Punishment for striking? Skilled workers in Chennai restricted to menial tasks by automobile company

By Sruthin Lal, Student, Asian College of Journalism

(This story appeared earlier in The NewsMinute)

Evading the CCTV camera that keeps him under constant surveillance, Ramana* moves out of the small room where seven men sit with typewriters on the bare floor. He, like all the other men except the security guard outside, is dressed in a sky blue shirt and navy blue trousers – the uniform which is a reminder of the kind of work he used to do as a skilled production operator. For the last three years, Ramana* has been allegedly denied of doing what he was trained to do.

They used to sit idle in the room for the first three months. Now they have a new job – typing random text spread over three shifts: 7.15 am to 3.15 pm, 3.15 pm to 11.15 pm and 11.15 pm to 7.15 am.

But they are paid their wages, for doing essentially nothing for the company. Why?

“The management has many things in its mind. It is forcing us to quit and trying to create fear in the minds of employees,” Ramana* says.

His company, Comstar Automotive Technologies – a major supplier of starter motors and alternators to international automobile companies like Ford, Volvo, and Jaguar – has grouped him and 34 other fellow employees into a designation called Special Service Team (SST). These employees claim that since November 2014, they have been herded into small rooms away from the production unit at Maraimalai Nagar, around 40km from Chennai.

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The workers have been subjected to what human rights experts like Ramesh Gopalakrishnan, a former researcher at Amnesty International, term as “cruel inhuman and degrading behaviour”, as they are being denied of their “right to do productive work” .

“It is a violation of the guarantees of the Indian constitution and international human rights principles,” Gopalakrishnan tells this reporter.

The SST was formed in September 2011 after the workers went on a 56-day-long strike at the unit, to demand recognition of their union, Comstar Automotive Technologies Employees’ Union (CATEU), and for a favourable three-year wage accord. To this day the union is unrecognised.

The compromise, which was reached after the strike with the involvement of the Labour Department, made it clear that no retaliatory action would be taken against the workers. However, the company handpicked some of the union members and formed the SST.

“There was no documentation or job description for the work we were required to do. So we said we cannot do the work,” says *Magendiran, an SST worker.

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The employees further allege that those who resisted were suspended, and were reinstated only when they agreed to be part of the group.

They were kept out of the production line and made to do other jobs like maintenance of machines and removal of trash. Later they were just made to sit outside the factory building, where an employee was once bitten by a snake.

After he was taken to the hospital, the workers in the plant held a protest.

“Our union leader tried to pacify them and told them to go back to work. But everyone came out. They were angry,” *Ramana says. “After this, the company told us not to come to the factory but to stay at home till some arrangement could be made for our new workplace.”

From June 2012, the workers stayed home “on duty” and the salaries were deposited in their banks for about one and a half years.

“They hoped that we might quit. But none of us did,” says *Moorthy, another SST employee.

NewsMinuteOne worker even began a second job with the railways and two to three others started business like running a taxi and running a sweet shop near their homes. “What do you expect from workers who are made to do nothing for this long time, even though they were given a salary?” Jose* says.

In January 2014, they were instructed to come to the factory and sign the attendance register every day, which continued till November.

The management by then devised the new strategy, of making them work in small dilapidated rooms in Maraimalainagar, Thiruvanmiyur and Tiruvallur and frequently transferring them.

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“It is mentally very disturbing. Since I have day shift, I come here every morning at 7.15 and leave at 4.45 in the evening, travelling at least 50-60 km to do nothing. They watch us with these cameras so that we do not move around,” Jose says.

He adds: “We are not given water, transport, food or any other facilities that other employees are getting. They have so grouped us that we have to travel the maximum distance to reach these places.”

These men, skilled workers with 10 to 15 years of experience on the production line, have ample product and process knowledge in making spare parts for cars. Ramana says before the SST he used to receive rewards for fixing technical issues in the machines.

Now, labourers are being put to work instead in the production line as “boat employees” for less than a year and are paid less than one third of the skilled workers’ salaries, according to them.

The ostensible purpose of the SST is training of the employees and development of their skills, according to a notice inside the room. But the workers say none of that is happening.

Raj* says: “I don’t know how to type. I have learned and done one thing. And that is the job in the production line in the factory. So I said no to this this stupid new method of harassment.”

Now, failing to achieve the target of “typing 10 pages a day” would be treated as “neglect of work and serious misconduct” that would lead to “proper disciplinary action” and loss of work incentives, as per a company notice.

The workers, who don’t have desks, do not type out any company-related document. One of them shows a paper that he has typed: The page was filled with rows of the following text: “asdf asdf asdf..”

Raj* says that the formation of the SST should be viewed in the context of the whole change in the management culture.

The company was initially a subsidiary of Ford. The ownership changed to Indian hands, to the Chandaria family, in 2007, and the CEO also changed. According to the employees, things started changing with the new management taking over.

Ramana says: “The very purpose of the SST is that whoever questions such actions can be threatened, moved to the team and made silent. It’s not just about us,.”

There were only 30 employees in the SST in 2011, when it was formed, and the other five were added later, the workers say.

Despite, what they call, these “tortures” the employees are reluctant to quit. Most of them are more than 35 years old, and have families to support. So the chances of them getting hired elsewhere at this age are slim. They also fear their participation in the strike would be considered a black mark when they apply for other companies.

“For us the jobs are important. If we approach the Labour department they would go for mediation, where the only proposal from the management would be the employees’ leaving the job, through VRS, which they would make us accept ultimately, ” Raj* adds.

Drawing public attention to the issue is out of the question. One employee posted pictures of the SST employees on Facebook. But he was issued a defamation notice by the management for “tarnishing” its “image in the business circles” and suspended for more than a month.

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To challenge the actions of the management the employees have to approach the labour department first and only a reference from there would allow them to go to the courts.

When Assistant Labour Secretary was contacted he told TNM that he had not received any complaint and that he could not respond unless he got one.

Despite repeated attempts by the reporter and a visit to the company, the HR wing of Comstar did not respond to any requests for an interview.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the employees. All pictures by Sruthin Lal.

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