The industrial hub in Tamil Nadu has been trying to go back to the days of maximum production even as the state continues to record exponential rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, almost every other day. If May 31 recorded a whopping 1,149 cases, the first instance of more than 1,000 cases per day, June 1 accounted for 1,162 cases. With the state almost out of lockdown, except for Chennai and the neighbouring districts, the workers are staring at a twin attack.
The fear of SARS-CoV-2 infection and the pressure to attend work without a proper transport facility are severely affecting the workers. The trade unions have demanded the district administration and labour department to quickly intervene and ensure proper safety measures.
Meanwhile, the Hyundai Motors India Limited (HMIL) and Nokia Solutions and Networks (NSN) have officially announced that their workers are infected by COVID-19, though the numbers differ. Around 42 workers of the NSN and 28 workers of HMIL have tested positive till June 1, while the companies claimed a much lower number. The NSN was closed down following the results of the workers, while HMIL closed down a unit for two days for disinfection.
S Kannan, deputy general secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Tamil Nadu said, “The companies have failed to ensure the safety of the workers during the pandemic, resulting in so many workers getting affected. There is no dispute over the restarting of production, but without necessary preventive measures, the companies are putting the workers under threat.”
In HMIL, officials, workers and trainees are affected, but the company has refused to test the co-workers. But, the lethargic attitude of the management has resulted in many other workers contracting the infection. “The CITU took up the issue and demanded preventive measures through representations on May 21 itself. The management showed no urgency over the issue which has resulted in more contractions,” added Kannan.
“The management has taken a few steps after the trade union sought the attention of the district collector, but a lot more remains to be done,” he further said. The difficulties faced by workers from the containment zone and regulations in the factory premises are yet to be addressed by the management.
“The management refused to talk with the Labour Department on the issues to be addressed immediately. We have demanded that the workers from the containment zone should not be compelled to work and the manufacturing should be carried out under a regulated environment. Their focus remains only on manufacturing and profit, without considering the apprehensions of the workers,” Kannan added.
The trade union has accused the company of violating the standard operating procedure. The higher number of infection in less than three weeks of beginning operations justify the claims of the union. The HMlL has started to function in two shifts as a measure to reduce the strength of workers. But, the workers are still unaware of who has to attend work on which shift.
A worker of the plant said, “The company has not informed the details of duty to the workers, which has created confusion. The workers from containment zones cannot attend work as well, for whom the management has decided to deduct leaves.”
Even as the workers are forced to attend work to restore the normal production levels, certain companies are resorting to wage cuts. The workers, who are unable to return to work due to the absence of public transport are the most affected.
“Companies like Asahi glass, JK tyres have deducted the wages for the workers. As the lockdown was extended at different times, the workers left for their hometowns. Now, they are afraid of returning back as the number of cases continue to spike in Chennai and surrounding districts. As far as the wage cuts are concerned, we have raised the issue with the labour welfare department,” said Kannan.
The fear of the pandemic, wage cuts and threat looming large over their job security are haunting the workers. The advisory of the union labour department to the companies to stay away from wage cuts and terminations have made little impact.