Subcontracting Governance in Labour Matters

Subcontracting Governance in Labour Matters

Political leaders see ‘foreign hand’ in every adverse situation. A recent story in The WEEK Magazine reports ‘foreign hand’, Chinese to be precise, in the labour unrest!

There is an intelligence report to which WEEK has gained access. We should attribute credibility to it. Foxconn has a factory in Sriperumbudur for making Apple Phones. The intelligence note mentions ‘it is no secret that China was aggrieved over these factories, as, earlier, 48 per cent of the components for Apple iPhone were produced in China.’

Kanchan Sharma covered the Foxconn story . She reported, ‘For women who assembled iPhones at a Foxconn plant in southern India, crowded dorms without flush toilets and food sometimes crawling with worms were problems to be endured for the paycheck. But when tainted food sickened over 250 of the workers their anger boiled over, culminating in a rare protest that shut down a plant where 17,000 had been working.’ Later ‘The WEEK’ published their story pointing out intelligence report.

The Workers Socialist Web Site carried a story which says, ‘At least 159 young female workers employed at Foxconn’s plant in Sriperumbudur, on the outskirts of Chennai in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, were hospitalized for food poisoning Friday, Dec. 17. This was a result of their eating a contaminated meal from canteens attached to the company-provided hostels where workers live in conditions akin to those of 19th century indentured labourers.’

What was the response of Apple who contracted manufacturing of its iPhones to Foxconn? It placed Foxconn facility under ‘probation.’ In other words, Foxconn has no alternative but to upgrade its facilities. Dorms will have to be upgraded. Foxconn has rapidly added to its workforce resulting in the degradation of facilities, it will have no choice but to comply.

‘Comply’ is the word! Does it ring bell? Wistron came under scanner not long ago. It is also a Taiwanese company like Foxconn. Wistron employees turned violent (See The Anatomy of Wistron Workers’ Violence ) because several grievances went unheard. Ignored! That was in December last year. Wistron employed exceptionally large number of persons as contract labour and the contractors did not pay them as promised and on time. They had to work twelve hours every day. There was no compliance of labour laws in Wistron. When violence erupted Apple placed the Wistron facility under ‘probation’. Wistron then had to comply with the labour laws and internal standards.

Let us keep aside the allegations of Chinese hand behind the labour matters. It is a serious matter if true, but surely violence is not resorted to by workers, much less the women workers, unless the conditions become unbearable.

Durga Devi, a former Foxconn worker was interviewed. She is quoted in World Socialist Web Site story. “The hostel rooms mostly don’t have windows and in these rooms 8 to 15 workers have to stay. For instance, when I was staying in the hostel, there were a total of 14 workers in my room.” When workers complained to the management that they don’t even have enough space to store their luggage in their allotted room, they were told to “adjust themselves” to what they have been provided.”

The fact is that labour unrest was caused by inhuman conditions, and an utter disregard for the laws and human dignity. Blaming the Chinese, even if true, sounds far-fetched. As in the case of Wistron, Apple will ensure labour laws compliance.

And that is the point! Who is responsible for ensuring the compliance with the labour laws and providing basic facilities to employees? Our Government has abdicated that responsibility. Our Government has issued GRs (Government Resolutions) on not having inspections of factories.

(SVS Aqua Technologies)

What’s the net result? We have cases like the Pirangut Fire Tragedy (See THE STORY OF PIRANGUT FIRE ACCIDENT- WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY ) where seventeen lives were lost. A team of professionals of which I was also a member, had this to say, “We learn from authentic sources that the factory was registered only in December 2020 although it was in operation for a long time reportedly since 2012. A run of eight years without getting caught! SVS Aqua Technologies at Pirangut employed between 51 to 100 persons. Yet the owners did not register it.”

This is the sorry state of compliance of labour laws. Incidentally the case of SVS Aqua Technologies has not moved an inch toward bringing the guilty to the book. In a nut shell, ‘Business-Friendly’ policies of our Government have buried labour law compliance under its weight.

Today Big Corporations and MNCs are defining the compliance through their supply chain policies. Modern Slavery legislations (all foreign laws and regulations) are forcing them to fall in line, and to comply. In Vedanta case, a the Court held that the UK parent could be liable for the operations of its overseas subsidiary. Heavy penalty was levied on Vedanta.

The picture is clear. The Government has abdicated its responsibility toward providing good labour standards. It has impliedly ‘sub-contracted’ the job to Big Corporations and MNCs. They in turn implement laws under the threat of reputational damage of promoting modern slavery.

What happens if you are not a supplier or a subsidiary of such an MNC and yet break the law? Pirangut fire incident in SVS Technologies tells the answer – Nothing! Nothing happens!

Feature Pic Courtesy Niccolo Chiamori on Unsplash

Vivek S Patwardhan

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”