Tamil Nadu reported 486 COVID-19 deaths on May 28, the highest so far, pushing the state’s death toll to 22,775. Daily active cases are high even as fresh cases dropped after touching 36,184 on May 21. The state continues to report the highest number of fresh cases in the country.
The Tamil Nadu government has extended the strict lockdown for another week till June 7. Only industries that are considered essential are functioning.
The automobile industry is one among those granted the exemption to continue operations. NewsClick has earlier reported how these factories have become COVID-19 super-spreader hubs with thousands employed under a single roof. Workers’ unions have intensified their protests demanding to shut the factories and prioritise workers’ safety over profits.
AUTOMOBILE INDUSTRY, AN ESSENTIAL SERVICE?
The previous government had brought the automobile and component makers under the essential services category, even though these industries did not function during the March 2020 lockdown.
Kannan Soundararajan, state leader of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said, “It is shocking that the government is treating the automobile industry as an essential service.” He added “Whether it is DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or AIADMK (All India Annatra Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam)… they cannot consider it as an essential service. It is not milk, rice or pharmaceutical industry.”
Besides infecting the employees in the industry, the virus is also spreading to their families and in their neighbourhoods. So, CITU has demanded the government to shut down automobile factories during the lockdown with full salaries for the workers. “But the government, the management, and the Labour Department are not ready to adhere to the demand,” said Kannan.
“Government says the factories and buses transporting workers can run with 50% capacity and canteen space should be expanded, but these protocols are violated,” he added.
The trade union has also demanded Rs 1 crore compensation for families of the deceased due to COVID-19 and permanent employment for a family member.
Kannan further said, “Some industries have taken effort, especially the smaller ones. The large factories say they cannot function with fewer workers. We are demanding that at least the number of shifts per worker should be reduced. Workers are in a panic condition, they are under a lot of psychological distress.”
Even though some factories have stopped production or reduced their workers for a few days upon pressure from unions, what the coming weeks hold is unclear.
HYUNDAI BOWS UNDER PRESSURE
Workers of Hyundai went on strike on May 24 stating that the administration of the South Korean multinational automobile manufacturer was forcing them to work everyday without following pandemic protocols, even as the COVID-19 cases were soaring.
The Hyundai factory in Irungattukottai near Sriperumbudur employs more than 16,000 workers. A total of 750 reported COVID-19 positive during April and May, and seven of them have succumbed to the virus.
Caption: Hyundai workers protesting
“The government has allowed only 50% employee capacity, but Hyundai was running with 100% capacity,” said Dinakaran of Hyundai Employees Motors Union.
“Buses were transporting workers from four different districts to one workplace, this was spreading the virus across districts,” he said. The districts are Chennai, Sriperumbudur, Chengalpet and Tiruvallur.
“Even temporary canteens were not set up,” he added.
Talking about the medical costs, Gowri Shankar, a Hyundai employee, said, “Existing medical insurance is available for the regular employees. But for the others, even COVID-19 treatment costs are not covered by the company.” There are around 6,000 apprentices and trainees, 4,800 contract workers, 2,000 vendors and 1,000 others, and only 2,300 regulars.
Not only that, he also highlighted that the automobile giant is forcing them to work even in night shifts amid the raging pandemic, saying, “Immunity is very important in these times. So, we asked for night shifts to be scrapped. Neither has that demand been accepted.”
“The union had demanded an ambulance be available on-site in case of emergency, that demand was also not accepted,” added Dinakaran.
Since only 20% of employees are permanent in this Hyundai factory, keeping in view the pandemic, CITU is demanding permanent employment for the 80% who have no job security.
“Given that it is a continuous process industry, maintaining physical distance is not a possibility, the space between two workers depends on the space between two cars. The company is not reducing the jobs per hour (JPH) - the number of vehicles produced in a given time period - which is 55 cars per hour,” said Shankar.
Furthermore, Dinakaran said, “Even after two workers succumbed to COVID-19 last week, the management continued operations citing government permission. They even said action would be taken against those not showing up for work.” Following this the workers resorted to a strike.
On the evening of the day of strike, Hyundai Motor India released a statement announcing “temporarily suspention of the plant operations for a period of five days, starting May 25, 2021 until May 29, 2021.”
AS A LAST RESORT, RENAULT-NISSAN SHUTS FACTORY
The joint venture car manufacturing plant of French auto major Renault and Japan's Nissan Motor Company in Oragadam, near Chennai, employs more than 10,000 workers. Around 5,700 of them are regular and 4,000 are contract workers, and there are an additional 1,000 housekeepers, suppliers and staff. At any given time, around 5,000 workers are present in the factory.
Since last year about 850 employees have been infected by the virus and seven have died, as claimed by the employees.
Raja of CITU said, “In the first wave, efforts were taken by the management to contain the virus, but not now. Earlier, buses were properly sanitised. The primary contacts of infected workers were traced and isolated for seven days with salary. Even the workers whose wives are nurses were asked to remain at home to reduce infection spread.”
“In the canteen, the number of chairs were reduced to 50%, but the number of people accessing the place did not reduce, so it continued to be crowded,” he said.
Also see: Workers Protest as TN Automobile Companies Turn into COVID-19 Hubs
But, this time, he said, “The JPH has not changed, which means the factory is working in full capacity even in these dire times, and Renault-Nissan’s profits are intact.”
The court case at the Madras High Court, filed by Renault Nissan India Thozhilalar Sangam (RNITS) affiliated to the Left Trade Union Centre (LTUC), demands prioritising workers’ safety during the pandemic.
In response, Renault Nissan said that it has taken necessary precautions to safeguard employees. The company said it needs to keep the plant running, and is allowed to, under local laws. The court requested the Tamil Nadu government to supervise working conditions, but no such action has been taken so far, NewsClick has learnt.
After workers threatened to boycott work, and following Hyundai and few others, Renault Nissan decided to shut the factory from May 26 to 30.
FORD CONTINUES TO OPERATE PLANT
Around 250 employees of the American multinational automaker Ford factory in Singaperumalkoil in Chengalpet district have been infected by COVID-19, and two have succumbed to the virus. The plant employs around 6,000 workers – 2,750 regular and 600 trainees, others are staff, logistics and housekeeping employees.
The Chennai Ford Employees Union’s statement, released on May 26, has demanded the management to shut the plant during the lockdown and provide leave with full pay.
Caption: Lunch boycott at Ford
On May 27, the workers also held a lunch boycott reiterating their demands and paid respects to fellow workers who have died due to the virus.
An employee at Ford and CITU member, Selvaraj, said, “The proximity of the workers is different for different divisions. Those working on cars stand on opposite sides until they enter the car and work on the inner portions. We are given face masks and shields, but we sweat so much in this weather that it is difficult (to wear). Spread of the virus is inevitable.”
He added, “On the tables in the canteen, there are sheets placed in between, but that is not sufficient. No form of sanitising is done to control the infection. There is a constant flow of people, we use the tables and chairs one after the other.”
CITU is demanding Ford to tie up with some hospital for COVID-19 care. Existing medical insurance is available to regular employees, but there is no provision of COVID-19 treatment for others.
JK TYRES DOES NOT BUDGE AN INCH
The Indian tyre manufacturer, JK Tyres factory in Sriperumbudur, near Chennai employs more than 2,500 workers, and one shift houses 700 of them.
Talking about this, Karthi, general secretary of the CITU-affiliated JK Tyres Workers’ Union, told NewsClick, “Around 300 workers have left for their natives fearing the pandemic. Those not coming to work during the pandemic are given only 50% salary. Even treatment expenditure is not borne by the factory. Besides providing masks, nothing else is done.”
“Only half of the employees are permanent, and they are eligible for the Rs 50,000 medical insurance,” he added.
Over the past four days, workers have been on strike and union leaders are negotiating with the management. “The management is not budging, they are saying ‘come to work, we will see’,” said Karthi.
Also read: TN This Week: Hurried COVID-19 Regulations, Further Livelihood Distress and Shortage of Medicine