On 16th November, workers from Renault Nissan plant in Oragadum, Chennai, went on a sit-in protest at the factory gate. They had come out in support of the fellow women worker, who was being forced to do arduous work inspite of being at an advanced stage of pregnancy. The workers are hesitant to discuss the issue with TK as the negotiations were ongoing. However, some of our sources revealed that the women has been moved to a documentation task and will not be exposed to heavy work for the remainder of her pregnancy. But no action has been taken on the managers and human resource personnel who had willfully ignored her appeals to be transferred. This was the not the first occasion when such an event has gone ‘unreported’. Even earlier a case of verbal abuse by a shop floor supervisor and manager had been settled without any action against the perpetrators. The Union at Renault Nissan has not been actively pursuing these issues as its executive leadership is caught in the midst of a leadership challenge from the workers. With little to no oversight from the state regulators such as Factories Inspectorate (now known as Department of Industrial Safety and Health) and Labour department, the only safeguard for workers are their colleagues.
From what we can gather from our sources, the female worker is a diploma holder, who had joined the workforce as a ‘Renault Nissan Technician’. She had been employed at the body shop, where the car body is built. This is regarded as a ‘heavy work’ section as the tasks are manually tiring. “Women are not employed here in general, out of nearly 20 women who had been initially stationed here, over 17 were quickly transferred” said a worker. She had supported ULF union instead of the internal union that was supported by the management. This has been cited by some of the workers as the reason why she was retained at the body shop. She had become pregnant a few months back and because of her medical condition had been asked to take ‘leave of absence’. She had been on a leave for 2 -3 weeks following this advise. When she returned, she had (orally) sought a transfer to a section with less arduous manual work. But the HR and the Production Manager did not transfer her. The supervisors on the floor, on the other hand, were not willing to employ her in the line due to the risk to mother and child. This had put her in a delicate situation where she was not working in any task. Workers allege that the flash point incident happened when the General Manager of production, on an inspection tour, taunted her saying they can’t pay for people to idle around. When she pointed out her case, he said there was nothing that can be done as she had not supported them (meaning she had been part of the other union) and therefore she should not expect support. Workers maintain that the female worker, feeling terribly depressed began to cry and even suggested to the supervisors to let her work on the line. The sane supervisors refused to let her work given the risks.
The female worker is well within her right to seek a transfer of department. It is established both in law (The Maternity Benefit Act, Section (section 4(3), 1961) relating to pregnant workers as well as by precedent (even at Renault Nissan) that pregnant workers being given non hazardous, less strenuous tasks. These measures are stipulated explicitly to protect the health of the mother and child. But this is the second instance when the Renault Nissan management has violated this provision until action by workers.
The workers on the shop floor, were terribly upset by this development. In the absence of any pressure from the union to resolve her issue, the workers were forced to take the matter in their hands. On the next day, the workers decided to call for a protest. After their shift (first shift) was over many workers went on a sit in protest, forcing the HR department and the production managers to resolve the issue. They also demanded action against the General Manager for his insensitive remarks. The management’s team of negotiators called for a discussion with workers representatives from the body shop. They accepted to transfer the worker to the ‘quality’ inspection section which is primarily documentation work. But the General Manager has refused to accept any wrong doing and no enquiry or action has been initiated against violation of laws or the verbal abuse that the worker faced. The worker has refrained from lodging a written complaint. The only record for this incident is the memories of the workers and their social media accounts.
An Institutional Failure:
The NDA government and Indian media are enamoured by the ratings we receive from World Bank, Moody investment or stock brokers. These agencies with a vested interest in corporate profits push for greater deregulation of corporate sector in the name of ‘ease of doing business’. Our Government is happy to oblige these usurious banks and gambling brokers to dictate policy. This has led to the dismantling of even the basic regulatory mechanisms that were in place to check the owners and their managers. Such transgressions become routine in a production ecosystem driven solely by profits. Women workers suffer the most as they forced to navigate work spaces designed for and dominated by men. The systematic disempowering of the trade unions by the Indian government and judiciary has also resulted in a lack of collective representation for workers within work places. This has forced them to the mercy of the managerial class that takes arbitrary decisions to reward or punish workers. This incident at Renault Nissan is a clear illustration of this scenario. In the absence of any consequence, penal or financial, on the company, such practices will be ignored if not encouraged.
In this scenario, as their elected government and the state institutions, abdicate their responsibility; workers are forced to challenge the company ownership at great peril of losing their jobs and worse. If they are unable to collectively stall the management, they suffer pitiable working conditions and grave indignities. But on occasions when they do put up a collective struggle, like with workers at Renault Nissan, they are able check the management. But this often is reactive and is able to rectify a situation only after the damage has been done. For instance, in this case, the women has had to go through anxiety and verbal abuse for days before her condition catalyzed workers to act. The workers need to organize to proactively take greater control of the production process including oversight and planning, inorder to protect their genuine interests.
Other Updates from Renault Nissan:
- 16, out of nearly 60 contract workers, got their PF dues credited by their previous contractor. A previous contractor had not paid their dues to PF even at the time when the contract expired. A new contractor had taken over and re employed the same workers as is customary. The workers recognized this default recently and after much hesitation decided to legally challenge only the contractor and not the principal employer (Renault Nissan). They had sent legal notice to take action, following which the contractor has agreed to pay their dues and file the necessary paper work.
- Over 3000 permanent workers have sent letters to the union executive body as well as to the management stating their lack of confidence in the present leadership and the need to call for a General Body and reconstitute the executive offices and committees of the union. A large section of the workers, who had been affiliated to ULF, had joined the internal union in a settlement reached in February this year. The workers maintain that they were assured by the erstwhile leadership of an emergent general body within months. But even after 9 months, the promise remains unfulfilled. The five workers who had joined the executive team as joint secretaries, have also resigned.