Worker unrest at Tata Motors' Sanand unit nearing a flashpoint

When Gujarat brought home the 'world's cheapest car' Nano, it could have hardly imagined that there would come a time when worker unrest would reach such proportions, that 95 per cent of its permanent workers at the Tata Motors' Sanand site would go on a strike against the management. If things go out of hands, and the law and order situation is compromised, there are chances that the state government may declare the strike illegal.

An on-ground review of the situation revealed that the discord between the workers and the company management has almost reached a flash point, which could lead to unpleasant situations any day at the site. A group of seven workers (who are representing the 423 permanent workers on strike) claimed here on Thursday the company would not allow them to sit on a dharna inside the site from Friday. "While the company has indicated that they would not allow us to stage a dharna inside the premises, the government and police would not allow us to sit outside the gates in the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation's (GIDC) estate. Let's see how the situation moves tomorrow," said Zhala Harpal Sinh, a worker at the site and a member of the seven-member committee, hinting at a possible showdown at the site today.

Company sources, however, indicated that there were no plans to not allow the workers to enter the premises on Friday.

In the midst of rising tension, the workers had gone to meet the deputy labour commissioner of Ahmedabad zone V V Pandya in his office on Thursday. Representatives of the company, including the human resources head of the site, were present during the meeting which went on for more than an hour inside Pandya's office.

Emerging out of the meeting, the workers (seven members) claimed that no consensus has been reached. The company has not agreed to re-instate the suspended workers (nearly 28 have been suspended in phases), and the workers claimed they would resume work only when their colleagues are taken back.

Interestingly, the seven workers were actively guided by a rank outsider who was present at the location. Not dressed in a uniform, the person who identified himself as Vijay Panchal, admitted that he was not an employee of Tata Motors, but was there to offer counsel to the young workers who were frustrated with the company management.

The company, on its part, replied, "the company has no plans to withdraw suspensions that involve charges of serious misconduct. It reiterated that indiscipline will not be tolerated and initiate an enquiry against the said 26 workmen."

Another reason behind the discontent seemed to be the salaries, which are nearly Rs 12,500 per month (according to worker sources) and in the past few years, the hikes have definitely not been handsome.

"The company keeps citing reasons like losses incurred and do not raise salaries by good margins. The inflation hurts us, and nearby factories of Ford India pay better," Sinh said. He feels the company does not wish them to form an union at the site, and its recent actions are attempts to thwart the unionisation of the workers.

Company sources maintained that the other sites of Tata Motors have unions, and there was no reason to not allow one at Sanand.

Production at Sanand, however, has been far below the capacity at all times. Nearly 42,561 Nano cars were produced from January 2014 to December 2015, against an installed capacity of 250,000 cars per annum.

However, the company has started making preparations to roll out its latest hatchback from Sanand, the newly renamed Tiago.

The situation outside the factory gates was uncannily 'normal', with no trace of sloganeering, or anything which hinted at an ongoing tiff between the workers and the management. One could only see buses strategically parked inside the main gate of the site, and locals indicated that the 'agitating' workers were barred from public view by the buses. These workers were commuting to the site in company buses (as many as seventy buses ply everyday from different parts of the city to Sanand), and after their shifts, they were dropped back home.

They, however, have not reported to work since Monday, and while the company claimed that production at the site was hardly affected, the workers claimed that practically no production was happening at the site as almost the entire group of permanent workers refrained from work. There are nearly 2,200 employees at the site, which includes apprentices, and trainees from the Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs)

The company seems to be actively working on a Plan B to not let production at the site get affected due the current unrest. Sources indicated that plans may be afoot to bring workers from other sites of Tata Motors to keep the show on.

Even government sources indicated that it is easy for a company like Tata Motors to replace a few hundred workers if they mobilise their human resources across the country. "These workers would then hardly stand a chance to win their cause," said a source in the state government. In case of any untoward incident happening on site or if talks fail, the state government may declare the strike illegal. "In that case the company can retrench the striking workers. Worst still, if plagued by worker unrest, it decides to follow the precedent of General Motors and shut down their plant. This would put the livelihood of almost 7,000 people at stake; 2,000 odd at the Tata plant and nearly 5,000 at the vendor park; which essentially means at least 35,000 people(counting their families) without a stable income," the official warned.

In fact, in its press statement on Thursday, Tata Motors has indicated, "the company will explore all possible options to continue its operations, peacefully and unhindered, if this illegal strike continues."

Company sources, however, indicated that they expected the situation to return to normalcy soon, as most workers who are staging a 'sit-in' at the site are actually willing to join back work. As the company continues to engage with the workers, they hope to convince them to resume work, however, they continue to remain firm on the question of re-instating the suspended workers.

Even as negotiations continue with the old workers, Tata Motors continues to recruit. A handful of young men waiting outside the factory gates indicated that there were fresh pass outs from the nearby ITIs, and that they had received interview calls on Tuesday.

And so, as they say the show must go on!