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Behind Spate of Protests by Auto Workers, a Struggling Industry and State Failure ‘On All Fronts’

A quick look at what is being demanded of the respective company managements reveal how pandemic-induced challenges continue to haunt the labouring population.

On Monday this week, nearly 1000 workers employed by Satyam Auto Components Private Limited went on strike against the firm's failure to revise wages. Courtesy - Special Arrangement

New Delhi: Like every other crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, which triggered an unprecedented countrywide lockdown less than a year ago, had a disproportionate impact on the vulnerable sections of the society. Those suffering still bear the ramifications of policies put in place by the Narendra Modi-led Central Government.

It is being clearly witnessed particularly in industrial belts around the national capital region in a hub that boasts of manufacturing units of several bigwigs from the automobile industry.

Industrial Model Townships (IMT), such as those in Haryana’s Manesar and Bawal, have recently reverberated with multiple protests by auto workers, mostly led by their union bodies.. A quick look at what they demand of respective company managements reveal how pandemic-induced challenges continue to haunt the labouring population, even more so as the automotive industry struggles to get up and running in a ‘post COVID-19’ economy.

Delay in Wage Revision, ‘Inhuman’ Work Conditions

On Monday, nearly a 1000 workers – permanent and casual – employed by Satyam Auto Components Private Limited, a Manesar-based auto-parts manufacturer, went on strike against the firm’s failure to revise their wages – a raise that was pending since July 2019. The total manpower strength in the company is over 1400, Newsclick was informed.

Done with submitting multiple memorandums to both the management and the district labour department officials over the period, the aggrieved employees decided to camp inside the company’s manufacturing facility this time to press for their demands, bringing production to a halt.

The strike action was deferred only after about 36 hours. It was done after a tripartite meeting between the management and the workers’ union in the presence of labour officers, with the former agreeing to conclude wage settlement talks before March 28, according to a written agreement signed by the three parties.

Manipal AG of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) – a constituent of the local Trade Union Council (TUC) – said: “There are many such cases in the industrial area where where workers are facing a delay in the revision of their wages.”

He cited examples of major auto part manufacturers in Manesar, including AG Industries Private Limited and HI-LEX India Private Limited, among others. “There are around 125 permanent workers in AG… over 450 permanent workers in HI-LEX,” Manipal said, alleging that wage revisions have been pending since November and July last year in the respective companies. Newsclick couldn’t independently verify his allegation.

Likewise, Friday, March 5, also marked the 18th day of the protest staged by women workers against the Bawal management of Keihin Fie Private Limited, the Indian subsidiary of a Japan-based auto-part manufacturer. Unlike the Satyam employees, these permanent workers continue to abstain from work while camping round-the-clock outside the company’s gates. They have been protesting against the suspension of their “committee members” who demanded the early settlement of their wage pact which has been pending since May last year.

“Usually, the settlement (typically for a period of three years) is reached (between the management and the union) after a delay of only few months but not this time. Audyogik shetron mein corona mahamaari ka sabse bura asar iss waqt mazdooron par dikh raha hai (In industrial towns it is the workers who are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus crisis),” Manipal lamented.

The observation is not entirely unfounded. Along with demanding early wage settlement, both the protesting groups – Satyam and Keihin Fie employees – registered their protest against alleged “inhuman” work conditions marked by work pressure with no sufficient rest periods.

Said Umed Singh, general secretary, Satyam Employees’ Union: “After the lockdown, the routine of the workers was disturbed as work pressure increased. It was even worse for the contract (casual) employees since, in the name of cost cutting, the management withdrew their bus services and also their bonuses.”

While a company representative of Satyam Pvt. Ltd. was unavailable for a comment, an officer of Keihin Fie did confess to Newsclick earlier that the company is unable to accept the demands of its protesting women due to “corona impact” - a reference to the pandemic-induced economic distress.

Anant Vats of the Automobile Industry Contract Workers Union (AICWU), another Manesar-based workers’ union, confirmed that the management’s pressure on the permanent employees’ union also has an unintended effect on the contract staff. “The permanent employees’ unions in the companies now fail to take up any of the demands concerning the contract workforce,” he told Newsclick. The latter is largely not unionised, thanks to their non-permanent work status.

Transitional Conflicts’ Between Management and Union

K. R. Shyam Sundar, professor and a labour economist at XLRI Jamshedpur, termed the recent spate of protests by the auto workers a “transitional conflict”, occurring at a period when the “economy is rebooting and trying hard even to register a very marginal growth.” He cited the February data released by the analytics firm IHS Markit, which showed the nation’s manufacturing activity had eased a little in the said month, even as an expansion in growth was recorded.

“In such times, when the industries are still struggling, it is only obvious that the wage revisions are delayed and certain workers’ privileges are withdrawn by the company managements; while unions can not be faulted for protesting against both,” he added. “This is more true for the auto companies because the recovery process in the sector is not easy as consumer demand may take time to pick up,” he said, further pointing to the fact that the auto industry was marred with an economic slowdown even before the pandemic hit.

According to Sundar a “direct intervention policy” by the government in such times could have solved the issues at hand. A wage subsidy to ease the burden on the companies while a universal basic income for the workers is what he said was appropriate as policy.

“However, nothing of that sort is happening. As a result, it won’t be wrong to say that the state has actually failed to energise the industrial sector on all fronts,” Sundar rued.

Meanwhile, it is only becoming harder for millions like Mithun Kumar to keep up in such a work environment. A 26-year old contract worker in Satyam Pvt. Ltd., Kumar lamented how earning a living has now become more difficult.

“I travel 12 kms to reach the factory; the company no longer provides bus services to its contract staff. After the lockdown ended the management even raised rates in the factory canteen which further increased my expenses,” he told Newsclick on Tuesday.

Sitting outside the company gate, where a workers’ strike was ongoing, he added: “Ab kya hi karein. Kaam toh chod nahi sakte (What can be done about it? We can’t leave work).”

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