Balaji was considered to be one of conscientious worker of the company so much so that he was on his way to become a permanent worker after 6 years of service. But when management decided that his labour power was not generating enough profit, he was apparently told to ‘Go and die somewhere’ an advice he chose to follow and attempted to commit suicide at worksite of YSI Automative Parts in Singadivakkam near Sriperumbudur. YSI is an indirect auto parts supplier to Hyundai.
As Rajasthan Government aggressively pushes for ‘labour reforms’ meaning flexible hiring and firing policy, what is not being said aloud is that over 90% of today’s labour force is already fired at will with no protection from laws. At YSI, there are 36 permanent workers while the contract workers are 200+ and trainees are around 15 which means close to 85% of the workers work in precarious conditions. Nationally, over 93% of the workers are informal workers either working in informal sectors or as contract workers/trainees in formal sectors. Mere 7% of the existing work force(which includes 3.5% public sector work force) is ‘permanently’ employed and protected by the labour laws including Industrial Disputes Act and Factories Act.
Balaji, an ITI educated in welding, joined YSI as a contract worker himself. For over 3 years he worked as a contract worker, when management offered to make him permanent worker – by ‘promoting’ him as a trainee while doing the same work that he was doing for 3 years as a contract worker. It needed another 3 years of training of before this ITI trained worker could be considered as a permanent worker. If there was to be a silver lining at the end of patient 6 years for Balaji, it quite did not work that way. The management strangely fell silent on the employment status of Balaji and few other coworkers who were eligible for promotion.
As status of their job title was hanging in limbo for over 6 months, things took bizarre turn when Balaji and another co-worker’s access card to the factory did not work, declining access to the factory . On approaching the management, they were told to sign an attendance register and this state of affairs continued for another month. With no salary provided after month of work, Balaji was summoned by HR and was told that his position was terminated immediately on May 8th and he was asked to come on May 12th for his final settlement. Balaji pleaded with HR saying that he had family obligation(he was a newly married with a young child) allegedly prompting HR officer to state ‘Go and die somewhere’.
A distraught Balaji attempted to commit suicide by drinking (paint) thinner at the worksite itself. He was rushed to Madurai Meenakshi Hospital in Kanchipuram who refused to treat him without an FIR filed on the incident as warranted by the law. The management immediately shifted Balaji to Jaya Hospital who not only treated the worker without an incident reporting but also is said to have provided a certificate to the management stating that this was not a suicide attempt. The logic behind the diagnosis was that the thinner was not swallowed completely and did not go beyond the throat which seemed to have proved that this was a drama foisted by the worker and hence was not a suicide attempt!.
As management took over all the case notes related to Balaji’s treatment and refused to pay for any further treatment, the worker’s family had to pay for the continous treatment for Balaji. The following morning, Balaji’s father gave a complaint to the local police station which was converted to an FIR only after repeated insistence by the family and a direct appeal by Balaji inspite of his health. No action has been taken against the FIR so far.
Meanwhile, the management has suspended few workers who protested against the HR after Balaji’s attempted suicide and an FIR was filed by the management against 6 of the workers.
After intervention by local labour department, suspension of all all workers except the six workers charged in the FIR have been revoked. The fate of Balaji and the suspended workers are still hanging as they pursue a case against the management in the labour court under Industrial Disputes Act.
Balaji’s case is not an isolated event in the ‘inflexible’ hiring and firing policy that is considered archaic by business community and pro business government. In the previous economic downturn, Hyundai terminated more than 1200 trainees in 2008. As Nokia is embroiled in the court on the tax dispute, contract workers and trainees were let go as early as January of this year. As Nokia looked to downsize further, no law, archaic or otherwise, stopped it from offering ‘VRS’ voluntary retierment scheme to the workers with an immediate 80% reduction in its workforce. Permanent workers in Hyundai, Foxconn, Nokia Siemens Network in Sriperumbudur have been suspended and are fighting their case in the labour court for over more than 3 years under the Industrial Disputes Act. Meanwhile, if Rajasthan Government has its way, even this small legal option will not be available for the workers as they are yet another commodity in the process of capitalist production.