WITH THE regional office of the Employees Provident Fund Office (EPFO) in Solapur ordering 17 powerloom units owned by one family to apply EPF with retrospective effect from 2002, the Powerloom Owners Association (POA) comprising more than 13,000 units has been on an indefinite strike since October 7. This has rendered more than 42,000 workers jobless ahead of Diwali. While the powerloom owners have said the EPFO rules do not apply to them, the workers in Solapur have decided to observe a ‘Black Diwali’.
The dispute between the powerloom owners and the workers began over the EPF issue after Regional EPF Commissioner Hemant Tirpude issued an order on July 31, 2017, asking members of the Myakal family, which owns at least 17 powerloom units, to implement the EPF rule retrospectively from 2002. Tirpude, in his order, also asked officials to carry out inspections of similar units for implementation of the EPF rule. This is for the first time such an order has been issued by an EPF office in the country to bring powerloom workers under the purview of the Act, to extend the benefits of provident fund to powerloom workers.
Tirpude said the order was issued based on the principles of “functional independency and integrality”, “unity of ownership” and “unity of purpose”. “In case of the Myakal family, the Himalaya Textiles was a trading firm and was in the business of chaddars till 1992 and then was involved in trading of towels till 2000. After that it created paper entities to avoid the legal obligations of the EPF. They are owned by a single family, are run from the same premises and all the business activities are controlled by them under different names,” said Tirpude.
Satyaram Myakal, owner of Himalaya Trading, said the order had been challenged before the industrial tribunal. “There are several flaws in the order that would be pointed out before the tribunal. Though the order has been challenged, there has been no stay granted,” he said. Following the July order, the powerloom workers’ unions demanded implementation of the EPF rule, which apparently led to panic among the owners. “The powerloom workers are not covered under the EPF though they have been working for past more than three decades. They are not entitled to benefits such as Employee’s State Insurance Corporation or any other social security benefits. The powerloom owners have been violating all the labour laws to deny the labourers their rightful benefits,” said Narasayya Adam, a labour leader and also part of the joint action committee of powerloom workers.
Adam further said many owners had created separate entities to avoid paying any benefit to workers. “Though the regional EPF commissioner has asked to implement it retrospectively from 2002, considering it will cause huge burden on the finances of the powerloom owners, we have demanded that the EPF should be implemented from April 2016 at least. But they are opposed to that too. Most of the workers are in their fifties and if the PF is implemented from April 2016, they will be able get some amount at the time of retirement,” added Adam, former legislator and a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He said all powerloom workers were demonstrating quietly on the issue and had decided to observe a ‘Black Diwali’.
Following Tirpude’s order, the POA had kept units shut for six days in August and has now once again gone on indefinite strike. “The EPF is not applicable to the powerloom industry as every unit is a separate legal entity employing less than 10 workers. All the powerloom units in Solapur employ only six-seven employees each. Also, the units should not be clubbed together for implementation of EPF. The EPF, a national Act, is applicable to all. Then, why it is being implemented in Solapur only and not in places like Ichalkaranji, Madurai, Panipat, etc,” said Pentappa Gaddam, president of the POA. The EPF is applicable to the units or establishments employing 20 or more people.
Gaddam said a committee should be appointed to study all aspects pertaining to EPF and should be implemented at national level. However, officials said the EPFO in Delhi issued a circular on August 4, 2017, asking all offices in Maharashtra to implement the EPF Act in all areas in Bhiwandi, Ichalkaranji, Malegon and Solapur. An official from the state EPF office claimed that the circular was issued after the labour unions approached Delhi with the order issued by Solapur office.