Foxconn suspended operations in its Sunguvarchatram plant in February 2015. Of the 1300+ employees in the plant, the management succeeded in coercing about 700 to take voluntary retirement. The remaining workers refused to take the retirement package offered, and instead demanded that they get their job back.
Recently these workers got to know that a company named ‘Rising Star’ has started operating Foxconn’s Sunguvarchatram plant. This company seems to be intimately related to Foxconn. Their Facebook page claims that it is part of Foxconn Technology group. The protesting Foxconn workers claim that many of the personnel — like HR managers — in Rising Star are same as the Foxconn plant of Sunguvarchatram. The address of the two companies is almost the same. The Rising star address is the word ‘DTA’, followed by ‘Sipcot HiTech City, Sunguvarchatram’, which is the address of Foxconn. Workers said that the address of Rising Star is just the address of the canteen in the Foxconn campus. Finally, we also found that both the companies have the same board of directors, see this and this.
However, when questioned via the office of the Assistant commissioner of Labour (ACL), Irungatukottai, Rising Star has denied links with Foxconn and has refused to employ the protesting Foxconn workers. As of now, there are are 500 workers following up the case. The workers claim that Rising star has hired 9000 contract workers distributed over three shifts. All of the new hires are women and have been hired as contract workers.
On 11 October 2017, about 300 Foxconn workers organized a protest in Sunguvarchattiram demanding their jobs back and that the Tamil Nadu government intervene in this matter. The workers filed a complaint with ACL Irungattukottai demanding their jobs, and have also filed an RTI asking for the relation between Foxconn and Rising Star. The Labour office responded to the RTI by providing details of the Rising Star company, and saying that they do not have any details for Foxconn. Regarding the complaint, a much-delayed meeting finally took place in the ACL office on 25th October, that was attended by a representative from the Rising Star management. When the ACL questioned him about why the Foxconn workers could not be employed, the representative responded by saying that he was not in a position to answer the question! The next meeting was scheduled for November 7th.
So far the government has not said anything in this issue.
Foxconn’s history in Tamil Nadu
The official reason for the Sunguvarchatram plant suspending operations was the closing of the Nokia plant in Sriperembudur in 2014.Both Foxconn’s plant in the Nokia SEZ and Sunguvarchattiram supplied parts to Nokia. Foxconn stopped operations in these plants citing lack of demand for the products.
However, the closure followed close on the heels of the workers successfully forming a union and negotiating a wage agreement. The CITU-affiliated Foxconn India Thozhilalar Sangam (FITS) was recognized after a long struggle by the workers. It started with a 58-day strike in 2010 demanding better wages, working conditions and recognition of their union. The recognition of the union was won after a long legal battle, culminating in the Supreme Court giving orders for a secret ballot election to determine the majority union in Foxconn. The order came on 18th August 2014 — but by then Foxconn had already announced VRS in its Nokia SEZ plant. It announced a VRS in SVChattiram plant in February 2015. About 700 workers refused to take VRS. The company forcibly put a compensation package into their bank accounts.
Workers’ lives post-closure
Since the suspension of operations, workers have been in difficult times. The permanent workers of Foxconn have up to twelve years experience, and many of them are around thirty years old. Workers who have taken VRS, have been trying to get jobs in other factories, but have had no luck because companies only hire people in the 18-25 age group. Further, the companies give them the excuse that they do not want to hire Foxconn workers. On the rare occasion that a worker finds employment, it is as a contract worker with monthly pay in the range of 6000 rupees (as opposed to the highest pay bracket of Rs 19k negotiated in the wage agreement of 2014 in Foxconn).
The workers who did not take VRS are in an even more complicated situation. Officially, the Foxconn factory has not closed — they have just suspended operations. And these workers are still employees of Foxconn. So they cannot even take another job since they are fighting the case. Since they have not officially quit Foxconn, they do not have the experience certificate for working there. The only option they have is to work as daily wage labourers for their subsistence. Some of the workers are married and have families to support. The others have not been able to get married because they do not have a job.
One of the workers who spoke to us in detail said that he feels really depressed staying at home without a job.
In the mean time, Foxconn has been doing a round of expansion in India. Foxconn set up a plant in Sri City, Andhra Pradesh, to assemble Xiaomi phones, and another plant in Navi Mumbai that also manufactures phones. Foxconn is also engaged in talks with the Maharashtra government to acquire tribal land to build factories.
It is surprising that a company capable of such rapid expansion, had to stop operations in its factories in Nokia SEZ and Sunguvarchattiram. Even at the time of closing, the company had orders from ABB switch company. Additionally, they could have moved some of the orders from some other factory to those which had to be closed — that was the question posed in 2015 by the workers.
The company Rising star was registered in May 2015 in Andhra Pradesh, shortly after the Sunguvarchatram Foxconn plant suspended operations. According to workers, Rising Star will assemble Xiaomi phones in the Sunguvarchatram plant. These facts demonstrate that the factory was closed and reopened (supposedly under a different management) only to get rid of workers who had succeeded in forming a union.
Foxconn plays governments and people, globally
Globally, Foxconn operates factories in many countries of the world, with a workforce of over 5 lakh workers. They make a variety of products including mobile phone, games, LCD screens. Foxconn is known to run these plants with a ‘military style management’. In its plant in Shenzen China, which employs 93,000 workers, workers have to work for 11 hours in order to earn enough to afford basic necessities.
There are endless accidents and injuries on the production line. There was a spate of suicides in the Shenzen plant in 2010, which gained international attention. In its factories in Tamil Nadu, dismal safety standards have been documented at the factories.
In the Sunguvarchattiram plant, there was a gas leak in 2010, leading to the hospitalization of 250 workers.
However governments, all over the world are always keen to negotiate with Foxconn. They are willing to give concessions in return for Foxconn setting up factories and bringing jobs to their state. The Tamil Nadu government wanted Foxconn to take over the Nokia factory in Sriperumbudur. The government was willing to offer land at a highly subsidized rate. Additionally Foxconn wanted additional assurances about labour control, and also not be liable to employ ex-workers. The deal has not been finalized so far. The cost borne by Tamil Nadu state towards the Nokia SEZ has been worked out to be Rs 645.4 crores. Foxconn has worked similar deals elsewhere. The state of Wisconsin in the United States has agreed to subsidize Foxconn for $200 – 250 million dollars a year for fifteen years, in return for a promise to create 3000 jobs.
But when Foxconn blatantly subverts the law by using different names to throw workers off their jobs, governments look elsewhere.