Print edition : June 05, 2009

A. Soundararajan, honorary president of the Hyundai Motor India Employees Union, being arrested during a protest by employees of the company, in Chennai on May 6.-R. SENTHIL KUMAR/PTI

ONE of the arguments in support of foreign direct investment (FDI) put forth by the advocates of neoliberal economic policies is that it will speed up industrialisation and expand employment opportunities. In the past two decades several big foreign investors set up their units in Tamil Nadu to manufacture a wide range of products, ranging from mobile phones to motor cars. Successive governments in the State took pride in signing memoranda of understanding with foreign companies that invested hundreds of crores of rupees, on the grounds that thousands of people would be gainfully employed in their factories. They did provide jobs in a significant way, but questions have been asked about the kind of jobs, the pay and the working conditions.

Among the multinational corporations that have set up plants in and around Chennai since the start of the last decade when the Union government opened the gates to FDI are Caparo, BMW, Ford India, Hyundai Motor India Limited (HMIL), Nokia and Saint Gobain. Trade union leaders said the contribution of automobile majors, for instance, to the creation of jobs was not up to the expected level and working conditions in the units left a lot to be desired. They also said that while there was no big resentment among permanent employees over salaries, the temporary workers were mostly underpaid and were often asked to do the work normally done by permanent employees.

As for working conditions, workload and the general treatment of employees, both permanent and non-permanent, there are a lot of grievances. Long hours of work, say 10 to 12 hours sometimes, job insecurity, harsh shop-floor practices and ruthless punishment for even petty slips have driven many of the workers to look for a protective shield.

Workers say that under the pretext of enforcing discipline they are denied many of their basic rights. Some employees said there was no independent grievance redress mechanism and added that the managements were generally allergic to workers opting to form trade unions. In some units the attempts to form unions proved abortive when managements challenged these with the threat of victimisation.

The situation, however, does not appear to be so hopeless for at least some workers. A case in point is the recent struggle by about 1,000 of the over 1,500 permanent employees of Hyundai Motor India Ltd. After about three weeks of strike and four days of fasting, they made a breakthrough in their two-year struggle to get a semblance of recognition for their union.

The workers formed the Hyundai Motor India Employees Union (HMIEU) in June 2007 and registered it. The management took the stand that on issues relating to workers it would have talks with only the seven-member workers committee already functioning at the factory for several years. It transferred two union functionaries, one to Delhi and the other to Kolkata. The union demanded cancellation of the transfer orders. When the two functionaries were placed under suspension, the issue went to the labour court. In the past two years, the union alleged, the management had dismissed 65 workers, suspended 34 and transferred nine. The management rejected the union demand that action against these workers be revoked. The union has taken all these cases to the appropriate legal forums.

In March, the union served a strike notice on the management demanding recognition and launched its indefinite strike on April 21. It also gave the management a charter of 40 demands relating to wage revision, better working conditions, housing and vehicle loans and so on.

Located at Irungattukottai, about 40 km from Chennai, HMIL is a wholly owned subsidiary of the $60 billion South Korean automobile major, Hyundai Motor Company. The Indian subsidiary, which started production in 1997, is the second largest car manufacturer in the country and the largest passenger car exporter in India. It makes nearly 40 variants of passenger cars from the popular Santro to the Sonata Embera and the Tuscan. Its total sales of vehicles in 2008 stood at 4,89,328 units, an increase of 49.6 per cent over the previous calendar years, and it exported 2.44 lakh units that year.

The factory has a total workforce of about 6,000, of whom only 1,556 are permanent and earn anything between Rs.8,000 and Rs.22,000 a month. The rest, numbering about 4,500, are temporary and in the categories of casual workers, apprentices, trainees and contract labour. Their monthly wages range from Rs.3,000 to Rs.4,500. Labour contractors supply a substantial number of workers in these categories.

May Day this year was the 12th day of the indefinite strike by the 1,000-odd employees to assert their constitutional right to association and their right to collective bargaining under the labour laws.

The HMIEU launched the strike in the absence of any response from the management to the strike notice it served more than 30 days earlier. The strike was led by A. Soundararajan, general secretary of the State committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and honorary president of the HMIEU.

The efforts of Deputy Labour Commissioner (DLC) R. Ravindran to bring the employers and the workers to the negotiation table failed at the very first sitting when the managements representatives told him that the factory had a workers committee to deal with workers demands and that they would not have talks with anybody else on labour problems. They did not turn up for two or three subsequent sittings. The DLC then called both parties for a conciliation meeting on May 1.

Soundararajan was present for the meeting, but the managements representatives did not turn up. The meeting was postponed to May 4 as suggested by the management, but again its representative did not come. Soundararajan said he then appealed to the Labour Department to prevail upon the management to participate in the conciliation process.

At Hyundai Motor Indias facility at Irungattukottai near Chennai.-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

He announced that the striking workers would go on fast until then on the premises of the Labour Commissioners office. All of us, all the 1,000 striking workers, commenced our fast on May 4, Soundararajan said.

The next day the managements representatives went to the Labour Commissioners office, where Labour Department officials held discussions with both sides. The management said it would have to discuss everything with senior officials in Korea but was firm that it would not hold talks with the union. It also rejected the Labour Departments advice that no vindictive action be taken against the strikers and against the union functionaries for forming the union. The strikers continued their fast. The police arrested them and kept them in a community hall before releasing them.

On May 7, both the management and the fasting workers representatives were called to the Labour Commissioners office, where Labour Commissioner A. Sukumaran heard both the parties and gave both of them a consent advice, which is a half-way agreement, said Soundararajan. The management agreed that it would not sign any settlement with the workers committee before May 20, in view of the voting on May 13 in the general elections.

The Labour Department did not concede our plea for an interim relief to the affected workers under Section 10 (b) of the Industrial Disputes Act on the grounds that nothing could be done before the completion of the election process, Soundararajan said. A gain for the union is that the Labour Commissioner instructed the management that it should record its stand on each and every demand mentioned in the charter of demands, he added.

When the management insisted on getting a letter of regret or apology from those who participated in the strike for taking no action against them, we said that the strike was legal and nothing of that sort could be done, the union president said. On the basis of the settlement the fast was ended and the strike was withdrawn. According to him, the suspension orders against some of the strike participants would also be revoked soon.

Soundararajan described the settlement based on the consent advice as a very big opening in the formation of a trade union in multinational companies, all of which are at present intolerant of trade union activities in their units. He said that in the absence of clear-cut provisions in the law, the Labour Department was often helpless. He also said the laws which facilitated the formation of a union and its registration had nothing to say on the recognition of unions, which is seen as essential to go through the process of collective bargaining, more particularly when there is more than one union in an industrial unit.

Soundararajan also said the West Bengal government amended the Trade Unions Act, 1926, to provide for making recognition of trade unions by management mandatory. When there was more than one union in a unit, the union that enjoyed the majority, which was decided on the basis of a mandatory referendum, got recognition.

Labour leaders say the issue of recognising trade unions has to be seen in the context of the policy of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation and in the backdrop of the global financial crisis that has cast its shadow on many a country, creating job losses and fall in incomes and destabilising thousands of families.

Trade union leaders emphasised the need for the Union government to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No.87, which deals with the Freedom of Association and the Right to Organise, and Convention No.98, which lays stress on collective bargaining and provides for protection against acts of anti-union discrimination. There can be no two opinions about the need for industrialisation and expansion of employment opportunities, but it cannot be at the cost of the basic rights of workers, said CITU State committee president A.K. Padmanabhan.

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