One for All … All for One: Workers Join hands in Comradery – Part I

Often, we are fed a narrative by the corporate media that presents workers unions as an external interference on an otherwise healthy relationship between industry management and shop floor workers. But the grounded experience always suggests that workers unions emerge organically as an act to safeguard their wage, health and dignity. Here we present yet another case study from the shop floors of Renualt Nissan Automotive India Pvt Ltd, Chennai.

Birth Pangs

In 2006, the Government of Tamilnadu, welcoming Renault Nissan (RN) to India, decides to grant them over 400 hectares of agricultural lands in Sriperumbudur Taluk, close to Chennai. Over the past decade of liberalization, this region had emerged as an Automotive Hub of India. While it was touted as yet another success for TamilNadu, the costs were to be borne by the petty peasants and agricultural workers. Among the 500 families that lost their means of livelihood, there were 13 dalit families who had obtained right to 37 acres of land under the famed Bhoodan Movement in 1955. For over 50 years they had been trying to secure a de-jure right over this land by seeking ‘pattas’. With the land acquisition G.O of 2006, their last hope for a life with self respect, was once again under threat. The dalits along with other peasants resisted this move and challenged this order. But they realized to their dismay that the very system that had delayed their rights for 50 years could be swift enough. In 2008, the High Court of Madras, dismissed their case, allowing SIPCOT to acquire and allocate the land to the Multi National Company, and asked them to seek compensation though civil court. Thus the peasants were dispossessed, once again being forced to eke out a living as casual labourers. (Click here for a detailed article on this)

Even as the struggle to acquire land was in progress, the Global recession was causing others to make entirely different choices. Hyundai Motors, the star of Tamil Nadu’s industrialization story, was planning to cut costs. Where could the proverbial ax fall if not on the necks of the most vulnerable sections of the workers! Thus, in the very year that the High Court was granting permission to another RN to set up factory, Hyundai decided not to confirm employment to 1500 of its trainees. They were sent out on an ‘temporary’ lay off with two months pay. After putting in as many as three years through apprentice and training, after toiling at low wages without perks, the trainees found themselves without work at the very time they thought they would get secure jobs and decent wages with which to raise families. They too stood dispossessed.

Speaking to TK, one of the workers who later joined RN said that many went back to their native places deciding to make a living in petty business, some stayed back trying their luck in the city. A few lost their way, took to alcohol and destroyed their lives. “It was hard to find work, it paid far less than our work at Hyundai, I worked for even Rs 3000/- for sometime. All I wanted to do then was to stay in the city and find a decent job”. After two years of job hopping, he got an entry into RN as a trainee. It paid about Rs 3000/- but because he had previous experience, he was fortunate to enter at a higher grade.

Labouring to Grow

RN set up the factory in 2009 and began recruiting in fairly high numbers. This factory was to manufacture cars for its two distinct parent companies, Renault and Nissan. It would manufacture and/or assemble a variety of models and brands and serve both the export market as well as the domestic market. Not only would it set its shop on the sprawling 800 acre land in oragadam, it would also help many of its over 100 suppliers to set up their plants inside the premises. The production began in 2010 on a single assembly line.

In 2010, the workers were divided into Trainees and Technicians. There were three grade of trainees, two grades of technicians and 2 more grades of senior technicians. The salaries ranged from Rs 3000/- for Basic trainee to upto Rs 8000/- for a senior technicians. Apart from this RN also let in young workers with mere 12th std certificate as ‘Learners’. They were not formally employed and were given about Rs 2000/- . Very soon, with a burgeoning auto market in India and Asia, RN began to ramp up it’s operations. They not only increased the assembly lines but also began to increase pace on the lines to cater to the demand without having to increase labour and capital. Today over 3500 workers including 1000 trainees work on the assembly lines, often supported by 1700 supervisory staff and 1200 apprentice. They churn out a car at an average rate of 35 per hour.

This was a new start for many workers. Many from Hyundai, who like our worker, had been laid off, gravitated to this new factory, so did some who had lost their lands to the company (they were hired in housekeeping and other contract jobs). Whatever their loss in the past, there was promise in the future. “We trusted the company, they did say many things to mean that we were a family and we did buy into that. They said the low wage was because of the initial low demand and as production ramped up, we would make gains in our wage. It made sense. We went to work with zest. We were young, energetic and ready to toil”

Seeds of conflict

Within the production processes of profit making institutions lie the seeds of contradiction and conflict. The fundamental contradiction between the need of capital to cut costs to remain competitive and the need of workers to increase their standard of life will inexorably lead to a conflict. It may remain dormant for years, then masked through innovative managerial strategies, but sooner than later, it will boil over.

Like most of the modern production systems, RN too has a long chain assembly line that forced humans to match the speed and persistence of the machines. While the cycle times and general conditions of work are better than the mega factories in Delhi region, here too the workers are subject to hazardous conditions, degrading monotony of the rhythm, insufficient time for lunch and tea breaks, occupational health hazards, lack of adequate workers on the line and the continuous pressure of team leads and supervisors to finish a taxing quota.

we have adequate safety gear, depending upon the nature of our task. We have aprons or overalls, we have helmets and safety shoes that are mandatory. Ear plugs, face masks and goggles are also provided depending on the work. Temperatures can raise really high on the shop floor, ventilation is not always good and there is also very high decibel noise” said a workers who works at the body shop as a welder. In spite of these safety equipment, there are frequent injuries. “most of them don’t get reported, it shows poorly on the TL and supervisor, so they don’t record it, they provide first aid and if it is more serious they send them home on private cab citing sickness” he said. Another worker narrated the story of how they had to fight to get aprons rather than the overall coats. “the coats are reusable and washable. So the company prefers to provide us with the coats. But they don’t wash it as often and it is not provided to each member separately. The coats are available at the shop floor and we have to take them. Very often we have to use others coats with their sweat, smell and body salts on the coat. We did not like it as it was not hygienic. We demanded that they wash the coats more regularly and issue one for each worker. But this they said was not ‘standard’ practice at Nissan plants. Then we demanded aprons. These aprons are disposables. We use for a week and discard it.” He seemed convinced that this was a better option though he did not realise the cost of disposables and the accumulate waste. Neither did the company care to invest more on regular washable materials as it meant incurring extra cost. This was one of the early exchanges between workers and shop floor management.

in the early days of work we had not demanded many things, we had accepted what was given as the income that we were getting was much higher than the wages in the medium scale industries we were working. There was also hope that with permanence we would also have substantial increase in wage. But after three years when the wages did not increase we began to voice our differences” said Moorthy who is the leader of the workers union. I was in the Renault Nissan Plant Committee (RNPC). This was a floor level committee with appointed representatives to discuss shop floor issues only. We were not allowed to discuss wages, canteen facilities or transport issues. But I began to raise the issue of wage. When I was made permanent staff, the increase was from Rs 4000/- to Rs 8000/-. We protested and said that we cannot live on this wage. The management cited that it was a 100% increase, but we said that we had lived on low wage hoping for a good salary after our job was made permanent, but if this was the wage, they we could fare better elsewhere. Eventually they agreed to increase the wages next year and we began getting about 3000/- to 5000/- increase year on year, since 2012. But they began to get cautious about me and few others and moved us to HR dept to keep a closer watch” Similar protests led to improvement in canteen facilities and transport. More protests were needed to improve allowances too. Under the facade of cordial relationship, the lines were being drawn between the management and the workers.

Another senior worker and office bearer, who was also posted in the HR department narrated how their access in HR department only accentuated the tension. “when we were posted to the HR department we began learning about guidelines, best practice etc. we came to know about the required conditions of work, like how much weight a worker should lift manually, how much over-time one is allowed to do, etc. we also were the only workers who could move around any department. We began to gather news about the many health issues that workers were suffering, like back aches, joint pains, physical stress, cardiac issues, kidney stone. We began to connect the dots and started advising workers against over work and dehydration. After a few months, the management curtailed our movement through the departments, forcing us to stay at the HR department only. This rule was only for the 6 technicians in the department. We could only think that it was because we were organizing the workers.” These actions eventually forced the workers to think of collective action. Yet they were not prepared to go as far as forming a Union. When in 2013, there was a doubt that the company will not provide them with adequate increment, the workers hit on a novel idea.

Rather than force a confrontation, they decided that the workers would all go on a one day picnic to city Zoo at Vandaloor. To their amazement, over 2000 workers came and it was a great success. The company took note of this event. The management gave 5000/- as average increment. On the other hand, it identified the leaders and began to move them through different departments and even to plants outside the city. one was sent off to Pune, another to Chittoor warehouse and yet another to Delhi. Some of them were offered promotions as management staff and if they refused they were moved to shop floors where the work was intense. They also dissolved the old committee and formed a new Renault Nissan Workers Committee. While the powers were marginally increased, nothing really changed. While the workers demanded an elected committee with all powers of negotiation like any union, the management did not agree. In October 2014, after a flash strike by workers demanding Ayudha Pooja bonus, the HR Vice president was moved out of the company and a new HR was appointed. This person came from the recently closed Nokia Factory. Even in his initial interactions, he made it plain that he would not be too amenable to the workers demands. Some workers even say that he had told them that he was not worried if they form a union and in fact even given them contacts to a central trade union. These actions further aggravated the trust deficit and the workers began to think of forming a union.

—- will be continued in part 2

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