Over 1000 permanent workers including trainees at the Apollo Tyres manufacturing unit in Oragadam struck work for two consecutive days on April 4th and 5th. They demanded the right to form a union and better wages and working conditions. Workers from all shifts participated, including over 200 North Indian workers mainly from Odisha. The strike, which was started by workers without any union backing, ended after a CITU-led intervention took the workers to the Labour Department on April 5th to resolve the issue. According to the workers, the Labour Department termed the strike illegal as the Tamil Nadu Government had issued a GO declaring the automobile sector an ‘essential service’, which means that no strike can take place without prior notice. The management, who had also appeared before the Labour Department, has promised to look into the issues of the workers. The workers have withdrawn the strike pending resolution of issues by the management.
Violation of labour laws at the biggest manufacturing facility in Oragadam?
Apollo, a leading tyre manufacturer, has its biggest manufacturing plant in Oragadam, Tamil Nadu. The other plants in India include one in Vadodara and two plants in Kerala (A new plant is being constructed in Andhra as well). The Chennai plant was commissioned in 2009 and has the capacity to produce truck, bus and passenger car radial tyres. Since its inception, the number of PCR (passenger car radials) produced per day has been ramped up from 7000 initially to 16000 and TBR (truck bus radials) from 1300 to 6000 per day. The company has also announced expansion plans to increase the capacity of the plant with the aim to make it the largest radial tyre production plant in Asia.
While the MoU signed by the company has promised employment to over 2000 workers, the plant is supposed to have over 1000 permanent workers (as estimated by workers) and trainees/technicians and over 150 contract workers. Workers say that production has increased to 10% more than the daily levels – for example, if the daily quota is to produce 7000 TBRs, then they are asked to produce 7700 TBRs. Workers say that the production target of PCR has gone up to 19000 per day and TBRs up to 8000 per day.
These increased production targets necessitate overtime and translate to unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. While workers are asked to work overtime, either due to production pressure or because another worker takes leave, there is no overtime payment as mandated by the Factories Act. Instead workers are allowed to avail comp off for the overtime. The workers say that this is not automatically managed by the HR but the workers will have to apply manually and be approved by the management. Workers also say that where two senior technicians used to work, now a junior technician is allotted to work with a senior technician, which again compromises the safety at workplace.
Wages and performance based increment
As the wage increase in the factory is linked to performance, the workers tend to hide any accidents or injuries. This also reduces any scope for asking for compensation from the management. A worker, who had injured his hand, spent money out of his own pocket to treat the injury and his insurance claim was denied by the management. The company has a three-tiered increment system linked to performance and any accidents tend to go against the worker, say the workers. Coupled with the low wages, this has increased the ire of the workers. According to the workers, the senior workers, usually a team lead, earns about Rs 28000 per month. However, most of the regular workers (called as team members) earn low wages with the first year entry level wages starting at Rs 8500 per month.
Workers, who are in their mid-20s, feel that this wage is hardly enough to secure their life and their family. One migrant worker said, ‘We can’t manage anything with this salary’. Workers say that when they bring up the issue of wages especially with respect to the costs of maintaining a family, the management has often responded with statements like, ‘send your wife to work’ or ‘don’t get married until you reach level 6’.
In a message shared among the workers, the workers seem to have calculated to the share of the annual turnover of the factory spent on wages. According to the message, while the annual turnover of the Chennai plant is 5800 crore rupees, the annual wages of the workers amounts to Rs 36 crore rupees i.e, less than 0.8 %. While this information could not be independently verified, workers feel justified in asking for 40-50% increase in salary and an end-of-year performance-linked increment practice. They are also demanding other allowances including night shift allowance and dearness allowance etc.
Anti-worker leave policies
Another major issue that workers highlight is the leave policy, which is important given that most of the workers are from various districts of Tamil Nadu and North India. As explained above, while the company gives comp offs for overtime hours, the company does not allow workers to take a comp off along with other leave or aligning with holidays. Hence, the comp off does not really work in favor of workers and is entirely attuned to company’s needs. During festival seasons, workers need more days off for visiting families. However, the company runs a night shift even during nationally mandated holidays, according to the workers.
All these just grievances had forced the workers to think in terms of independent collective solidarity to represent their interest. While the company has an internal workers committee, the workers say that those who speak on the issues of workers are removed from the committee by the company, making the committee ineffective. The workers say that the company had taken a letter from them when they joined stating that they would not form a union (the workers say they were not aware of what they were signing).
In a bold move, the workers decided to strike spontaneously on April 4th, assembling in front of the factory gate, causing an immediate stoppage of production. The workers say that the management immediately started discussions with them, asking them to voice their grievance via the internal working committee. However, the workers are convinced that only a union can truly represent their interests and have made this their primary objective. The management also asked the workers to come into the factory, which the workers refused to do so, continuing to wait outside the gate under the scorching sun. When the workers tried to take shelter under the bridge, the police were seen harassing them and asking them to leave. However on the second day, workers also complained that management was intimidating trainees who were also striking, threatening that they will not be confirmed if they do not stop striking.
As they continued their strike through the day, support from unions and other workers in the belt started pouring in. CITU district representatives approached them and convinced them to take up the issue with the Labour Department. However, the Labour Department seems to have told the workers that the strike is illegal due to the GO banning flash strikes in automotive sector. The management, who were also present in the meeting, promised to look into the issues of the workers and asked representatives from the workers to meet with them.
The CITU representatives had asked the Labour Department to ensure that the management would not take any action against the striking workers to which the management had also acceded. However it remains to be seen how this will be enforced as the history of working class industrial action is replete with examples of victimization of workers by industries for unionizing. The workers have decided to withdraw from the strike for now and form a union.