The Telegraph
Thursday , July 31 , 2014
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Union notice to housing complex: ‘Sit with us within 24 hours’

Diktat on lift operator

Calcutta, July 30: A housing complex on Park Street has been asked by a Trinamul trade union to “sit with its representatives within 24 hours” and “settle the matter” of a lift operator having been told to leave the premises for not wearing his uniform.

The notice, typed on the letterhead of the Calcutta Shops & Commercial Sramik Sansad (W.B.) and claiming affiliation to the Trinamul-controlled INTTUC, is the clearest instance yet of a trade union trying to meddle in the everyday life of citizens.

The Telegraph, which came in possession of the letter through its sources, contacted the residents who requested the newspaper not to disclose the name of the building. Fearing for their safety, several residents even asked the newspaper not to publish this report.

In the face of persistent requests involving personal security, the newspaper decided to wait for a day before taking the final decision. This morning, a union leader called up a resident and sought to escalate the issue, following which — and after much persuasion — a section of the residents agreed to speak to this newspaper.

The report is being published not because of the dispute between the lift operator and the housing society but because of the implications of the attempt by a group that identifies itself as a trade union to interfere in the affairs of a residential complex.

One of the damning charges against the earlier Left regime was the attempt by allied organisations to interfere with personal freedoms — a telling incident was the way the gates of an apartment building in south Calcutta were locked to prevent the occupants from voting during an election when the CPM was in power.

After the regime change, the complaints against Trinamul largely revolved around “syndicates” — young groups that use extortion-style tactics to feed off the construction segment in the absence of job opportunities. The notice to the housing complex raises the question whether the foot soldiers are looking for fresh hunting ground in a state where the pool of opportunities is shrinking and the claimants of the spoils are splintering into more groups.

At the Park Street complex, the lift operator had allegedly ignored instructions to wear his uniform. He was asked by the housing co-operative society not to turn up for work unless he wore one of the two sets of uniforms provided to him.

On July 29, the union, although it claims to represent shops and commercial establishments, sent the letter to the co-operative housing society.

The subject of the letter was “illegal termination of your staff liftman (name)”. The letter carried the signature of Ajoy Mondal, who introduced himself as “general secretary”. The letterhead also identifies “Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay (MLA)” as its president. Trinamul MLA and veteran trade union leader Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay could not be contacted despite repeated attempts to verify if he was the person mentioned in the letterhead.

The letter says: “…without any cause & fault totally inhumanly he (the lift operator) has been terminated…. Yes, Sir this termination is illegal and unfair. But we do not take any decision without knowing the fact of termination to your end.

“So requesting you please sit with our union representatives within 24 hours after receive of this letter, we desire your co-operation for solve and settle this matter….”

The residents denied having terminated the service of the guard who has been working with them for over 30 years. But the uniform, they said, was “essential for the security of the building”.

The sweep of the issue appeared to have widened overnight. Today, a union leader called up one of the residents and said union representatives would meet the society’s office-bearers on Thursday to discuss the wages paid to the employees.

“The letterhead says the union’s office is in Noor Lohia Lane, which is in the Burrabazar area. It is not even in our area,” said a resident.

The society has 80 families and nine employees, including five liftmen, a manager, an electrician, a plumber and a caretaker. The security of the two 11-storey buildings is outsourced to an agency.

(A senior labour department official said that the minimum number of employees for a set-up to be considered an industrial unit in Bengal is 10 for those with an industrial power connection and 20 for those without an industrial power connection. Being recognised as part of an industrial unit enables the employees to seek protection under various state and central labour laws.)

“We have provided uniforms to all our employees. This is for the security of the building as many women and children stay here and they get into the five lifts through the day,” said an official of the housing society. Others have pointed out that the building is located near one of the busiest roads in Calcutta and uniforms help ensure that strangers do not sneak in and pose as liftmen.

“This liftman was not wearing the uniform and, when asked, he claimed that the uniforms were in the laundry. But after seven days when he was still not wearing the uniform, we told him that he was suspended for a day,” the official said.

The next morning, a union representative went to the Park Street complex and handed over the letter to the society’s office. “We feel harassed…. The building was built 45 years ago but such a thing has never happened before,” said a resident.

“It’s a residential complex. Also, there is no union in our complex,” said another official.

Asked, Mondal, the union leader, said he had signed the letter as general secretary but was not fully aware of the issue. “Someone else from our organisation is handling the matter. As far as I know, he (the liftman) was terminated from service without being given a notice period,” Mondal said.

Madhu Bhattacharya, the union secretary who is “handling the matter”, said the lift operator was “terminated illegally”. “The person has been working in this building for 30 years as a liftman. He holds an appointment letter. Then how can someone issue a verbal order and terminate his service?” asked Bhattacharya.

“He was wearing an old uniform on Monday but the housing society’s members asked him why he was wearing the old uniform. He told them that he had given the other uniform for a wash. Then the members asked him to get out that very moment. He came to us,” said Bhattacharya.

Asked why the housing society should meet him since his union has no locus standi in the residential complex, Bhattacharya said: “We have a committee and the matter will be referred there.”

The housing complex’s officials denied the allegations. “We have not terminated him but merely asked him to leave the premises for that day and come in uniform. We even wanted to discuss his problem the next morning but he went to the union leaders,” said one of the office-bearers.

The union’s letter ends with the sentence: “Staff (name of lift operator) authorised our union to solve this matter… till end.”

Contacted tonight, the lift operator said: “Whatever I have to say, the union will say on my behalf…. I have worked there for 30 years and want to continue working there.”

Although there is no known instance of a trade union sending a written notice to a residential complex, informal threats are not so rare.

An elderly couple living in south Calcutta had recently alleged that they had asked their driver to leave after he was caught skimming money given to buy petrol. “The next day, a local Trinamul leader came and politely told us to keep the man. We got scared since our sons don’t stay here,” said the aged Calcuttan.