Trouble in Bosch again

Print edition : October 17, 2014

Members of MICO Employees Association protesting near Bosch factory in Bangalore on September 16. Photo: V Sreenivasa Murthy

A view of the Bosch factory in Bangalore. Photo: V Sreenivasa Murthy

THE global automotive components major Bosch’s uneasy relationship with its workforce has been brought to the fore by an indefinite strike called by workers at its plant in Bangalore, the third within the last three years. More than 2,575 workers at the plant in Adugodi in the city went on strike on September 16 at the end of the legally stipulated notice period, demanding a new wage agreement to replace the one that lapsed in December 2012.

Although the gap between what the company was willing to give the workers and what the workers were willing to settle for appeared to be narrow, the difference was “a matter of principle”, said S. Prasanna Kumar, MICO Employees Association (Bosch’s Indian subsidiary was earlier known as Motor Industries Company Ltd, or MICO). The two main unresolved issues pertain to medical benefits and the manner in which labour productivity is calculated. Prasanna Kumar said a solution to the question of medical benefits seemed imminent, but the company’s position on labour productivity—and hence workers’ wages—was characterised by “ambiguity”.

Prasanna Kumar, also a general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said labour productivity should be based on a scientific study of time and motion of man and machine on the shop floor. He also said that although the existing productivity levels at the Adugodi plant were higher than those based on scientific norms, the company was unwilling to accept this and reward the workers. “The company’s stand is not based on any scientific principle, nor does it comply with any standardised productivity measure,” he claimed. He added that although the difference between the two sides, in financial terms, appeared to be only a few thousand rupees, the company’s “unwillingness to protect the workers’ existing wages (achieved through higher productivity) reflects a stubborn and intransigent position that has no basis in any scientific method”.

Although the Karnataka Labour Department initiated talks on September 18, it failed to break the deadlock. The company appealed for an “adjudication process”, implying that the dispute be resolved through a judicial process, which the union rejected. The union pointed out that allowing an already delayed wage settlement pass through such a tortuous process was not only illogical but bad in law.

Bosch’s India operations have a history of labour unrest. In August 2014, workers at the company’s plant in Jaipur went on a tool-down strike for two days. In March 2013, workers in Bangalore went on a tool-down strike, and in November, after a similar strike, the company stopped operations at the Bangalore plant. In September 2011, the management shut down the plant at Adugodi temporarily after workers went on strike in protest against outsourcing work from the plant to external entities.

Ironically, the prolonged slowdown in the Indian automotive industry, which resulted in the pile-up of inventory levels, may be favourable to Bosch as it engages in a tussle with its workforce. But, clearly, recurring disputes with its workforce do not augur well for a company that likes to project itself as an “ideal” employer.

Although the dispute veered towards a settlement in the second week of the strike, following the narrowing of the gap between the two sides, the union leadership is clear in its understanding that the question of the imbalance between the increase in productivity that workers deliver and the wages they earn remains a “fundamentally unresolved question”. “But that is a longer and wider battle, which we will continue to fight,” said Prasanna Kumar.

V. Sridhar