6 of the Pricol 8 go free

Originally published in The Wire.

A tampered FIR, CCTV cameras that mysteriously failed, a death. A saga that began almost ten years ago saw its latest update with the acquittal of six of the ‘Pricol 8’, the name given to the eight workers convicted for the death of Roy George in a factory of Pricol Limited in Tamil Nadu. The incident at Pricol – eerily similar to what happened at the Maruti plant in Manesar – are mired in confusion.

On September 21, 2009, George, the vice president of HR at Pricol, was allegedly beaten to death in his own office by a group of men with iron rods. After the men left, he was rushed to the hospital where he succumbed to his injuries. Four other people in George’s office were also injured. The attack took place at 11.40 am. At around 4.30 pm, the hospital informed the police and the local sub inspector rushed to the hospital and recorded a complaint. An FIR was filed by 6.30 pm and by 10 pm that night, six factory workers were arrested. While in custody, they apparently confessed. But that’s where the problems begin.

When the FIR reached the district magistrate a day later, names of other workers had been added. Even the original complaint had ‘interpolations’, as the court order called it. The CCTV camera outside George’s office had apparently malfunctioned on that day. Furthermore, as Madhumita Dutta previously wrote on The Wire, “the FIR notes that the attack took place inside the manager’s cabin at 11.40 am and by bizarre coincidence, the investigating (police) officer in the case, happened to be inside the factory in plainclothes in front of the HR area between 11.41 am to 11.46 am on that day. However, the officer states (orally) in the court that the Pricol management did not inform him that a murderous attack had just taken place inside the factory.”

Additionally, there had been a group of policemen posted outside the factory on bandobust duty because the management had complained about labour problems.

When the case went to court, eight of the workers were sentenced to ‘double life imprisonment’, rigorous imprisonment that would run concurrently. From the date of the judgement in 2012, ‘Free the Pricol 8’ has been a rallying cry for trade unions and labour activists across the country.

Brief history of Pricol and the union’s struggle

Pricol Limited is an automotive ancillary with seven plants across India – two in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, two in Uttarakhand, and one each in Pune and Gurgaon. The company has subsidiaries in Indonesia, Singapore, Spain and Brazil. According to S. Kumarasamy, All India Central Council of Trade Unions general secretary, they have plans to expand into Mexico and Vietnam. The company specialises in the manufacture of driver information systems, sensors and speed governors. Its international customers include Harley Davidson and Volvo while its domestic customers include most large players in the automotive industry such as Mahindra, Bajaj, Honda, Maruti Suzuki and Renault Nissan.

The company is highly successful and continues to grow financially. Its gross revenue exceeded Rs 1,000 crores for the first time in the previous financial year, 2015-16, and the company paid out approximately Rs 11.5 crores as dividend. According to a statement on its website, it expects to hit revenues of Rs 3,000 crore by 2020. As on March 31, 2016, it employed 5,100 people, 650 of whom were permanent employees. The 2016 annual report of the company stated that the annual percentage increase for staff remuneration other than management was around 9%, while for management it was around 160%.

In 2007, the workers of Pricol formed a union to fight for fair wages among other things. The union was called Kovai Mavatta Pricol Thozhilalar Sangam and in 2012, three years after George’s death, it was recognised by the management and became a formal party in wage agreements. In 2007, workers’ wages was Rs 8,522 per month even after working for 25 years. On retirement, they received Rs 1 lakh. Now workers with 25 years of work experiences earn Rs 24,500 and retirement benefits have increased to Rs 3.5 lakhs.

As Kumarasamy told Thozhilalar Koodam in a 2016 interview, “The management said that Maoists and left extremists have come and taken over the union and this will cause harm to the industry. We may have to move out of Coimbatore. Then they started a series of victimising activities. The workers, they withstood all these things. There were more than 40 criminal cases. Even women workers were jailed. Criminal cases are always quite difficult to handle. There have been a lot of terminations and more than 150 dismissals. There have been wage cuts, there have been refusals to pay wage increases. There have been break in service. So many things… but in spite of all these things the workers fought back and ultimately the management recognised the union in 2011.”

Convictions that lacked evidence

On January 19, 2017, the high court of Madras overturned the conviction of six out of the eight Pricol workers. The two judges that heard the appeal commuted the sentences for the two other workers to single life imprisonment based almost entirely on the testimony of the assistant manager of the plant. The same assistant manager’s testimony about the other six was rejected for not matching the medical evidence on the body.

The prosecution had summoned five other eyewitnesses but all of their accounts didn’t pass muster with the high court for various reasons. One witness didn’t identify any of the accused workers but only stated that a mob with iron rods entered the factory and attacked George. Another witness did not actually see them perform any attack. Another witness couldn’t identify the worker he was accusing. Two were deemed unreliable, one of whom was from the management of Pricol. He claimed to be an eye-witness but his description of the attack didn’t match the medical evidence either.

The original case included a charge of criminal conspiracy against 19 people including Kumarasamy for holding a meeting and inciting the workers to violence before the attack in September 2009. This charge was dismissed by the session court in 2012 but the prosecution appealed. The high court then dismissed the appeal, claiming the two witnesses who testified to the meeting were “have been planted”.

But the saga is not over. The conviction of the two workers that was upheld by the high court will be appealed in the Supreme Court.