Nearly two years since their strikes began, over 400 workers at the Tata Nano plant in Sanand, Gujarat, still await wage increments. Representatives of the Bharat Kamdar Ekta Sangh (BKES)—a union representing the permanent workers at the Sanand plant—and officials from Tata have been haggling over new terms since March 2017. These recent negotiations are the third round in 18 months. “This is related to the wage hikes from 2015-2016. We have not even started discussing what the future should look like,” Hitesh Rabari, one of the representatives of the BKES, told me.
According to Rabari, the Nano plant in Sanand currently employs close to 3,000 workers who work on the assembly line. Of these, he said, nearly 500 hold permanent positions, while the rest work as contract labourers. Most permanent workers at the plant earn between Rs 12,000 and Rs 15,000 a month, Rabari told me. The workers are currently demanding revised wages close to Rs 20,000 each. “If you look at the automobile industry in the context of the ongoing inflation, then expecting Rs 22,000 to 25,000 a month is not much considering the years of experience working for the industry,” Rabari said.
A Tata Motors spokesperson with whom I corresponded over email, wrote that it was against the company’s policy to share the composition of the workforce and its wages. The spokesperson added that it would “suffice to say that it is as per the law of the land.” The email claimed that the incentives given to the workers were “among the best in the state.” According to a report published in the Business Standard in 2015, a shop-floor worker in the Maruti plant in Sanand at the time earned between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000. The report also noted that the average salary for permanent workers employed in motor-industry plants in the Sanand belt “starts from Rs 14,000 a month and could go up to Rs 40,000 a month.”
The permanent workers’ agitation for better wages began in 2015. In March, Rabari told me, Tata agreed to grant the permanent workers a wage hike of Rs 2,500 per month, effective from April. He added that, when implemented, it would have been their first raise since they began working at the plant when it was set up, in 2009. For a few months, the workers, who were unsatisfied with the raise, conducted discussions with the company to ask for a higher raise. According to several workers I spoke to, not long after these discussions began, the company declared that, effective from April, it would charge up to Rs 1,000 for the canteen and transportation facilities it provided to the workers—a significant jump from the lean Rs 50 it had been charging for each service before then.
This decision prompted many workers to reject the wage hike that was on offer. In early November 2015, they began protesting, and repeatedly raised concerns with the plant’s human-resources department. Rabari told me that some permanent workers, feeling helpless, agreed to accept the hike on offer and the charges for the facilities. “That’s when we decided to form a union,” Rabari said. On 14 December, Rabari told me, he and six other workers approached the state labour department to register their union, the BKES.
On 16 December, Tata suspended two permanent workers. “They took their ID cards and told them that the reason for their suspension would be sent to them in a letter,” Rabari said. A few days later, the labour department conducted a negotiation between the company and the permanent workers. Tata agreed to conduct an investigation into the suspensions, monitored by the labour department, and the protests halted.
No report was released in the two months that followed, Rabari said. On a morning in late February 2016, over 400 permanent workers marched to the plant and demanded a response from Tata on the status of the two suspensions. Rabari said that a representative of the company’s human-resources department met the workers at the gate of the plant. Then, he added, the human-resources official announced a list of 26 names. These workers, the official said, would be suspended with immediate effect. Rabari added that Tata later sent notices to the suspended workers regarding its decision, putting the blame for the suspension squarely on the employees. “The company claimed that [of those suspended,] 8–10 had scratched cars and damaged them; others were accused of stoking anger among other workers and encouraging them to hold agitations at the plant,” he said. “Around 40 production cars, had scratch marks on them, that translates into significant cost; while four vehicles were also found to have cuts in the wiring harness,” the Tata spokesperson wrote. “So, around 26 workmen were suspended basis various charges of serious misconduct.”
According to Ashim Roy, a labour-rights activist and a founding member of the National Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), most companies take drastic steps to prevent the formation of unions. Roy has been advising the factory workers in their negotiations with Tata since 2016. “The moment they [the workers] formed the union, they [Tata] dismissed 26 people,” Roy said.
The fresh round of suspensions renewed the agitation—for close to a month, the workers refused to participate in the production, and began conducting protests in front of the plant. The protests continued despite a setback in early March 2016, when the state labour department declared their strike illegal. Amid these strikes, in mid-March, the labour department accepted the workers’ application for a union, and the BKES became a legally recognised entity.
After the suspension in February, the workers’ movement for better wages slowed to a crawl and morphed into a movement for the reinstatement of the suspended workers. On 23 March, the workers called off the agitation when the labour department agreed to conduct negotiations for their reinstatement. According to Rabari, during the discussions, the company agreed to temporarily rehire 13 of the 26 workers suspended in February. He told me that Tata representatives said that the company would only finalise the reinstatement of the workers once a formal inquiry had been conducted into their suspension. “We accepted the inquiry because we had faith that it would be a positive outcome because we did nothing wrong,” Rabari said.
As the inquiry within Tata was ongoing, the BKES continued to negotiate with the company, pressing them to rehire all the workers. Although it is unclear whether the two inquiries were concluded, in October 2016, Tata agreed to rehire 27 of the 28 suspended workers. (Rabari said that the company made it clear, however, that the workers would be hired back one after another, but only every two months.)
The Tata spokesperson did not provide any details about the reinstatement. The email response only noted that the matter of the suspensions was “sorted over a period of time.” “This inquiry went on for six months. If we had done all those things [they claimed], why did they agree to hire us back?” Rabari said. “Our stand was legitimised when the union’s prolonged negotiations led to the [company agreeing to the] reinstating of all 26 who were suspended,” Roy told me.
Rabari told me that in November 2016, Tata granted the permanent workers an allowance for healthcare: every employee would be able to avail Rs 2 lakh in expenses for treatment or hospitalisation. The wages, however, remained unmoved.
In early March 2017, as the BKES continued its negotiations with Tata Motors, close to 200 permanent workers conducted another short-lived demonstration. The workers decided to boycott the company’s transportation service in protest against the failure of the wage negotiations. A permanent worker told me, on the condition of anonymity, that a part of the workers demands, in addition to an increase in the wages, was to reduce the charges levied on transportation and canteen facilities. These charges, he said, effectively reduced the hike. “The present-day settlement is stuck largely due to this,” the worker said. “What is the point of a Rs 1500 raise after so many years of work?”
“Until the union came along, most workers did not even know if their PF [provident fund] was getting deducted or not,” the permanent worker added. “We have appointment letters but they never explain what is becoming of our wages. And we have three years training from industrial training institutes. We are skilled.” “The idea that vocational training could mean access to better jobs has been completely subverted by the practices of industries in the state and in the Sanand area,” Roy said.
While reporting on this story, I also met with several contractual workers employed at the Tata plant. Many of them told me that the BKES’s fight to obtain fair compensation was only one among the many struggles faced by Tata’s assembly-line employees in Sanand. “Tatas have very bad industrial relations. I don’t know about other parts of the country but it is very primitive here [in Gujarat],” Roy said. According to him, the company does not engage fairly with its workers. “There is a high degree of unilateralism. It’s the unilateralism that hits workers the most because it makes him feel undignified,” Roy added.
“The agitation you’re hearing about is actually a very small cross section of workers—not that their demands are not legitimate. But the problem is bigger,” a man who was formerly employed as a contractual worker at Tata told me. I met the former contractual worker in Siyawada, a small village near the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC), an industrial complex that houses the plant. I visited the area to meet other contractual employees—every person I spoke to asked not to be named. “If they know I’ve been talking then no contractor will hire us,” the former contractual worker said.
Several workers told me that at the Tata plant, workers qualify for permanent positions after they gain three years of work experience. “It has become a trend to arbitrarily suspend us when we are about to get permanent positions and then hire a new set of people in our place,” the former contractual worker said.
The workers I spoke to told me that contract labourers are typically paid up to Rs 7,000 or 8,000 per month at the Tata plant, with no access to healthcare, provident funds or other benefits. “Most people don’t realise that the total number of contract workers is almost four times more than those protesting,” another contractual worker residing in Siyawada said.
Roy said that, over the course of his work with the NTUI, he had closely observed the practices that plants such as Tata follow. “It epitomises the worst kind of labour conditions: very low level of wages compared to industrial average, high amount of contract labour and a trend of hiring trainees,” he said. These practices, he added, had become a trend in Gujarat. “The automobile industry is one of the most modern industries; it has some of the latest high-end technological systems and yet some of the labour conditions are really primitive. Some workers have continued as trainees for a series of five–six years before they were regularised,” he said. “This is happening the most at Nano.”
The Tata factory was set up in Sanand in 2009, after it was forced to relocate from Singur, in West Bengal, following widespread protests in the eastern state. At the time, the Gujarat government had given Tata a red-carpet welcome. It allotted Tata 1,100 hectares of land that had earlier been reserved for an agricultural university. According to a report in the Business Standard, Tata was given the land at a rate of Rs 900 per square metre.
In 2008, after Nano’s relocation to Sanand was finalised, nearly 3,000 farmers from six villages in the surrounding area had mounted protests against the land allotment. But after the state offered to pay the landowners Rs 1,200 per square meter of land, the farmers’ opposition subsided.
Residents of Siyawada said that living near the plant had hardly resulted in higher opportunities for them to find work, nor have they seen other development benefits. “The water we used to get access to has been diverted to industries in the area. Our farmlands barely get a supply of irrigation water and bore wells yield polluted drinking water,” Siyawada’s former sarpanch, who asked to be identified only as Dassabhai, told me. “It’s a myth that local employment has gone up,” Dassabhai added. “The only result of these manufacturing plants is that farming has become tougher. And when we try to land jobs in these companies, there is no security.”
In February 2017, Alpesh Thakor, launched a protest against the Nano plant. Thakor is the leader of Gujarat Kshatriya Thakor Sena, and was a vocal opponent of the Patidar agitation in the state in 2016. He is the convener of an organisation named the OBC, SC and ST Ekta Manch, which aims to represent the interests of oppressed communities in the state. On 22 February, Thakor called for the Nano plant to be locked down. “Nano and all these companies were given land at throwaway rates on the guarantee that up to 85 per cent of the workforce would be composed of locals from the area,” Thakor told me. “But eight years later, there seems to be no change in the situation.” He added: “Today, a bulk of workers come from various parts of the state and from outside of Gujarat.” The Tata spokesperson denied Thakor’s claim. “Since inception, the plant has recruited majority locals. As of today, we have employed on our roll, close to 100% blue collar from Gujarat against the mandated requirement of 85%,” the email noted.
“Our protest was a means to draw attention to the fact that residents of the area still rely on agriculture. Neither are they given jobs, nor are they flourishing as farmers,” Thakor told me. On the day of the protest, he marched to the GIDC, along with close to 450 supporters, mostly residents of surrounding villages. The police detained the protestors nearly three kilometres away from the plant.
According to Rabari, though a key difference between contractual and permanent workers is that the latter have been able to form a union to speak up, neither set is able to earn a livable wage. “If I wish to live with my family I have to pay at least Rs 5,000 as rent to live in Sanand or Ahmedabad,” he said. “People are living like bachelors because they have no choice despite families in different parts of the state. If you have to run a household there is no way to manage expenses related to maintenance, food, schooling of children and the cost of living closer to a city.” He added that the helplessness of the workers is compounded as they cannot leave to work elsewhere. “Even after working here for 8 years, if I leave Tata, no one else will hire me because they’ll have to pay me Rs 25,000–26,000, versus the Rs 7,000–8,000 they can pay a fresher,” he said. “This has become a system in Gujarat.”
On 6 May, the Business Standard reported that Tata was likely to sign a contract with the workers for the wages between 2015 and 2020. In March 2017, Tata had signed a contract with the permanent workers in its Pune factory, for a period of three years. The report noted that the Pune agreement included a clause linking a portion of the workers’ salary to their performance. In the email response, the Tata spokesperson refused to include any specific details regarding the Sanand negotiation, stating that it was the company’s internal matter. The spokesperson wrote that in Pune, the wage package has been bifurcated into two parts: Rs 8,600, to be increased at fixed rates over the coming three years; and Rs 8,700, which the email termed “non-actual.” “What has been signed in Pune is going to be a reference point for what needs to be signed at other plant locations,” the Tata spokesperson added. “It is not going to be identical, because, in other locations, we negotiate in advance, here we are running retrospective negotiations.” The email continued: “We remain committed to amicable relationships with our workers and we expect to resolve this matter at the earliest.”
Various workers in Sanand whom I reached out to declined to disclose details as well, for fear of derailing the negotiations. In an earlier conversation, however, the permanent worker had alluded to the Pune agreement. “Our hope is that we too will receive a settlement like the Pune plant,” he had said. “But the amount of time this has taken, we will be left fighting for retrospective hikes every few years,” he continued. “Why can’t they just give us fair increments every year?
Surabhi Vaya is an independent journalist based in Ahmedabad.