Retrenched employees stage protest at Delhi Airport, claim union members were targeted

Those retrenched were employed by Celebi Airport Services India, which handles ground operations at Delhi airport. The company recently laid off 708 of its 1,19 workers, citing a steep decline in business

July 14, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
Celebi contractors at the airport. Photo: Twitter

On July 12, Sunday, members of the Celebi Employees Union held a demonstration outside the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India, to protest the retrenchment of 708 employees of the Celebi Airport Services company last month.

The protesters alleged that the leaders and members of the union have been systematically targeted with suspensions over the last three years. The union has said that the company has opportunistically used the COVID-19 pandemic to yet again get rid of unionized workers.

Ground-handling operations at the Delhi airport have been outsourced since 2010 to the company, which is owned by Turkey-based Celebi Aviation Holding. Citing loss of business due to the pandemic, it reduced its 1,819 strong-workforce by 708, last month.

On June 12, Celebi’s HR department personnel called and informed the workers of their retrenchment. They were informed that they would be given compensation of one extra month’s pay in addition to their salaries calculated till the first 12 days of the month.

From the recordings of these calls made available to Peoples Dispatch, it is evident that none of the workers had received any prior intimation that they were about to be retrenched. Taken by surprise, many were stunned into a long silence. Others made futile appeals to the HR, pleading that under the lockdown they will not be able to find any other job.

Among the retrenched are a small number of managerial staff. But the vast majority are workers whose tasks included cleaning the aircraft, loading and unloading passenger luggage, and providing them with assistance such as wheelchairs, etc.

Union members say most of these retrenched workers are members of the Celebi Employees Union. Of the remaining 1,111 workers, only around 200 are members of the union.

The union is affiliated to the left-wing trade union federation, Center of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). Numerous leaders and members of this union have also allegedly been previously suspended on charges of misbehavior.

“Around 20 union members were already under suspension since May 2019. The company had falsely accused them of misbehavior. The real reason was that they were active union members. On June 12, they were also informed, along with others, that they were dismissed,” the union’s vice-president, Gulshan, told Peoples Dispatch.

“They were fired without completing the inquiry on the charges over which they were suspended,” he complained.

Gulshan was among the first to be suspended on charges of misbehavior in December 2017. At that time, he was the president of the employees’ union.

The following year, Ajit Singh, who was then the union’s general secretary, was also suspended on the same charge, according to Gulshan. Ajit received no allowance during the period of his suspension. He was dismissed in December 2019, allegedly without any inquiry into the charges against him.

While an inquiry was initiated in Gulshan’s case, it was not concluded when he was dismissed in February 2020 – a month before the lockdown was imposed in India.

Meanwhile, in the union elections in February 2019, Deepak Yadav was elected as the new president, and Sandeep Manjhi as the general secretary. The very next month, the company sought to have them transferred to the south Indian city of Hyderabad.

According to Yadav, “The company had marked me as undesirable because they had noticed I was encouraging the workers to raise their genuine grievances and place them before the management. I was also following up on a case in labor court against the company’s practice of withholding the workers’ entry passes.”

Providing details about the case, Yadav explained that the company often denied leaves to workers, even for medical purposes. Valid medical certificates from recognized government hospitals are often rubbished as fake.

Under these circumstances, many workers are forced to take sick leaves that are not sanctioned by the company. When they return to duty even after a day’s leave, workers are denied their entry pass, he said. Workers are required to leave behind the entry passes while logging out each day and require it to enter the next morning.

“In many cases they were harassed for a week and made to run around between the management and the HR to get it back,” Yadav alleged. “Instead of addressing these issues, the company sought to have me and general secretary Sandeep transferred out of Delhi, soon after we were elected,” he said.

“My mother had a heart surgery at the time, and it was important for me to stay in Delhi to care for her. Sandeep’s wife had recently delivered a baby. We both refused to accept the transfer,” he added.

Yadav claims that the management harassed them for weeks, even after they provided medical documents to justify their refusal to be transferred. In the meantime, their entry passes expired on May 21, 2019, and were not renewed by the management which was supposed to issue new cards to all employees on May 22.

They were thus barred from entering the workplace and registering for daily duties. On learning that the union leaders were being targeted, around 20 workers gathered in protest, refusing to work until entry cards to Yadav and Manjhi were issued by the company.

“Someone from the management recorded a video of this incident to identify the workers who’d stood by us. They were all suspended on the grounds of misbehavior,” Yadav said. During the suspension period, they were paid only 50% of their wages for the first three months and 75% thereafter.

The leaders were not officially suspended as no written communication about their suspension was handed to them. However, they were held back from work by denying them entry cards, and were not paid either.

“After we took the matter to court, they initiated an inquiry, but soon after, it was stopped due to the COVID outbreak. Then, on June 12, I received an email stating that I was retrenched,” Yadav said.

The email he received states, “Presently there is a steep decline in our business to the extent of 83% and this crisis is here to stay for (a) longer duration. The requirement of workforce has contracted due to considerable recession in trade and this has compelled the management to discharge surplus workmen.”

The company claimed that in April and May this year, it had provided ground-handling services to “25 airline operators with merely 507 international and 52 domestic.. flights”. In the same two months last year, the company had catered  “31 airline operators with 1683 (domestic) flights.. and 1761 (international) flights.”

Stating this crunch in demand as the reason, the email said, “Since you are also one of the junior most workmen.. your services are hereby retrenched with immediate effect”.

Earlier this month,  challenging the retrenchment of its members, the union took the matter to the Regional Labor Commissioner, which is yet to resolve the dispute.

Attempts to obtain a response from the company on the charges leveled by the workers did not elicit any response. The article will be updated as and when company authorities do reply.