Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The New Cellu-lar Jail

The writers are activists based in Chennai working on issues of land, labour, industry and SEZs.

Sriperumbudur grabbed media attention in 1991 when former Prime Minister Mr Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated during an election rally. Since then, this nondescript little village-town in west Chennai, dotted with paddy fields and large expanses of natural water-bodies, has transformed itself into a little ‘Shenzen’- world’s largest special economic zone in Southern China, which churns out one out of every eight mobile handsets sold anywhere in the world. Slated to attract investments worth $4 billion in electronics and automobile manufacturing, Sriperumbudur is now home to the largest mobile handset making factory of Nokia, a Finnish company that can churn out 7.5 lakhs handsets a day. This town and its neighbouring region is also known as the Detroit of India, churning around 12,80,000 cars every year. With a booming manufacturing industry and a promise of 2 lakhs jobs, Sriperumbudur is touted as the jewel in the industrial crown of Tamil Nadu. But of recent this seemingly success story has turned a little sour.

The jewel has a tarnish which the state government does not know how to hide anymore: growing labour unrest, demand for unions, and frequent strikes.The state’s response has been swift—arrest the ‘erring’ workers and bust the unions. And it does that quite cleverly. It’s done as neatly as is the ‘clean’ image of these sophisticated modern industries, barring a few instances where police has lathi charged the workers.

“Their modus operandi is to form a party affiliated union, broker deal with the management, get the workers back to work and whoever does not fall in line, have them arrested or have their jobs terminated. Pretty neat. ”, alleged A Soundarajan, state general secretary of Centre for Indian Trade Union (CITU). Soundarajan and his colleagues should know better. They are out on bail after being incarcerated for 15 days in Vellore Central Jail in October. Their crime: daring to form a union and organising a strike in Foxconn India Limited, a Taiwanese MNCs. While the CITU leaders and workers were in jail, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-affiliated Labour Progressive Federation (LPF) union, which also has a union in Foxconn, brokered a ‘long term wage settlement’ with the Foxconn management, thereby compromising on the workers’ demands.

“This is a repeat of what happened in the 1960s. At that time, the congress-led government did the same thing during the strikes in MRF, Ashok Leyland, TI Cycles. Used party affiliated union to broker compromised deals to break genuine worker’s strikes”, said Soundarajan. For about 60 days since 24th September, the young workforce of Foxconn India, a special economic zone (SEZ) and a key supplier of electronic components to Nokia SEZ, were sitting on strike demanding better wages, good service conditions and recognition of their trade union . “We get very low wages. Trained permanent employees who have been with the company for more than 3 years get only about Rs 4500 per month,” said Dinesh of the CITU-affiliated Foxconn India Thozhilalar Sangam who is one of the 23 workers suspended for engaging in unionizing activities. “We have rejected the wage agreement reached between the management and Foxconn India Thozhilalar Munnetra Sangam (LPF). They did it behind our backs”, added Dinesh.

As per the ‘wage settlement’ published on 12th October by Foxconn management, workers will get a maximum gross salary of Rs 9500 per month staggered over a period of three years and starting with Rs 7830. “We had demanded Rs 10,000 per month as gross salary for the permanent workers, but the LPF union cut a deal for lower wages with the management and settled the dispute. The state government actively participated in this process through the labour commissioner’s office,” informed Soundarajan. “Things get desperate when the strike goes on for so long. We had so many rounds of talks with the labour commissioner, besides meeting the ministers, including the Chief Minister. But nothing came out of it. Management did not even reinstate the suspended workers. It is specifically targeting workers affiliated with our union”. The workers allege that the management is demanding a written undertaking from the suspended workers ‘to not join the union’ before they can be reinstated.

Unlike in Maharashtra and West Bengal, there is no law in Tamil Nadu which makes it mandatory for the private companies to recognize trade unions. Foxconn workers were forced to call off their two-month-long spirited strike, their demands unmet and 24 of their colleagues still suspended from job. Similar strikes were witnessed recently in a Chinese SEZ called Build Your Dream (BYD Co) in Sriperumbudur. On 21st October, 4000 permanent and contract workers of BYD Co went on strike. They were demanding 8-hour work shift, permanent employment, better amenities and right to associate. The same day BYD management and officials from the State Labour Department assured the striking workers that their demands will be ‘negotiated’. Workers resumed work the next day. But the management did not show any intention to fulfill its promise.

“Instead they abused and mentally tortured one of our workers named Prem. They accused him of organising the strike and trying to unionise. Prem felt so intimidated that he tried to commit suicide by consuming two bottles of Iso Propyl Alcohol. Another contract worker was also arbitrarily targeted and sacked by the management,” lamented Prema, a worker from BYD Co. Agitated BYD workers resumed their strike on 28th Oct and continued stay-in-strike (inside the factory) till 30th October. They were later forced to shift the strike outside the factory gates by the police. On 1st Nov’2010, the management stuck a ‘notice’ on the factory gates, suspending 437 workers. The notice further stated that the factory was “an SEZ” and “a Public Utility Facility under the SEZ Act”. Therefore under “section 22 of Industrial Disputes Act”, the ongoing strike by the workers was being declared “illegal”. It also made clear that during the lockout period workers will be treated in “no work no pay mode”. Unmindful of what the notice said, the workers, mostly young women in their 20s, continued to strike. But at the end of three weeks of strike, the workers were left with little choice but to go back to work.

Management has now issued them new IDs thus effectively obliterating their previous work records. Many of them hail from faraway districts, are first-generation literates and the only ones in their families with a steady income. “DMK government is compromising workers’ right in its greed to attract foreign investment. They are making the workers desperate. In the 70s’ Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi had declared that the government would crush the workers’ agitations with an iron hand. He is doing it again now”, recalled Soundarajan.In the past one year, Sriperumbudur, Orgadam, and Irrungattakottai have seen a number of labour strikes. In most cases, the demands have been more or less similar: better wages, better service conditions, safety and basic facilities at work place, and right to unionise. In June this year, workers of Hyundai Motor India went on a flash strike demanding that the management reinstate 67 of their co-workers who had been dismissed for demanding the recognition of trade union.

In a similar case, employees of Nokia India also resorted to strike early this year demanding wage revision. In August this year, 28, workers of Sanmina went on a 2-day strike for similar reasons but which was crushed by the police by threatening arrest if the workers persisted. As per state labour department’s policy note (Budget Performance 2010-‘11), between Jan’ 2009 and Mar’ 2010, the state had witnessed 72 strikes and lock outs, out of which 40% were related to wages.Tamil Nadu may eventually realise its dream of becoming an industrialised state, but not before thousands of young workers are consigned to a life of discontent, despair and disillusionment.