Troubles brew at Oragadam Sanmina plant

Five day sit-in strike by 400+ permanent workers as production continues using contract workers. Workers return to factory after conciliation by Labour Department.

As the focus of many workers and working class organisations turned towards the court verdict on the Maruti workers (who have been unjustly incarcerated after an episode involving a casteist slur against a worker in the Maruti factory), history has repeated itself yet again.  Permanent workers of Sanmina plant in Oragadam struck work and led an on-site protest for over 5 days between March 14th and 18th (**) after an HR manager used abusive words towards a coworker.

Even though over 400 permanent workers including 20 women workers refused to leave the premises for five days, production in the factory was said to have continued uninterrupted with 150+ contract workers. The management also refused to appear for a conciliation meeting by Labour Department. After an intervention by the Tehsildar, the management appeared on a second conciliation meeting, prompting the workers to give up the strike and opt for conciliatory measures.

(** Correction: The dates had been mentioned inaccurately in the original version. It has been corrected on 3rd August 2017 after checking with sources — Sorry for the error)

Sanmina SCI plant in Oragadam produces medical and non medical electronic equipments for various national and international customers. The Indian subsidiary of American Fortune 500 Manufacturer, established in 2008, has been long reported to have very low labour standards including low wages and working conditions. As reported earlier, the Sanmina workers under CITU had protested for higher wages and other amenities in 2013. According to the workers, the poor conditions persist even today.

Sanmina had promised to bring over 4000 employment opportunities, said the workers, but instead employs only 480 permanent workers and 150 contract workers, despite the fact that the assembly lines have expanded from 2 lines to over 8 lines in the past 8 years. The permanent workers are paid between Rs 10,500 to Rs 15,000 even after 9 years of experience. The workers say that the company had announced an increment of Rs 2,000 in February due to labour unrest.

While the management is said to have cited the company’s performance as the reason for refusing to increase wages, the workers say that their intention is to employ a contract workforce replacing permanent workers. According to workers, the company attracts contract workers from lakhs of engineers churned out of the Tamil Nadu higher education system for wages as low as Rs 8,000 per month, whereas the permanent workers are 10th, 12th and ITI trained graduates.

In line with this strategy, the management had initiated a VRS package between Rs 1.5 to 3 lakhs, according to the workers. While up to 150 workers had availed the VRS package (which has also reduced the women workers in the factory to mere 20 workers) and while a trickle of workers continue to exercise this option (largely due to harassment and intimidation, allege the workers), over 480 workers are steadfast in their demand for continued permanent employment and decent working conditions.

The workers also say that food and transport facilities are very poor in the factory. The workers shared photos of foreign objects in their food but any complaints along these lines have fallen on deaf ears, according to the workers. Similarly the company also provides limited transport service, which makes it difficult for workers to commute.

The recent issue flared up when a permanent worker in a first shift was reassigned to work in the packing section. According to other workers, this worker’s usual lunch break was between 12:00 and 1:00 whereas the workers in the packing section had their lunch break at 12:30. When the worker, unaware of the different schedule, took his usual lunch break, a HR manager used abusive language towards him, according to the other workers. When the worker and the union representatives raised the issue that this language was casteist, the management refused to reprehend the manager, leading to the workers’ spontaneous protest arising from the shop floor.

The workers, who are now affiliated with AICCTU, said that the Labour Department, Tehsildar and Police had interceded to return the workers to the factory. While the management had ignored the calls by the Labour Department for conciliation, intervention by the Tehsildar ensured the presence of the management in the next meeting. However, the workers say that even in the second conciliation meeting, the management had only talked about the unprofitable business climate and had refused to discuss the core issue of disciplinary action against the HR manager.

Nevertheless, workers have returned to the factory conceding the request by the Labour Department. They say that the management has threatened to cut 21 days of salary for striking while it continues to take no action against the manager. When workers approach management for HR activities, the workers say that management is directing them to company recognized union INTUC. The workers also say that management has increased its intimidation tactics saying that Labour Department and the State are with them and they will not get any justice. All this has only increased the feeling of injustice among the workers.

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