Wistron-dream of landing good job turned into nightmare for thousands of workers

When Wistron Info Comm, a subsidiary of Taiwan-headquartered Wistron Corporation, started recruitment last summer at Narasapura near Bangalore, for its newly set-up plant to manufacture and assemble Apple iPhones, the opportunity of landing a good job during the pandemic proved to be a dream come true for thousands of young people in the area. And with Wistron providing its own transport to and from the facility, what more could they want. In the first few months, things went well. But already by November last, their dream had not only turned sour but into an outright nightmare. And in December, Wistron made headlines for all the wrong reasons. On 12 December, hundreds of workers went on a rampage, smashing windows, CCTV cameras, laptops and other electronic gadgets, and several employees allegedly took with them some laptops and any other gadget they could lay their hands on. The police has arrested over 160 workers, and the search for others present at the time is still underway. Meanwhile local BJP legislators have threatened that anyone involved in having stoked the violence would face dire consequences. Astonishingly, Wistron in its first complaint pegged its loss at Rs. 437 crores. But later, it drastically reduced its claim of loss to be about around Rs 20 – 40 crores.

Different media reports (e.g. The Hindu, Indian Express, Economic Times, The Wire, The mint, etc.) have revealed some shocking facts which the flurry of investigations carried out by different government agencies, the Department of Labour and among others by Trade Unions, after the incident, have brought to light. Without enumerating all the important labour laws, rules and regulations Wistron had reportedly violated that, in short, the plant can be said to have been run under sweathouse conditions. A few months after opening the new facility Wistron began to rapidly increase its sanctioned workforce of 5,000 to 10,000 indicative of the frenetic pace of production. But what apparently looked rosy was having darkness underneath. First of all, most of those employed were hired as contract workers. As against 1,343 permanent employees Wistron employed 8,490 contractual workers through 6 different contractors or staffing firms. Naturally, almost 80% of the staff had no security of job, and remained completely at the mercy of contractors. Secondly, the management suddenly increased the 8-hour working schedule to 12 hours, by squeezing three 8-hours shifts into two 12-hour shifts. Promised wages of 22,000 remained elusive, for large sections or all, who knows, and in some cases these were reportedly slashed to Rs 8,000. According to The Hindu (26.12.2020) at an internal meeting, the Labour Department found that no matter the different educational qualifications, everyone was doing the same work for a monthly salary of Rs. 15,000. Again women had been posted at night shifts without consent letters.

To give a bit more details, according to former employees interviewed by the Hindu (ibid.) all went well in the first few months as long as the three 8-hour work shifts were in place. Despite a defective attendance system, i.e. punching machines that often failed to capture the exact work hours logged by the workers, redress of complaints used to be forthcoming. But everything changed in October when manpower had increased enormously and 12-hour work shifts was introduced (at a mere 10 day notice.) Abhishek, an engineering graduate (name changed) who had joined the engineering department, told The Hindu: when we joined we were not told about the 12-hour shift. There was a huge difference between the salary offered and what the workers actually received. Overtime did not bring much relief, he said. Employees stressed that the sudden increase to 12-hours work shifts took a heavy toll on their health. Already affected from Covid-19 related stress, added to the grueling working hours came the 3 hour-long commute to and from the facility (and for those living in Kolar even longer). This meant that employees had no life outside work, and in view of the stress, would end up sleeping on their weekly offs. Confounding their misery was the fact that the glitch in punching machines that did not properly log the working hours was not rectified. Yet as the number of workers had swelled the overwhelming number of complaints remained unaddressed. “I know my friends received only Rs. 300 and Rs 600 as salaries for the full month of November. Overtime in October and November did not reflect in the salaries of many people. These people’s families depend on their salaries,” says Nithin, employed in the FATP (Final Assembly Test and Pack) department.

Many employees said that the assembly line had become a tinderbox from October onwards. The glaring anomalies continued unabated into December. A report prepared by the Karnataka Labour Department in Kolar Circle, after the violence, claimed that Wistron did not maintain attendance and salary records. With no employee grievance redressal system in place at the firm or a union, workers were constantly asking company officials for their dues, the All India Central Council of Trade Unions has said in a report. On 12 December, when workers at the end of a shift came to the punching machines at the exit, and an argument or ‘miscommunication’ between the executive of a staffing company and its contract workers’ ensued, the aggrieved and stressed out workers, going without proper pay for months, of what is anyway a paltry salary, and no prospect for redress of their woes in sight, (the company having also flouted to employ requisite number of safety officers, welfare officers, etc. and no union, as mentioned) they exploded in anger and went on a vandalizing spree.

While Wistron and its parent company, Apple have publicly owned up to some mistakes under pressure, what has been the reaction of BJP governments, both at the Centre and in the state, for whom the Wistron i-Phone plant had been a matter of pride as being part of their much hyped “Atmanirbhar (Self-reliant) India” and “Make in India” programmes? Their sole concern is that worker unrest could impair their image as a business friendly country and hence they intended on nipping in the bud any unrest by workers, more so of contract workers, and have come down with a heavy hand. While nobody will support any form of vandalism, has the government shown any concern for the violent attacks on workers’ health, labour rights and even the right to lead a normal life, which have surfaced by the Wistron incident? Does workers’ life have no value in the governments’ eyes?

This particular instance clearly shows that the real import behind the so called slogan of making India ‘Atmanirbhar’ is not in any way related to the welfare of toiling people and bettering their living standard, but of fostering business interest of industrial tycoons for even more ruthless exploitation. This Wistron episode is a testimony of what things are in the offing once the newly introduced labour codes which the BJP government at the centre has enacted are enforced. The much-touted labour reforms are in fact poised to make life of the workers yet more nightmarish and enslave them more and more in shackles of inhuman capitalist exploitation. But workers themselves need to realize that even when their grievances reach breaking point resorting to vandalism or violent outbursts, though understandable, is self-defeating, and only increases their woes. It is only by getting organized and seeking out the correct revolutionary leadership that can guide them along the correct path by uniting whether in Trade Unions or whatever form, that they can get respite and will find a way out towards a better tomorrow, which is exactly what the government with its new labour codes want to prevent. Unless due political consciousness dawns upon them, the ruling monopolists and their caretaker government would continue to wreak havoc in their life.

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