For four years, workers of the Comtrust Handloom Weaving Factory, Kozhikode, have been fighting the lock-out by the management. The author chronicles their long battle.

The air smells of decay in the long verandah of the Commonwealth Trust (Comtrust) Handloom Weaving Factory, the once proud abode of the British Queen’s favourite weavers.

The factory was shut down on February 2, 2009, and the weavers, who were locked out a day prior, have been fighting a losing battle against an unbending, faceless management. At every turn, they have been outsmarted, mocked at, and every promise given to them has been broken.

The factory was built in 1844 by the German Basel Evangelical Missionaries and was called the Mission Shop till 1919, when the British seized it and formed the Commonwealth Trust (England) Ltd. also called Comtrust. In 1977, it was renamed Comtrust (India) Ltd. Chunks of this 169-year-old heritage property have been sold to private entities.

The Commonwealth Trust, Kozhikode (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertaking) Bill of 2012 was passed after years of personal sacrifice by the weavers. However, the government’s bid to take over the factory has made no headway. The Bill was passed unanimously by the State Legislative Assembly in July 2012 but has been unable to find its way to the President’s table. Incidentally, Rashtrapati Bhavan was once a prized client of the weavers.

Age, illness and sheer exhaustion have caught up with the craftsmen. Of the original 284, only 107 are left to carry on with the strike, seated under a blue tarpaulin on the factory verandah.

Dejection is writ large on their faces. A security guard seated under the gold-plated Comtrust signboard separates the management from the workers.

Inside, tonnes of machinery, which once made exotic materials and mattresses that stayed in families for generations, are rusting.

Towards the end, the workers were given only towels to make. These towels now lie moth-eaten and fungus-ridden in the Comtrust shop.

Meanwhile, the weavers are getting ready to launch a second round of demonstrations to implement the Bill as law.

Here is a chronicle of who they are and what they are fighting for.

P.K. Santhosh, 42

“When I started in 1991, I was making mattresses for the President. We used silken threads. It was 108 feet wide and 126 feet long with an emblem of an elephant and a conch on the underside. We had orders for fire-resistant woollen cloth to be used as seat covers in flights. The Queen was our client.”

“Towards the end, I was asked to make lungis. They said there were no orders from abroad. But we still have foreigners coming to our factory to buy cloth not knowing that it has been shut down.”

“Long ago in Comtrust, the spirit was charity. It employed the underdogs, the poor and the illiterate. They say the factory was closed down due to debt. How did we incur so much debt? They had not increased our wages by a paisa in the last 10 years … all that is left of this heritage is what a bulldozer can flatten in a day.”

P. Sivaprakash, 48

“Most of us have grown old. Now, some of us realise we were throwing stones at a mountain. But we persist because we have nowhere else to go. When the Bill finally comes, none of us will be around.”

“We think the Bill was just a distraction to derail the strike. The management says they have not received even a piece of paper about the land being in government custody.”

“The weavers had always been cheap for the “company”. Dearness allowance was Rs. 70 a day. Lunch was Rs.2 per head.”

“Health care is non-existent. For ESI, workers had to retire at 60. The company had stopped paying them Provident Fund three years ago.”

K. Baburajan, 57

Baburajan, who worked in the boiler section for 32 years before he was locked out without a word, is so quiet that Sivaprakash acts as his spokesman.

“For 32 years, he worked in silence. At the end, they chucked him out. This too he accepted in silence. For four years, he has been fighting beside us. His silence is his protest.”

M.P. Rajan, 57

He is dead. He collapsed at a construction site. He had debts over Rs. 3 lakh — a housing loan and gold jewellery pawned for the marriage of two daughters. Recently, the bank demanded closure and threatened mortgage of the house. Rajan’s young son, who left school to become a plumber, pays Rs. 8,000 a month in instalments.

“The company lockout happened when we were building our home,” said Ragesh Rajan, 22. “Achan used to cycle every day to work and back. After he died, I repainted it and kept it. If the factory re-opens, I will cycle to work like him.”

Mr. Sivaprakash adds, “The management had approached Rajan with a one-time offer of Rs. 1.65 lakh. He asked us whether he could take it and sign off from the strike. His second daughter was about to get married. We said ‘yes’ but he did not take the money. But, towards the end, he was frustrated with the strike, with the pending Bill. He walked out angrily from a board meeting two days before he died.”

Sujesh P, 38

He is a heart patient who needs surgery. His young wife, Aneesha, underwent surgery recently after suffering a blood clot in the brain. She is partially paralysed. The couple’s only son is in kindergarten.

When asked what he does to provide for his family, Sujesh said “paintingum, samaravum” (painting and the strike).

Sreeja K., 44

She was given a job in Comtrust in 1991 after her father, who worked there, died in harness.

“In three months, I learnt the job. On the day of the lockout, I found the factory worker pass box (a system that registered the time each worker came in) closed. I thought I was late for work. But it was only 8.00 a.m. We had to check in by 8.05 a.m. Then I saw the others standing outside. We had just lost our jobs.”

Now, she is the sole breadwinner for her family. She has two daughters in school, a diabetic husband and a bed-ridden mother. Incidentally, she is the only one the management has summoned back.

“They could not find a person to sweep the premises. So they asked me. I said yes. I needed the money. So, every morning I join the strike, shout slogans against the company and then go inside to sweep the place.”