The return of labour unrest

Categories: Economy/Labor

TNN Jul 26, 2010, 12.09am EST
Globalisation and the allure of cheap labour have led many an MNC to set up their manufacturing units in India. These companies represent the best brands of the world, where landing a job means a jump in social status, hefty pay packages and a promise of a better life. Yet, of late, the Indian workforce seems to be on the warpath against some of these very organisations.

While strikes and protests are common global phenomena, in India, these have been under the media glare over the last one year primarily because of the names involved — Hyundai, Honda, Nokia, Bosch, Pricol to name a few – most of which represent the best across industries. Though Indian companies are often the target of random strikes, it’s the multinationals which get attention because of their profile — the strike at Hyundai’s Tamil Nadu factory, earlier in June 2010, being a case in point.

The surge in trade activism in certain pockets comes at a time when strikes have actually been on the decline in the country with less number of workers getting affected. From a whopping 4.5 lakh workers affected due to strikes and lockouts in 2008, the number came down to a mere 90,000 in 2010 so far. While this can be seen as a reflection of increasing employee satisfaction, a section of employees, who feels short-changed, can still trigger a strike or create trouble for the employer.

That’s not all. According to data available with the ministry of labour, so far 2010 has been a comparatively quieter year with 41 strikes and just 15 lockouts. In comparison, 2008 saw 109 strikes and 148 lockouts. In 2009, it had gone down to 62 strikes although the number of lockouts stood at 172.

Despite the fall in number of strikes, the bad blood between managements and unions is palpable. “If an employee, who gets one of the best salaries in the country, is going out there, risking his job and huge pay to strike work, something must be definitely wrong. Isn’t it?” asks A Soundararanjan, Tamil Nadu’s state general secretary of Marxist trade union Citu.

Patience no longer seems to be a virtue. A routine change of shift of an employee leads to protests, which gives the trigger-happy management an opportunity to ‘discipline’ workers and suspend them en masse. The result: Prolonged shutdown or lockout or if things get out of hand, bloody violence and even deaths.

Earlier in 2005, protesting workers of Honda Motorcycle plant at Manesar in Haryana were brutally beaten up by the police. They were demanding reinstatement of their colleagues dismissed for forming a trade union.

Later, in September 2008, a group of dismissed employees lynched L K Chaudhury, the chief executive of Oerlikon-Graziano Transmissions India, the Indian subsidiary of an Italy-based company in Udyog Vihar of Greater Noida. Exactly a year later, striking workers of Pricol, a Coimbatore-based automobile instruments maker, allegedly attacked and killed the HR vice-president Roy J George.

In March this year, workers of another auto component maker, Bosch, physically intimidated and threatened their managers and officials, leading to a lockout. In some cases, these issues have dragged on. For instance, take Hyundai Motor India. Employee relations at Hyundai—Tamil Nadu’s biggest investor—have been under the weather for the last two years. The company saw four sit-in strikes in the last one year, and the state labour department had to intervene on all occasions. The bone of contention was the Hyundai bosses “unbending stand” against trade unions. Instead, the company recognises ‘works committee’. Though the ‘works committee’ is also an elected body, the ‘rebel’ union wants the committee disbanded, and recognition for the rebel union.

Similarly, Finnish cellphone maker Nokia has also faced the heat. Last year, the company suspended 60 workers for “indiscipline”, leading to a strike and disruption of work for more than two days. A couple of weeks ago, employees once again went on a flash strike following a meeting of the employees’ union and the management to fix long-term wages.

Trade union activists say the increasing number of contractual workers being drafted in by the managements and the issue of recognition of trade unions is a major reason for these protests.

“A union can stand up for the employees’ rights with the management. Also, with companies now employing more people on contract, permanent employees are feeling the jitters who feel they will lose their livelihood. Their job security is under threat,” says a trade union leader.

According to the law, companies, apart from those in Maharashtra and West Bengal, are not legally bound to recognise workers’ unions. The Tamil Nadu government is considering introducing a piece of legislation making it mandatory for companies to allow trade unions.

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