Workers have intensified protests against the management of a 20-year-old Pepsi manufacturing unit in Kerala’s Palakkad, for deciding to shut down operations amid the pandemic. The plant, located at Kanjikode East in Palakkad and operated by Varun Beverages Limited, was manufacturing carbonated drinks and packaging drinking water for two decades. According to its workforce, the plant employed 112 permanent staff and over 500 contract employees.
Following news of the plant closing down, its workers have now decided to launch a protest demanding adequate compensation to all those employed by the plant. Workers have also demanded that the government – especially the Labour and Industries departments – should intervene to ensure fair compensation to all those who are slated to lose their jobs. The company has reportedly agreed to only pay compensation to the permanent staff of the plant, leaving hundreds of its contract employees in the lurch.
“There are over 700 people working for the plant with regard to its ancillary activities, apart from the 112 permanent staff. This includes lorry drivers who carry the consignments. The company has been operating here for 20 years,” a worker who worked at the plant told local media.
“These contract workers have devoted their entire careers to the plant. Getting a job if this one is lost will also be difficult considering the pandemic. Now where will we go?” the worker said.
On September 22, Varun Beverages Limited filed an application for closure of its plant in Palakkad, under sections 24-O of the Industrial Disputes Act 1947. It has also stated the reasons for its closure. A copy of this application was also served to the trade unions Palghat District Engineering and Industrial Mazdoor Sangham (BMS), and VBL Employees Union (CITU), the workers of which were employed in the plant. Although the plant has been shut since the lockdown, the notice states that “the closure will come into effect 90 days from the above referred date of 22.09.2020” which is when the application was filed.
According to the notice for closure released by Varun Beverages, “all affected workmen shall be paid their respective dues/compensation in accordance with the provisions of section 25-O (8) of the Industrial Disputes Act,1947.”
However, Section 25-O (8) of this act says that “every workman who is employed in that undertaking immediately before the date of application for permission under this section, shall be entitled to receive compensation which shall be equivalent to fifteen days' average pay for every completed year of continuous service or any part thereof in excess of six months.”
Back in February 2020, the contract employees of the plant had issued a notice to the company asking them to renew their salary agreements. The company rejected this demand. However, employees did not protest considering the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 22, 2020, the plant has also been operating.
According to reports, the business community in Kerala have also requested the government to make a serious note of a big company shutting down operations in the state, and its impact on workers.
This is the second such agitation witnessed in Palakkad against a multi-national company. However, the Pepsi protest is different from the ones seen against the Coca Cola plant in Plachimada 16 years ago. Back in 2004, residents in Plachimada, Palakkad, protested for shutting down a Coca Cola plant run by the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Ltd, as it polluted their land and exploited the groundwater in the region.
The Plachimada protests led to the people emerging victorious, and the Coca Cola plant was permanently shut down in 2004. However, the residents of the affected panchayats in Palakkad are yet to receive compensation for their losses, from HCCB. In 2011, a bill to compensate the victims of Plachimada with Rs 216 crore was passed by the government of Kerala. However, this bill failed to receive the President’s assent and was killed in 2015 after.
Reintroducing then Plachimada Victim’s Compensation Bill was one of the election promises of the current CPI(M) government before coming into power in 2016. However, no work has yet been done to push this bill and compensate the victims so far.