Bangalores labour woes

Written by Ajay Sukumaran | Updated: May 16 2014, 02:11am hrs
Industrial peace in Karnataka, it would appear, is better than it was three or four years ago, going by the state governments annual data on strikes and lock-outs. But the situation is far from rosy on the ground, especially in the state capital, Bangalore, which recently saw a month-long deadlock at the Toyota Kirloskar Motor, the only car manufacturer located in the southern state.

Production in Toyotas two plants located 35 kilometres south of Bangalore is getting back to normalcy after the state government intervened in the standoff which began over wage negotiations. It was Toyotas second labour problem in 15 years of operations, the previous incident having occurred in 2006. It, incidentally, also comes four years after the Japanese car maker started a second factory on the same campus, which lowered the average age of its workforce.

What the deadlockwhich became significant because it involved 4,200 union employees also did was to put the focus on the industrial tensions underlying Bangalores manufacturing sector. For it came amid other incidents of labour trouble in the city, notably at Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages and spring manufacturer Stumpp, Schuele & Somappa. Industry bodies have called it a worsening industrial relations situation that needed the governments attention to address complexities in labour laws, among other issues, besides suggesting that labour groups were becoming more active. While organised labour needed to appreciate that many companies were in a situation of just trying to survive, there was also a need for all stakeholders to take a fresh look into the dynamics of industrial relations, according to one prominent industry body.

Trade unions in the Bangalore region agree there is an underlying unrest, but allege that company managements were fuelling this by pointing to a sluggish economy when it came to wage negotiations even if they were making profits, apart from an increase in their use of contract labour. To maintain their living standards, employees are forced to demand more. It is unrest created by the managements. Every negotiation turns into unrest, says S Meenakshisundaram, state secretary, CITU. If unskilled workers are also doing skilled jobs with just a month of training, the regular worker with a higher skill-set will fear that he will be eliminated from the job.

Toyota, in one of its recent press conferences, had maintained that its salaries were competitive and that its level of wage hikes would also impact the entire ecosystem around it. At present, the companys wage hike dispute with its employees union, which incidentally is not affiliated to any trade union, has been referred to a tribunal.

Government statistics, on the contrary, dont paint a drastic picture, indicating that the number of man-days lost due to strikes in FY14 was lower than the previous two years. The Karnataka Economic Survey for 2013-14 published in February had counted three strikes and two lockouts during the year till then (it doesnt include the Toyota lock-out which took place in mid-March). This was lower than a total of eight incidents in calendar year 2010 and nine in 2011.

Bangalore, known more for its IT and IT-enabled sector which employs over 8 lakh software professionals, has a large industrial base that includes PSUs such as Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, BEML, BHEL and Bharat Electronics. It is also home to German automotive component maker Boschwhich saw three lock-outs in the past four years though each has been shortlivedbesides other companies such as Volvo Buses and ABB Ltd and several clusters of small-scale industries.

The proportion of contract labour at industries and even government-run services has been increasing and the situation of these workers is no less grim, says S Balan, president of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions. The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act has all its teeth removed. There is absolutely no protective law, says Balan, who reckons there are at least 4-5 lakh contract workers across industries in Bangalore. There will be different categories of workmen with the same qualification working on a machine, but their pay will be different, he says, adding that the situation will only worsen if the wages are not increased in step with the costs of living. CITUs Meenakshisundaram agrees, saying that some of problems could be addressed if the state government focused on the industrial sector for social welfare programmes like providing sufficient housing.