The Indian auto industry is in doldrums right now. Job cuts, production halts and shutdown of factories are among the much reported reasons behind the woes of tens of thousands of workers. It is the worst of times for the Indian economy and there’s no recovery in sight. However, an auto component plant in Tamil Nadu’s Kanchipuram district seems to stand above the crowd, unaffected by the current slowdown. Reportedly, the plant is on a recruitment drive despite the slump in sales.
The name of the company is Motherson Automotive Technologies & Engineering (MATE) – one of the largest auto component manufacturers in India– and the drive to employ came only as retaliation, in an attempt to replace the protesting workers, against the unionisation of workers in the factory.
August 29 marked the fourth day of the strike of well over 400 permanent workers of Motherson’s factory who have been demanding the company’s administration to recognise their newly formed union, namely, Chengai Anna Mavatta Jana Nayaga Thozhilalar Sangam.
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The All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU)-affiliated union was formed on July 28 this year to initiate dialogue on worker’s grievances with the Motherson management. The management, however, on July 30 denied access to the workers who joined the unions and were asked to sign a statement saying they won’t unionise before marking their presence on the muster roll.
The permanent workers, in retaliation, staged a 2-day sit in protest and sought intervention of the local labour department after which the management was advised not to interfere with the workings of the union.
Sadly, while the workers showcased their strength by registering a victory, the labour department’s oral instructions didn’t stop the Motherson management from targeting individuals. The human resource (HR) officials refused to engage in a dialogue with the representatives of the union and in the meantime, the workers’ parents, especially that of women workers, were approached by the same officials to persuade them not to let their children join the union – a move many workers believed as an attack on their personal spaces and on their political rights.
Finally, the workers served a strike notice demanding the management to recognise the union and put an end to the regular witch-hunting against union members.
Management is Using Job Crisis as Whip to Tame Permanent Workers
Be it slumping sales, exorbitant GST rates or cash crunch, the effects of the current auto industry downturn for the companies can be assessed in numerous figures and analysis reports. However, the slowdown has affected the workers much more than that.
Take the example of Motherson itself, where the management is using the prevalent job crisis as a whip to tame the permanent workers to not form unions – an attempt to instil fear of losing a source of income among the workers, which according to Rajaguru, state council member of AICCTU, is the only source for most of them.
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Now, given that all the permanent workers have united under the banner of their union and are observing a strike, the management is striking back by employing workers on contractual basis.
“The management is now bringing workers from states like Odisha, Assam, Andhra Pradesh,” Rajaguru told NewsClick, “who often belong to economically weaker backgrounds. They are employing them in order to meet the production targets.”
With no residence being provided to them, the lives of these contractual workers are restricted within the factory site. “As a result of which, they even sleep and eat here,” Rajaguru added.
It is the economic insecurities of the contractual workers that have allowed them not to take part in union activities and comply with the whims and fancies of the officials that have now further prompted the Motherson’s administration to increase their contractual staff. Thanks to the auto industry slowdown, the move has also proved to bring financial benefits to the management which has also seen a dip in its profits.
Exploitation of All Workers
The Motherson’s plant, also known as MATE Unit 3, boasts of specialising in manufacturing molded components for automobile industry. Along with a permanent staff of around 400, the company has employed 500 contract workers and a few hundreds of trainees under the National Employability Enhancement Scheme, an initiative jointly taken by All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and Government of India.
According to Rajaguru, the differences is only between the terms of employment of the workers, which only remain on paper, while all of them are being equally exploited.
At first, according to him, the wages are very low even for a permanent employee. Even after years of experience, a worker in MATE Unit 3 only manages to earn a mere ₹ 10,000 with no payment for overtime work beyond eight hours. The workers are denied a proper meal with no canteen available for the night shift workers.
The conditions of women workers are even worse. In addition to the exploitation faced by them as a worker, basic infrastructure is not available for them at the site. With no separate restroom available for women at the site and no sexual harassment committee in place, a woman worker is doubly exploited – first because of her class position and then on the basis of her gender. What’s more, the workers are even deprived of any dignity and respect at the workplace with the management representatives using derogatory language against them, whenever any worker raises his/her voice against the management’s exploitative nature.
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With the current strike of permanent workers being observed at the same time as a recession in the Indian economy, a tussle has emerged, leaving fewer choices for the Motherson’s worker, which translates to either safeguard their political rights or the means of their livelihood.