The tightrope between production, industrial peace
NEWS The Wistron incident (recently its workers rioted at its iPhone factory outside Bengaluru) is an example of how exploitative labour practices could accompany businesses moving to India.
BACKGROUND Apple has decided to place its Taiwanese supplier- Wistron Corp., on probation by not giving it new orders. This decision came, after an audit which revealed the serious lapses in labour practices that led to violence in its facility in Narasapura in Karnataka.
SIGNIFICANCE OF APPLE’S DECISION
- This is a step forward in corporate accountability and ethical business operations.
- Pressured by Apple’s response, Wistron has also been forced to apologise to the workers, removed its Vice-President in charge of India operations, and initiated corrective measures to address workers’ grievances.
REALITIES OF MANUFACTURING UNITS
- The incident at Narasapura, points to the realities of high-tech manufacturing outsourced through supply chains in the global south is built on uncertainties of labour involved in them.
- Many of the suppliers subcontracting in the high-end electronics sector are involved in wilful violations of labour standards and practices.
- Other cases of violent labour contentions in units manufacturing and assembling high-end technological devices in India have received less attention in the past.
- The default response of the brands have been- escaping the responsibility by either shifting the onus to the subcontracting firms or keeping things in silent mode.
- The prevailing norms of work arrangements practised by the suppliers is hiring labour from multiple subcontractors/third party work supply firms. This process creates ambiguity in identifying the primary employer and thus impedes workers from getting effective redress to their grievances.
TRAUMA FOR WORKERS
- Brands, in order to produce devices in speed and with tight timelines 24×7, put huge burden on the shoulders of the workers employed in the supplier factories.
- It forces them to work under harsh conditions, doing overtime, long tiring shifts without much breaks, and under constant disciplinary monitoring by supervisors.
- This is further worsened with low pay and little or no social security, leading to strain and traumatic experiences, both physical and mental.
- Another prevalent problem is of unpaid, forced student internships to fill labour shortages and offset costs. Thus, students from vocational educational institutions are compulsorily employed, and subjected to the same exploitative conditions as the workers. Legally not classified as workers, these students have no compulsory social protections.
- The supply of student-workers is encouraged by local governments, since they are dependent on the suppliers’ support for resources, due to skewed tax and revenue structure favouring the central government.
SAFEGUARDS VS. INVESTMENTS
- That many of these exploitative labour practices and violations of safeguards could be carried over when these facilities move into the Indian terrain is illustrated by the occurrence in the Wistron facility.
- The exploitative labour practices when combined with the precarities already embedded in India’s manufacturing sector, can have debilitating consequences for labour.
- This becomes more pertinent, in the backdrop of increasing keenness of governments in India to attract Taiwanese investments and existing weak legal-regulatory labour architecture. Thus, raising the questioning on India’s supervision capabilities on foreign invested enterprises entering India.
- The passing of the new labour codes further erodes existing modicum of labour protection.
- Thus, the fear of ‘flight of capital’, coupled with weak state capacity in supervision make state administrations reluctant to step in unless things escalate.
- Increasing pressure from the consumers side and to keep its brand image clean, Apple has provided a ‘Code of Conduct’ to all its suppliers, seeking to monitor and audit compliance of labour standards and safeguards.
- But the latest incident highlights the need to maintain tough balance between fulfilling production targets and ensuring industrial peace.
In the absence of avenues for workers to channelise their grievances — representative associations and unions — and adequate collective bargaining mechanisms as well as social dialogue, frequent labour unrest including to the extent of violent confrontations, could very well be a daily reality in these high-end manufacturing facilities.