NEEM – A mission to deny labour rights – Ashok Leyland Workers protest

Over 100 permanent workers of Ashok Leyland’s Ennore plant joined a protest on 10th January during their lunch hour. The protest was against the introduction of apprentices in direct production by the management. The workers have been boycotting lunch to express their opposition not just to the management but also to the union leadership which seems to be in favor of this process. The introduction of apprentices in direct production is facilitated by the Central Government Scheme, National Employability Enhancement Mission. The workers fear that the NEEM scheme is a back-door way to bring contractualisation of core production jobs which is otherwise illegal under Contract Workers (Regulation and Abolishment) Act and will reduce the collective bargaining strength of permanent workers.

What is NEEM?

The workers’ fears seem well founded if one goes by the scheme as explained online. The NEEM mission has been introduced through an amendment of AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education) Regulations. The mission was introduced in 2013 but has been amended in 2017. In essence, this notification legalizes trainees, a category of worker prevalent in manufacturing sectors including Automobile and Electronics.

For instance, companies such as Nokia, Foxconn, Hyundai, etc. have been introducing new workforce into their factory as trainees since 2006. This new category is not defined in the Industrial Standing Order Act or Apprentices Act (which was regulating the training of apprentices in industries) or Industrial Disputes Act, which defines and provides protection of workers to some degree. These trainees were employed in the factories for up to 3 years directly under the company management and not through labour contractors as is prevalent among contractual workforce. Young workers were willing to be employed as trainees with the hope that they would be made permanent after the three years of service.

The mission not only legitimizes this practice but goes beyond. According to an explanation provided by a private entity that is registered under NEEM, this new mission seeks to change the responsibility of the trainees from the companies to an intermediary known as NEEM Agents. Under this rule, the NEEM Agents are only required to provide minimum wage of the unskilled worker in the industry (presumably irrespective of whatever skill being imparted) and are not required to provide any other statutory benefits. The NEEM agent also assumes responsibility for the safety of the worker and is required to provide compensation in the event of accidents under Workmen Compensation Act. In short, the worker has only legal recourse under Minimum Wage Act and Workmen Compensation Act.

The factory or the company who employs this worker is relieved of all responsibilities towards the worker especially in terms of providing safety, labour rights that have been won through long struggles and long term employment. This not only legitimizes the use of trainees in direct production but also the use of contractors, who then are not required to ensure any legal entitlement such as PF or medical benefits to the workers.

For companies such as Maruti and Hyundai who have been using temporary workers in large numbers, this scheme provides a way of legitimizing such practices. The intention of the mission is to impart skills for better employability of workers but if the companies that train these workers in very specific skills needed for the factory are unwilling to employ them, then the question is why any other company would employ these workers. The NEEM scheme allows workers to be trained between the age of 16 and 40 (The 2013 notification restricted training between 18 and 35). What it is essentially saying is that the workers are meant to be only trainees for most of their productive lives.

Protest in Ashok Leyland

It is no wonder then that the permanent workers in Ashok Leyland are alarmed at the introduction of this scheme in their factory. Even with a strong culture of unionism in the company, there has been steady outsourcing of jobs which has reduced the strength of permanent workers to about 1750, while the number of contract workers are more than 6000 in the factory. The union leadership that was elected in the factory had signed a collective wage agreement with the management in September 2016, where 400 jobs (the permanent workers were at 2154) were outsourced. However, now the management has announced its intention of bringing trainees into core production under NEEM. According to a senior operator, the wage agreement did not explicitly state this. He says, there was an ‘innocuous’ statement in the wage agreement that pointed to appropriate adjustments needed for production which is now being used to change the dynamics of production.

In the protest meeting convened and supported by several solidarity groups including CITU, WPTUC, Murpokku Thozhilalar Nala Manram, Kuchelar Nala Manram, Thozhilalar Periyakkam, Marumalarchi Thozhilalar Sangam, Revolutionary Youth Front, leaders condemned the union’s complicity in the ongoing contractualisation. According to one of the workers, the workers are already facing repercussion for the protests that they have been waging. The management has withheld 4000 hours of wages from workers for not allowing trainees in production and has suspended a union leader for participating in the protests. Over 1500 workers have signed a petition opposing the union’s support of the management. It is to be seen if the union is willing to listen to workers’ democratic demands and oppose the new form of labour reforms, which curtail workers’ rights severely.

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