The Press has extensively reported the violence at Wistron. It points to a big malaise about the way work is organised and compensated. Let us begin with the two excerpts which are important and noteworthy.
Mint report says, “In its complaint to the Police the company executive stated that equipment worth ₹412.5 crore was lost. Infrastructure worth ₹10 crore, ₹60 lakh worth cars and golf carts, smartphones and other gadgets worth ₹1.5 crore were among those which suffered the damage, stolen or lost. He stated in his complaint that 5,000 contract labourers and about 2,000 unknown culprits carried out the vandalism in the factory facility.
And Times Now News reported, “Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister Dr CN Aswathnarayan said the state government has sent out a very strong message that there is no place for violence in industrial disputes, in an interview to ET NOW, after workers went on the rampage over the weekend.”
The Questions Nobody Is Asking
These are obvious questions, but unfortunately nobody is asking.
If 5000 contract labourers (the company reportedly employs 8900 contract workers and 1200 permanent workers) carried out violence with 2000 unknown persons, what was the police intelligence doing? It is unbelievable that 2000 persons who are outsiders come in but the police are unaware of the plan. In other words, this allegation which suggests pre-meditated attack, is obviously baseless.
Violence of this nature erupts like a volcano. The analogy also tells us of the pent-up feelings and grievances simmering inside. And you don’t have to be an expert in criminology to understand why mob suddenly turns violent.
While ‘Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister Dr CN Aswathnarayan said the state government has sent out a very strong message that there is no place for violence in industrial disputes’, does he understand that ordinary men do not resort to violence without persistent gross provocations?
The Factories: Behaviorists’ Paradise
It is a matter of coincidence that before I picked up newspaper which carried the Wistron story, I was reading an excellent book –‘Hired – Undercover in Low Wage Britain.’ James Bloodworth, a journalist, decided that ‘the best way to find out about low-paid work in Britain today would be to become a part of that world myself’. So, he applied to Amazon, got the job and has narrated his experience as well as observations in the book. (I hope that the book will inspire an Indian journalist to try such an approach.)
The jobs are repetitive, very closely supervised and allow too little time for workers to rest or have lunch. Such is the pressure to conform to the performance standards that workers often find it impossible to take a toilet break. There are stories of how Coca-Cola bottles were found containing urine, on the shelves. Wages also have a high portion of incentive payment – and the rules of such payment are harsh. That in turn raises stakes for workers and forces them to ‘run’ faster.
Excerpts from the book ‘Hired’ and Volvo Experiment
“According to a recent survey of Amazon’s staff by the GMB Union: 91% would not recommend working for Amazon, 70% of staff felt that they were given disciplinary points unfairly, 89% felt exploited, 78% felt that their breaks were too short, 71% reported that they walked more than 10 miles a day at work” (they had pedometer attached).
The situation is not very different in India in factories like Wistron. And similar factories in China. The oppressive situation takes the toll.
James Bloodworth writes: “There is something unusually oppressive about an environment like that (at Amazon). I suspect it makes a person more than less likely to misbehave. The entire time I was working at Amazon I felt as though I was under a dark cloud of suspicion. I would find myself cringing under the accusatory questions of a supervisor or security guard when I had done nothing wrong. The sheer oppressiveness of the place built up over time to become a self-fulfilling prophecy; you soon began to fantasise about scheming against the company and its petty rules.”
Remember, this was the first-hand experience of the author, and not the result of interviews. Contrast this with experiments which helped workers find meaning in their work. Do you remember the Volvo Experiment? This is what Wikipedia tells us about it: ‘The teams organized themselves any way they wished and at the speed they choose. While a worker on a conventional assembly line might spend his entire shift mounting one license-plate lamp after another, every member of a Kalmar work team may work at one time or another on all parts of the electrical system—from taillights to turn signals, head lamps, horn, fuse box and part of the electronically controlled fuel-injection system. The only requirement is that every team meet its production goal for a shift. As long as cars roll out on schedule, workers are free to take coffee breaks when they please or to refresh themselves in comfortable lounges equipped with kitchens and saunas. The group assembly system operated in two ways, docked or in-line.’
Work can be organised in countless ways to give high productivity and yet enjoyable. But work is getting organised, in factories such as Wistron in a way which yields high productivity at the cost of becoming meaningless and a drudgery, reducing the workers to a ‘pair of hands.’ Chinese factories like Foxconn are notorious for the workers’ suicides, and not without a reason.
We know that the contractors who supply labour do not pay workers in time and often not in keeping with the contract terms. The living conditions of contract labour are to be seen to be believed. Inhuman is the word.
The workers’ ire turns inward when they commit suicides in a totalitarian state. In Wistron it comes out as a violence. Violence is certainly not an acceptable way to resolve disputes. Can we ignore the deep frustrations that spark violence?
The statement of the Deputy Chief Minister only discloses that he has not grasped complete picture while taking side of Wistron for the sake of guarding and getting foreign investments. The Minister makes no statement on non-payment of wages to Wistron employees (The Economic Times reports that Wistron did not pay overtime wages) and unilateral reduction of wages. Not just employer but even the Government is being perceived by workers as anti-labour. And that suggests that the balance, which should be the hallmark of Government policies, is lost.
Violence Begets Violence
Destroying property is violence. And non-payment of wages and intolerable treatment of people is also violence! Both forms of violence must be abjured.
It will take a long time to normalize the situation at Wistron. And yet the genesis of the problem will be forgotten or willfully ignored for political gains.
Vivek S Patwardhan
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”
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