2400 apprentice workers at Lucas TVS Ltd, in Padi, Chennai, have been asked not report to work since 8th Jan 2016. When some workers on night shift, struck work on 7th Jan, demanding better conditions and increased wages, the entire batch was locked out. After the intervention of the Lucas TVS workers union, CPI(M) MLA and CITU State President com. A. Soundarajan and the agitation of the workers, the labour commissioner called for a meeting on the 11th of Jan, at the labour office. CITU leaders maintained that in this meeting that was chaired by the Asst. Labour commissioner, the management gave a guarantee to re-instate the apprentice workers on 18th Jan.
But when the workers turned up to work on 18th Jan, they were turned away, after taking their names and addresses. They were told that they might be called after a week. Some workers even reported to this blog, that they feared the management might be recruiting a fresh batch of trainees as they saw college buses plying inside the factory premises. The trainees fear that their future is at stake as many of them have worked over 9 months and need 1-2 months to complete the certification and access better jobs. According to the apprentice, one of the impacted worker has only 15 days to go for completing his apprenticeship.
Lucas-TVS, based out of Chennai, is a well known component supplier to the automobile industry in Tamilnadu. Over 2400 trainees augment the 600 permanent and over 3000 contract workers on the production lines. Out of 2400 trainees, 1500 of them are young apprentices working to complete 1 year certification course. Rest are workers recruited as trainees and have been working in the factory for past 2-3 years.
The trainees are drawn from across Tamilnadu, coming from districts as south as Kanyakumari. Aged between 18-22 years, They are diploma holders from public and private institutions. The trainees are brought into the production line almost as soon as they join and are trained by senior trainees for about a month. After which they are expected to perform as good as regular employees. They are set production targets, (eg 36 alternators a day for a trainee) and severely reprimanded for failing to reach the target.
The trainees work 8 hr shifts, with an hour of break, split 4 times a day. For this effort, they are paid Rs 7500/- a month which works to Rs 288/- a day. Under the new guidelines, the Ministry of Labour, under Government of India has decided to compensate the employer upto 50% of this wage payment. While the workers were unsure, they claim that about Rs 4500/- per person per month is the share of the government as support for apprentices. The senior trainees who are not covered under this Government subsidy draw even lesser wage of Rs 7000 per month.
The trainees claim that 7000-7500/- is far below what companies in the area are paying their trainees, including the group companies of Lucas TVS. Apart from this discrimination, the workers also allege that they are discriminated against permanent workers at the time of meals, with them having to eat what is left over after permanent employees’ meals. The ill treatment they face with supervisors and security personal has also profoundly affected them. they seek an end to these discriminatory attitudes and demand a raise in pay commensurate to the expenses of living in a metropolitan city.
The trainees of Lucas-TVS had been demanding better quality food for many months. They had also been asking the management to raise their salaries/stipends to Rs 10500/- from the present Rs 7500/-. With the management neglecting their needs, some trainees decided to bring their grievance to the notice of the higher authorities by way of hunger fast on 4th of January. When the rest of the trainees realized their compatriots were on hunger fast, they too decided to join them. They did not stop production, but went without meals, a symbolic gesture. Even after three days of sustained hunger fast, the management did not respond to their grievance or even inquire as to the issue.
Thus neglected, on 7th Jan, the trainees on night shift, decided to stop production. This act of defiance, forced the management to discuss, and they were assured by the HR dept that their grievances would be dealt with. While this meeting happened at around 3:45 am, on 8thJan, the trainees who were coming in for their morning shift were barred entry. This prompted the escalation of the issue, with those completing their shift, staging a sit-down protest inside the premises, while the trainees at the gate staging a sit down at the gate.
The management declared leave for the apprentice and asked them to leave. The trainees continued their sit in till 10th Jan. Even after intervention by the police, the management refused to discuss the issue. On 11th, as sections of the permanent employees decided to join the protest in solidarity with the striking trainee, the police came in once again and claiming to have a stay order against the demonstration, arrested over 1400 trainees when they refused to disperse. One of the worker also alleges that the police threatened him saying that ‘if you are the leader of the protest, we will arrest you and break you’.
Thus the youth of India— who are to train themselves and propel this nation to heights of economic growth, who in the recent months have been bombarded with government funded advertisements on ‘Skill India’ found themselves under police custody for demanding better wage and better food. Their supposed training prematurely ended, their lives thrown into jeopardy.
The company has recognized a union for permanent workers. The union Lucas TVS Employees Union is affiliated to INTUC. But this union does not represent the trainees or the contract workers. While there is a widespread support from the permanent workers for the struggle, the union has not come forward to lead this struggle. While the trainees have not organized themselves as a union, the local area committees of left trade unions like CITU, AICCTU and AITUC have extended their support. After a meeting on the 13thJan, CITU, AICCTU and AITUC have issued a joint statement demanding the immediate re-instatement of the trainees. They have decided that they would jointly protest if the management fails to deliver on their part.
However, the management seems to have used the time delay provided by the Labour Department to reinstate the workers in its favour. Many trainees have moved out of the city to their native towns, hoping that they would be called back on the 18th Jan. On Jan 18th, over 300 workers turned up on their own and management just took their numbers and turned them away saying they would be called back if necessary. The reprieve provided to the management during the negotiation has effectively helped them stall and weaken the solidarity of the trainees. The labour department has called for a meeting on 19th Jan 2016, to discuss the issue once again.
While the apathetic condition of the trainees should draw our immediate concern and action should be taken to reinstate them while guaranteeing them improved conditions, this affair also raises important questions beyond the specificity of this case.
a. If the trainees have production targets and participate in equal measure in the production process, why should they be paid below the minimum wage and not a wage commensurate to a permanent worker at the entry level?
b. If the training process itself, as maintained by the trainees, is merely a month long, should not the programme be made significantly shorter than the full year, so that they can gain certification soon and many more may be accommodated within a year?
c. If the government of India is paying tax rupees to skill youth, what is its responsibility to those who are drawn into the process? If bad management practices leads to entire batches losing certification, how could be account for the money granted to these private institutions?
d. Why should the government subsidies the production cost by agreeing to share the stipend if the trainees are being employed in the production process?
e. Can India be skilled if the youth are made to suffer discriminatory conditions and low stipends that effectively leave them on hungry stomachs?
This gains increased relevance as our government announces schemes such as ‘Skill India’, Start – Up India and ‘Make in India’ that all depend on one or the other form of subsidy to Corporate India and a promise to further de-regulate the labour market by curbing effective implementation of labour laws.