Guest post by RAMAPRIYA GOPALAKRISHNAN and BOBBY KUNHU
On January 2nd this year, management officials at the Sriperumbudur factory of NVH India Auto Parts Ltd, the Indian subsidiary of a Korean auto parts manufacturing company manhandled the company’s striking workers. The shocking visuals of the Korean managers of the company dragging workers on the floor and a manager standing over a worker holding him between his feet sparked outrage amongst civil society groups and caught the attention of the mainstream media.
The trigger for the strike was the suspension of 15 workers which their union alleges was without any reason. Several other issues festering for a long time also gave an impetus to the workers to go on strike. These include the lack of adequate toilet facilities. Apparently, there are only 6 toilets in a factory where more than 700 workers are employed of which only 4 are in usable condition. In a juvenile twist, the workers have to seek and secure the permission of the management officials each time they need to use the toilet. If this rule is violated in cases of emergency, warning letters are issued to workers alleging that they were found missing from their work spot. Another issue is the lack of a regular and sufficient supply of drinking water in the factory. The workers were also miffed at being under the glare of surveillance cameras all the time during their work hours. A very important issue that was a sore point was the management’s use of trainees and contract labour to perform production work of a regular nature. The workers were also upset at the attitude of the Korean management and the way they treat them. They allege that there are instances of physical abuse where the management officials hit and slap workers and spit on their faces. Over and above all this, the permanent workers in the factory were peeved at the failure of the management to grant recognition to the union they had joined in 2013 and negotiate with the union.
The issues highlighted by the workers are by no means one-off and are indeed typical of a large number of factories in the Chennai auto hub where multinational companies hold sway. The majority of the workers in both the auto manufacturing factories and their supplier component and part manufacturing factories are trainees and contract labour and other kinds of vulnerable workers. Many of them do the same kind of work as the permanent workers in the factories do. They however earn only a fraction of the wages that permanent workers do for the same kind of work. The prospects of the trainees, learners and probationers being made permanent are slim regardless of the number of years they put in and many of them remain permanently temporary working as trainees or contract labour in factory after factory.
The workload of the workers in the factories, particularly vulnerable workers is intense and they have to necessarily work overtime everyday without being paid the wages mandated by the Factories Act for overtime work. They are also not entitled to any leave in practice. Workers in the factories point out that their employers are only interested in having maximum production at a very quick pace. As long as production is in place and the bottom line – profits are met, the employers could not care less of the toll it takes on their employees’ health and their stress levels. Other occupational safety and health measures prescribed by the law are also treated casually. Safety measures are often inadequate leading to frequent workplace injuries.
Industrial relations in the factories in the hub are generally poor. Employers of auto manufacturing factories as well as their supplier factories usually want their workplaces to remain union-free and prefer dealing only with workers’ committees. When they cannot avoid unions altogether, they grant recognition only to ‘insider unions.’ Other unions have to wage prolonged struggles to secure recognition. Workers are often victimized for forming or joining trade unions of their choice. There have been instances when employers have en masse terminated or suspended workers in large numbers simply for joining a trade union. In the case of vulnerable workers, apart from employer hostility to trade unions, their lack of security of employment is a major factor impeding their ability to form and join trade unions of their choice.
The right of workers in the hub to go on strike to resist and protest against unfair employment practices is severely restricted on account of the Tamil Nadu Government’s notification of auto manufacturing factories as well as auto component manufacturing factories as ‘public utility services’ under the Industrial Disputes Act. Moreover, the state is quick to rush to the aid of employers facing strike situations by affording police assistance to bring in ‘outside’ workers. This makes strikes ineffective and further disempowers the affected workers.
Clearly, work in the factories in the Chennai auto hub is far from the ideal of “decent work” defined by the ILO as ‘work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity.’ On a larger note, the conditions of work of the majority of the workers in the Chennai auto hub exemplify the sad situation of workers in the private manufacturing sector across the country on account of the pursuit of the policies of ‘labour flexibility’ and ‘labour discipline’ by corporates with the active support of the state.
Speaking of labour flexibility, several studies indicate that one of the consequences of the rapid opening up of the markets in the country over the last two decades has been a reduction in the share of permanent employment and steep increase in the informal workforce in the manufacturing sector. In terms of figures, according to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) in 2009–10, the total employment in the country was 46.5 crore comprising around 2.8 crore in the organised and the remaining 43.7 crore workers in the unorganised sector. Out of these workers in the unorganised sector, there are 24.6 crore workers employed in the agricultural sector, about 4.4 crore in construction work and remaining in the manufacturing and service sectors. In other words, there are a minimum of 14.7 crore workers employed informally in the manufacturing and service sectors- cheap labour that is exploited on account of a complex host of hegemonic factors including caste, gender and class. Studies also indicate a trend of increasing informalization in a whole range of industries in the manufacturing sector, be it in the textile and garment industry, electronics industry, chemical industry or cement industry.
Indeed, aside from the eagerness of the state to roll out the red carpet for foreign investors by making large tracts of land available to them at cheap rates and offering them tax benefits, it is precisely the abundance of cheap labour and the possibility of unrestrictedly engaging any number of workers as trainees or contract labour on the employer’s unilateral terms that make India an attractive investment decision for multinational players. These again appear to be the reasons why production for branded garments, electronics et al is outsourced to India. It is no wonder then that the state is unmindful of the conditions of work in such factories and leaves the workers to their plight. While the state justifies its clamour for foreign investment on grounds of employment generation, it is clear that workers are not its priority at all.
It all begs the question: For whose benefit and at whose cost? The answer should be obvious – for the benefit of corporates at the cost of their workers-constitutional principles for the protection of workers’ rights be damned. Here, it is important to point out that Labour is in the concurrent list of the Constitution of India (Seventh Schedule – Article 246) – meaning that the state and the central governments are equally responsible for these gross violations of worker’s rights. The abdication by the state of its constitutional responsibilities makes it equally complicit in the commodification of labour by multinational as well as other private employers. The recent drive of the central as well as state governments to effect employer-friendly labour law reforms ignoring the long standing just demands of the workers again is yet another instance of the state pandering to corporates unmindful of its constitutional obligations.
Unless the labour movement in the country acts in solidarity and speaks out in one voice at this juncture against the abdication by the state of its responsibilities towards the workers of the country and presses for adherence to constitutional principles, there will be an irreversible downslide in the protection of workers’ rights under the law as well as in practice-leading to more NVH like situations.