A Groundxero commentary, situating the Wistron workers’ eruption of rage within a larger map of the neo-liberal capitalist system’s violence on workers and its ploy to criminalise class anger.
Even as thousands of farmers from the north Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh are now camping for nearly three weeks on the borders of the national capital, Delhi, blocking the major National Highways leading to the capital city, and threatening to further intensify their agitation against the Narendra Modi government’s pro-agribusiness Farm Laws, class anger of the workers is exploding in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
Both the tillers of the soil and the workers who sweat in factories, are resisting the sinister attempts of India’s plutocrat-ruling elite nexus, spearheaded by Narendra Modi and his Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to use the COVID-19 pandemic to accelerate and intensify the exploitation of India’s toiling poor. As we have witnessed, the pandemic has been used by the regime to bring, in the name of “reforms”, legislations that would change the country’s labour and farm laws. In the name of “reviving” the shrinking economy, suffering from both lack of demand and investment, and now officially in recession with the highest unemployment rate ever, the Modi government has accelerated its privatization drive and has pushed through changes in labour and farm laws in the Parliament. Incidentally, these happen to be precisely the kind of reforms that have long been in demand by the corporates.
Overcoming the fear of the pandemic, and disregarding various government imposed restrictions on protest gatherings, the workers, farmers, students and other democratic sections are coming out to resist this all-out onslaught of the capital-state nexus. On 26 November 2020, all central trade unions, barring RSS backed BMS, observed a successful national strike with a massive participation of the working peoples across the country. This was followed by thousands of farmers marching to the national capital and camping on its borders, demanding repeal of the pro-corporate Farm Laws enacted by the union government. A Bharat Bandh called by over 300 farmer organisations, and supported by all major central trade unions, workers’ federations and major political parties brought the major part of the country to standstill.
While the farmers protests in north India are hogging the limelight and rightly so, the explosion of workers’ anger in Wistron, the month long strike of the workers in Toyota-owned TKM, and the strike by employees of the four Karnataka government-owned transport companies, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, ruled by the BJP, and projected as the dream destination for investment by multinationals, are not receiving due attention, both by the media and the activists. These struggles, though localised, are significant within the larger map of the struggle against neo-liberal attack on the people, and needs to be looked at closely. In this part of the essay, we will focus on the eruption of thousands of contract workers rage at Wistron, the Taiwan multinational owned iphone manufacturing unit, at Narasapura near Bangalore in Karnataka.
On 12 December, early morning, over 2000 contract workers at the Wistron-owned cell phone and IT manufacturing facility in Narasapura, vandalized and damaged the plant. The violence erupted after the workers had just come off the night shift. The incident was reported by all the major online news portals and newspapers. Several video clips of the workers damaging the plant went viral on various social media platforms. The workers were villainized, their anger criminalised. The reports by the mainstream media continued to focus on the ‘violence’ dubbing the workers’ anger as ‘vandalism,’ over an “alleged” issue of ‘non-payment of wages’.
Employees allege they have not been paid properly. pic.twitter.com/GKbeFeyRKc
— TOI Bengaluru (@TOIBengaluru) December 12, 2020
To put it simply, the media only reported the police’s version of the incident, quoted the management of the company, duly focused on the assurance of the state’s deputy chief minister, Dr CN Ashwath Narayan, that stern action will be taken against those involved and his customary mention of also looking into the issue of non-payment of salary by the company. All the newspapers later put up headlines highlighting the company’s sensational claim in their police complaint to have suffered over Rs 437 crore in losses, due to the violence indulged in by the workers. Interestingly, the company has now downgraded its loss estimate to Rs 43 crore, which didn’t become news. The header of a report on the incident in Bangalore Mirror aptly summed up the view of the media, the government, the politicians and the business class. Above a big bold heading in capital letters iVANDALISE, was written in bold: Karnataka’s image as an investment hub tarnished by louts who attacked Apple manufacturer Wistron’s facility in Narsapura over delayed wages.
Why did the workers deliberately destroy or damage property belonging to the company they were employed at? What was the context that sparked the spontaneous collective violence of more than 2000 contract workers? Had they all gone crazy at the same time to indulge in a wanton riot inside their own workplace? It needs to be remembered that there was no union in the factory whose leaders can be blamed for “instigating” the workers, as is almost always done in all such cases.
However, the rage and anger, the frustration and desperation of the workers’ action need to be understood and looked at also from their perspectives. None of the initial reports in the media recorded the views of the workers, the local communities, or tried to find out what actually were their grievances. Silence was also maintained over the issues of the working conditions inside the plant, the unfair and illegal labour practices of the multinational company, and the role of the government’s labour department, that compelled the workers to take the extreme step of vandalising the unit. The role of such vital factors in causing the workers’ anger was ignored, and was barely mentioned in a few words such as ‘delayed salaries’, ‘non-payment of salaries’, ‘spar over payment to workers’ as being the alleged reasons for workers vandalizing the iPhone manufacturing unit. In other words, there was a deliberate attempt to vilify and criminalise the workers, and parroting the old cliché about how such militancy of the workers will act as an obstacle to the inflow of foreign investment in the country.
A brief update of the incident till now
The Karnataka government had allotted 43 acres at the Narasapura industrial area in Kolar, that is around 60 km from Bengaluru to Wistron, after it proposed to invest around Rs 2,900 crore in its venture. The Narasapura facility is being used to manufacture Apple’s smartphone iPhone SE, Internet of Things (IOT) products and biotech devices. The unit employs 1343 regular/permanent and 8490 contract workers, who are sourced from six contractors.
The contract employees, who had been agitating over salary issues, turned violent after the night shift was over and reportedly smashed window panes, damaged furniture, overturned and set vehicles of officials on fire. Thousands of workers were involved. They had gathered at the factory premises to protest the against non-payment of wages for the past couple of months.
A report on the incident by Bangalore Mirror quoted sources in the police department telling that employees working in the plant were angry that the company was not paying the amount that was promised to them at the time of joining. ANI quoted the police as saying
“While an engineering graduate was promised Rs 21,000 per month, his/her salary had reduced to Rs 16,000 after the prolonged lockdown and subsequently citing the pandemic as reason it was slashed to Rs 12,000 further in the recent months. While non-engineering graduates’ monthly salary was reduced to around Rs 8,000 from around Rs 15,000. The salary amount being credited to their accounts had been reducing and this seem [Sic] to have triggered the unrest at least our prima facie investigations suggest that.”
The police has so far arrested 158 persons. A large contingent of police force has now been permanently deployed in the factory premises, to make sure the company can restart operations quickly. Production at the unit is currently under suspension, and repair work to the damages caused due to the agitation is going on.
Fact finding report by AICCTU
The All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) members visited several villages and met workers employed with Wistron. On 14 December, AICCTU submitted their report (copy of the report is attached at the end of this article) to the Chief Minister M BS Yediyurappa and the labour minister, with suggestions on steps to be taken to safeguard the rights of workers and to protect industrial peace.
A brief summary of the report:
Wistron is a multinational corporation from Taiwan. It has established a manufacturing plant at Narasapura Industrial Estate where iPhones are assembled. The unit employs 1343 regular/permanent and 8490 contract workers, who are sourced from six contractors.
- The workers are engineering graduates, ITI diploma holders and PUC/10th standard pass. Majority of the contract workers are (a) migrant workers from other States including Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, etc., (b) migrant workers from other districts of Karnataka, and, (c) workers from various villages in the taluks around Narasapura. The workers, especially those from the nearby villages comes from extremely poor families and a large number of them belong to the Dalit community. All the contract workers are all young men and women in their twenties.
- At the time when they applied for jobs, these contract workers were interviewed by officials of Wistron. Having passed the interviews the contract workers are allocated to one of the six so-called contractors, who issued an “Appointment Order” stating that they are being appointed by the said contractor and would be “required in various clients’ locations”, though the only place they work in is Wistron. All the workers work under the instructions and control of Wistron officials. The contractor plays no part other than issuing the “Appointment Order” and effecting payments of wages. Clearly these contractors are mere name-lenders and the contract system is an unfair labour practice engaged in by Wistron to deny the workers their rights as regular/permanent workers.
- The Wistron establishment only operates 2 shifts – 6.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. (day shift) and 6.00 p.m. to 6.00 a.m. (night shift). For reaching the factory for the first shift, workers get up at about 4.00 a.m. and, after work, reach their homes at 8.00 p.m. The conditions of work are rather horrific. Each worker is compelled to do 12- hour shifts every day/night and has no say on which shift they can opt for. Women are made to work the night shift as well. For every four days of work, the workers are provided 2 days off.
- While the workers were promised monthly wages of Rs 22,000/-, they have received substantially less wages despite having worked overtime on all days without any leave. Wages for the month of November are yet to be paid to the workers. Another issue that the workers have raised is the fudging of their attendance by the contractors leading to them getting lesser wages. The other complaint is the non-payment of due overtime wages.
- There is no Union in the factory, either of the regular employees or the contract workers. Despite being unorganised, workers have aired their grievances with the Company officials on numerous occasions, but to no avail. Irregular, erratic and reduced payment of wages is an issue that was raised repeatedly by the workers and yet remains unaddressed.
- On 12.12.2020, workers yet again sought their wages from the HR and other Wistron officials but were turned away. This appears to have happened between the night and day shifts and triggered the pent up anger of the workers. Some began damaging the company’s property. They broke glass windows and overturned vehicles and damaged other things. The police rushed to the spot and dispersed the workers. Some of the workers alleged that there were some outsiders who came into the factory and resorted to breaking things.
The report stated that there is also an atmosphere of fear prevailing in the area and the workers are living in anxiety that the police will come banging on their doors, irrespective of whether they participated or not in the December 12th incident. Many workers have switched off their phones and most do not communicate with each other for anything. Workers are getting messages from the employer, directing them not to report for duty until further communication. While on the one hand they are anxious about the police action, on the other, they are worried that they will lose their jobs and due wages.
The report clearly pointed out the unfair labour practices indulged in by the labour contractor firms appointed by the company. Non-payment and delayed payment of wages to the workers by Wistron is flouting of Section 5 of the Payment of Wages Act, 1936, which mandates that the wages of every worker employed shall be paid before the expiry of the 10th of every month, in case of industrial establishment with over 1000 workers. Failure to pay minimum wages and overtime wages by the multinational is a clear violation of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. Also, section 59 of the Factories Act provides for extra wages for overtime, and mandates that where a worker works in a factory for more than nine hours in any day or for more than forty-eight hours in any week, he shall, in respect of overtime work, be entitled to wages at the rate of twice his ordinary rate of wages. Further, a 12-hour work shift everyday cannot be made compulsory, as per Section 51 of the Factories Act, 1948 and the same can only be done with the consent of the worker. However, in Wistron, the workers have been compelled to work for 12 hours every day. Also, the women workers were made to work in night shifts of 12 hours from 6pm to 6am. The government notification dated 20.11.2019, which provides for women working in night shift, permits the same only on the compliance of the certain conditions, none of which were met at the Wistron facility.
It is clear from the report that Wistron as the principal employer, can’t shrug off its responsibility and complicity of its officials in the flagrant violation of labour laws within its facility. The state government, instead of going after the ‘errant’ workers and criminalising their violent eruption of anger, ought to inquire into the non-functioning of its labour department in protecting the workers’ rights, and inquire into the various labour law violations at Wistron, and take necessary action in the matter, so that, such ‘unfortunate’ incidents are not repeated by hapless workers in future.
Response of the State Government
The state administration swiftly sprang into action. The state IT minister (he is also the deputy chief minister) and the labour minister have strongly condemned the incident and promised strong action against the workers. The official state government statement said
“We strongly condemn the violence that took place in the plant premises. Police investigations are going on and strictest action would be taken against the wrongdoers.”
The police have already registered an FIR against 7,000 unknown people including 5,000 contract workers, in connection with the violence and vandalism on that day. So far 158 people have been arrested in the case. The police are carrying out raids in nearby villages after identifying workers with the help of the 454 surveillance cameras in the manufacturing unit and monitoring WhatsApp group chats.
Meanwhile, Nitin Kunkolienker, President of the Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology (India) (MAIT), while strongly condemning the incident remarked, “this is a one-off incident which has the potential to tarnish India’s image.” He added that the ‘culprits’ need to be brought to book and argued that the state government should take immediate and decisive action, which sends a message to the global community on India’s tough stand on this aberration. Obviously, he was silent on the subject of unfair labour practices, indulged in by the company which triggered the vandalism.
The government’s statement assured the business community that the ‘state is committed to the growth of industry, trade and business’ and that Wistron is a ‘flag bearer of India’s ambitions to become a global hub for electronics manufacturing’ and reiterated the state administration will ‘ensure complete security and safety of the project’. Even the Prime Minister of the country has expressed concern over the damage to the plant. He too didn’t spare a word on the ‘violence’ of these multinational corporations on workers and what his regime plan to do to protect workers right and dignity at workplaces.
The priority of the BJP led government becomes clear, when even after 6 days of the incident no company officials have been booked for violating labour laws, while workers are being hounded by the police. This is when a detailed government report itself has laid bare a slew of violations of the Contract Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1970 and Karnataka Rules, 1974, by the company and the seven outsourcing firms supplying manpower to it. The news of the government’s enquiry report was published on 15 December in Deccan Herald. The government report, too, listed the following violations by the company:
- The Taiwanese firm scaled up its licensed manpower strength at its Narasapura plant from 5,000 to 10,500 in a short time without permission of the government, while also starting construction of new buildings and facilities without government authorisation.
- The firms also failed to provide workers with employment certificates, which is a violation of Section 76 of the act. These firms have not maintained an attendance register.
- Wistron’s working hours from 6 am to 6 pm and from 6 pm to 6 am was also found to be in violation of the provisions of Section 51 and 54 of the Factories Act, 1948. The company changed the factory’s working hours from eight-hour to 12-hour shifts without informing the labour department.
- Women workers have been made to work overtime at the factory, while the law provides no provision for such an engagement.
- The salaries of housekeeping contract workers have not been paid to date, and (they) are required to work for 12 hours a day, for six days a week and are being paid the same salary which they were being paid when they were working for eight hours a day.
It is clear that the state government’s own findings are in accordance with the allegations made by the workers, their family members, the fact finding report by AICCTU and many media reports. Yet, apart from paying lip service to protect labour rights, the BJP government has done nothing so far to ensure that Wistron workers’ rights and dignity are safeguarded.
The government needs to be reminded that the incident of December 12 occurred in the context of an extremely exploitative sweat-shop like working conditions, in gross violation of labour laws by the company. Workers erupted in violence, when pushed to an extremely vulnerable situation by the company-contractor nexus. The State Government must understand that the filing of criminal cases and arrests of workers might please their corporate masters, but will not serve its long term purpose of ensuring industrial peace in the state.
To conclude this article, what happened in Wistron on 12 December, can occur in any establishment in any industrial belt in the country, because the working conditions are more or less the same everywhere. The recently passed labour codes by the union government are not, as many would like to believe, a bolt out of the blue. The codes have in fact only formalized the realities of labour exploitation in vogue. Even more so, they have built upon and codified the repressive structures and practices which already exist in most of the industries, and in multinational companies like Wistron. Permanent jobs with rights and security of tenure are no longer the norm even in the organised sectors. Indeed, the labour laws have been rewritten to legalise contractualisation of jobs and to provide the employers with the legal right to hire and fire workers at will. The workers’ right to unionise and strike has been effectively curtailed.
The workers movement in the country is still weak to resist this onslaught. The trade union movement is rooted in practices of economism. Yet, the least that the central trade unions can do at this juncture, is to stand in solidarity with the workers of Wistron, and oppose their criminalisation by the state. Otherwise the question will naturally arise, will annual strikes like that on 26 November alone in the absence of real struggle and solidarity at sites of struggle on the ground have any effect on the state-capital nexus’s multi-fronted attack on the working class?
The pdf of the full report on Wistron by AICCTU