national federation of workers’ unions.
The slow pace at which most conciliatory proceedings move at Indian labour departments often militates against the workers. Unlike in the UK or most European countries, India does not have a safety net for workers.
Between 1994 and 2004—the latest year for which data is available—some 9,000-12,000 industrial dispute cases are filed every year at the central chief commissioner’s office, which has jurisdiction over central public enterprises, banking and airline sectors and controlled sectors, such as oil and gas, cement and telecom, that together employ an estimated 16 million people.
The Union cabinet of ministers has recently approved of an amendment to the Industrial Dispute Act to clear the backlog of such complaints by streamlining industrial adjucations, easing the appointment of tribunal heads and investing more power on labour commissioners to issue decrees and order settlements.
Tarun Shukla contributed to this story.