Nokia’s handset manufacturing plant in Sriperumbudur stopped operations exactly a year ago. At its peak, this plant produced 6.5 lakh handsets every day and employed close to 10,000 workers. The closing of the plant also resulted in the closure of factories in the supply chain, owned by Foxconn, Lite-On Mobile, and Build Your Dream (BYD), causing a total loss of 22,000 jobs and severely affecting the local economy. Workers have not been able to recover from the blow. Employers try not to hire ex-workers of Nokia. Even when these workers found work, the pay was around 40% of what they got in Nokia. Meanwhile, according to news reports, Foxconn is in talks with the Tamil Nadu government to take over the Nokia plant, but they do not want to take back their ex-workers.
In this backdrop, CITU organized a meeting in Sriperumbudur on 1st November 2015, the first anniversary of the closure of the Nokia plant. The purpose of the meeting was for workers to share their experiences from the past year, keep their loss alive in public memory, and prepare for a struggle to protest Foxconn’s unfair demands. The meeting was attended by ex-employees of Nokia and current employees of Foxconn, Sanmina and Hyundai.
All former workers of Nokia who attended the meeting complained about work conditions in their new jobs: low pay, long working hours including compulsory overtime, and poor working conditions. For example, one of the workers who worked as a delivery man for Ekart, a subcontractor of Flipkart in Vellore, said his work day was 13-15 hours long for a salary of Rs 7000 a month. He had to use his own bike for the deliveries, for which he was paid a measly Rs 3.50/Km to cover both fuel and maintenance of the bike.
Another worker who worked in a company DMC that supplied parts to Hyundai complained about bad working conditions – how the food area was dirty, how there were just 2 toilets for 5000 workers, how tea breaks were 10 minutes long (in which they had to spend some time walking to the tea place), and so on. The pay there was Rs 4500 a month.
While Nokia offered a pay of around Rs 16,000/month for permanent workers, and better working conditions, those were achieved through repeated protests from workers. Researcher Madhumita Dutta made an interesting point that in 2012-13, Nokia’s employee cost was as little as 1.54 percent of its annual turnover of that year.
None of the workers from Nokia profited from their job experience in Nokia while searching for a new job; they were in fact penalized for that experience. If they mentioned that they had worked in Nokia to a prospective employer, they would typically not get the job. The excuse given by employers was that: ‘you are used to a higher salary than we can pay and therefore, you won’t be able to adjust’.
Also Nokia workers were perceived to be active in union activities, which the employers wanted to avoid. People managed to get jobs only when they did not reveal that they had worked for Nokia. One of the workers in the meeting viewed this as psychological warfare by the capitalist system against the workers, where they are punished for demanding their rights. Many jobs also had an age bar of 26 years. Workers who had been in Nokia for over five years were now over the age bar for these jobs. These workers are just in their twenties, and are shut out from the job market!
The Nokia plant ostensibly had to be shut down because of a tax dispute. However, the participants of the meeting wondered why the government, which had been cosy with Nokia up till then, could not try to negotiate a settlement, especially when so many jobs were at stake. They regarded the happenings as an unsolved puzzle. One possible piece in the puzzle is that Microsoft (which took over Nokia) is now setting up a handset manufacturing plant in Hanoi where the labour is cheaper, with monthly salaries of just Rs 8000.
Similarly Foxconn is currently in talks with the centre and various state governments, and is promising to provide 1,30,000 jobs in India. But the Foxconn plant in Sriperumbudur had to close, as they were not even capable of employing 1300 people! This is an illustration of how easy it is for companies to shut down factories and make a fresh start. The government is actively making it easier for companies to make quick exits, so that they can avoid losses and relocate production to places where wages are lower. The Modi government is amending labour laws so that factories with less that 300 workers need not report to the government for closure (this number has been increased from 100 workers).
CITU Kanchipuram district secretary Kannan sought to direct the discontent of the workers towards the government. The episode cannot be written off from public memory just because Nokia is gone, especially considering Foxconn’s demands to the TN government, said Kannan. He emphasized that the protest and the anger among workers has to be kept alive to send a clear message to the government and corporates, that the workers of Tamil Nadu cannot be cheated of their rights.