Around 3,000 women workers of Bharat FIH, a subsidiary of FIH Mobile and Foxconn Technology Group, blocked the Chennai-Bengaluru highway for more than 8 hours from midnight of December 17 in Sriperumbudur.
The protest erupted after the health conditions of 159 workers were unknown who fell due to food poisoning on December 15. Despite seeking clarity on their colleagues’ health conditions, the workers were not appraised by the authorities, including the principal employer, contractors, health and labour department officials.
With uncertainty continuing for more than two days, rumours started spreading about the death of two workers, and the workers resorted to the road blockade. The officials, including the minister for labour welfare and district collector of Thiruvallur, arrived by noon on December 18 to hold talks.
The protests were withdrawn later after the district administration released details of the hospitalisation of workers, but the pathetic working conditions, exploitation and massive contractualisation came to light.
Twenty-two activists, including leaders of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), were put behind bars for extending support to the workers and visiting them. The CITU leaders have been granted bail and are expected to be released on December 23.
The trade union activists cite the policies of the union government, under cover of attracting investments and ease of doing business, paving the way for gross violation of existing laws and massive exploitation.
‘DETAILS OF TREATMENT NOT SHARED’
The electronic manufacturing giant, trading as Hon Hai Precision Industry Company limited and named Bharat FIH, has been operating from Puthuchathiram village in Tiruvallur district in the outskirts of Chennai since 2016. The company manufactures mobile phones for the Indian and international markets, including iPhones.
The workers, a majority being young women, hit the roads late on December 17, after rumours of the death of two workers were shared among them. The traffic in the busy Chennai- #Bengaluru came to a halt as soon as the workers sat in protest. The company reportedly employs around 6,000 to 7,000 workers through seven contractors or manpower agencies at Rs 12,000/month.
Workers blocked traffic from the midnight of December 17
"We complained of vomiting and dysentery on December 15 after consuming food from the canteen in the International Maritime Academy (IMA) hostel. None of the wardens or the contractors paid attention, after which many fell seriously ill," a worker said. A total of 159 workers were taken to hospitals, but their conditions were not informed to the hostel inmates, leading to suspicion.
"The wardens informed us that the workers have left the hospital without their knowledge and hence they are not responsible for the workers' health. Instead of giving details, they accused us of unhygienic practices for the issue. When we did not get any information about their health, we decided to protest," the worker explained.
The workers also accused the police officials of hurling abuses towards them for holding the protest. The protest did not see the light for several hours, but the social media talked about the protests while the mainstream media took its own time to cover them.
Sixty-seven workers and activists were detained by Tamil Nadu police during the protest and were held captive for more than 24 hours. The workers and trade union leaders alleged that the political clout of the contractors was the reason for police action.
AUTHORITIES ACTED LATE
The delay in communicating the health conditions by the concerned authorities led to the mayhem. S Kannan, deputy general secretary of the CITU, contacted the health officials who orally conveyed the condition of the workers.
"But, how will the thousands of workers come to know the actual situation? The employer, contractors, officials from the health and labour department and the district administration failed to act swiftly," he said.
Thiruvallur district collector then published the hospitalisation details of the workers. The statement said, "155 workers were discharged on December 18, and the other four being treated are out of danger."
Press release of District Collector, Thiruvallur
"The district authorities and company officials made us believe that everyone has been sent home after treatment. While making a video call with a worker, she exposed that she had been threatened to speak like that. Only after we refused to budge, the press statement came," a worker said.
Another worker said, "The statement conceded that four workers were out of danger, which implied they were seriously ill and the parents were not informed. All the concerned authorities suppressed the facts."
ACCOMMODATED IN PRIVATE HOSTELS
The affected workers were accommodated in the hostel of International Maritime Academy, a private institution in the district. The contractors are appointing workers with the promise of arranging accommodation and food at the expense of the company.
Durga Devi, a former worker, alleged overcrowding in the hostel rooms and insufficient food.
"I was working with the company till the day before Diwali. In a small room, 15 of us were made to stay. The food has always been poor, but our complaints were never listened to," she said.
The said hostel has been hired by a contractor since the college was not operating the hostel citing the pandemic.
"The employers use this another technique to loot the workers. The workers are paid wages after the cost of this is being deducted. The workers are kept under control in such hostels. Usually, the employers obtain permission for a hostel to accommodate 50 and admit 500," Kannan said.
The company is reportedly utilising the services of seven contractors or manpower agencies, each of which employs 1,000 workers.
'FOXCONN- A REPEAT OFFENDER'
The trade union activists claim that the company does not employ permanent workers though the works are permanent. Also, the workers are shuffled from one contractor to the other every year to ensure they don't stake a claim for permanent jobs.
"Both the company and the contractors amass huge profits through massive contractualisation of works. By not providing permanent jobs, the company increases its profits, and the contractors benefit by appointing workers for low wages after getting a considerable amount from the company," Kannan said.
Being in the news for exploiting its workforce is not new for Foxconn. Workers in a Foxconn factory in China have died by suicide owing to work pressure and stress.
"In 2010, around 200 workers were affected by the poisonous gas leak and workers under CITU protested for 58 days. After Nokia announced its exit, Foxconn shut down its operation in 2014. They promised to re-employ the 2,000 workers but changed their name in 2016 and recruited new workers," Kannan said.
The company was operating as Rising Stars Mobile India during this period.
"The labour policies have worsened since 2014 after the BJP government came to power. The government itself is laying the platform for looting by the private players by implementing fixed-term employment and NEEM. The companies are now legally exploiting the workers," Kannan said.
Foxconn is one of the companies approved by the government of India to receive the performance-linked incentive (PLI) for manufacturing products. "This again is a bonus for the companies which loot the workers. The worsening labour policy changes are a bane to the working class in India," Kannan added.
The actions of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led (DMK) state government in handling the protests have drawn flak. Though the minister for labour welfare visited the protest site and the hospital, he did not disclose the details to the protestors.
"The police arrested 22 activists, including CITU leaders from Thiruvallur and Kanchipuram. The state government is also trying to suppress the workers' protest," Kannan accused.
NewsClick could not contact Foxconn for their comments due to the unavailability of contact details since the website was inaccessible.