Insufficient medical insurance, full-strength factory floors and cramped canteens: three factors that have caused discord between Renault-Nissan’s management and factory workers, now resulting in an all-out strike at the automobile giant’s Oragadam plant, near Chennai.
On Monday, the Renault-Nissan India Workers Union (RNIWU), which is the plant’s major labour union, wrote a five-page letter to management stating that nearly 3,547 factory staff would boycott work starting May 26 (Wednesday).
“We regret to inform you on behalf of the union members, that they will not come to work from Wednesday, first shift, until safety measures are put in place, in consultation with the union,” the union’s letter says.
A look back at what caused the fallout reveals details over the possible breach in Renault-Nissan’s COVID-19 safety protocols, including apparent disregard for the health and safety of factory workers.
While the issues that Renault-Nissan’s 8,000 factory workers have had with working conditions are many, one of the major irritants has been the management’s unilateral decision-making during COVID-19.
“Despite the fact that we are the only union with all workers as members, the management has not consulted the union before taking decisions,” says the labour union’s letter to Renault-Nissan management.
“The union’s attempts to explain the plight of the workers have fallen on deaf ears. The management has not been transparent in its decision-making and has excluded the union of any participatory role,” the letter adds, “The result of this is that workers’ issues are not considered.”
What are these issues that RNIWU refers to? The letter explains them in even greater detail.
Inadequate medical insurance
A year ago, Renault-Nissan, the labour union says, announced an “inadequate” medical insurance plan of Rs 1 lakh per worker, applicable only towards hospitalization expenses. Further, the company, if the labour union is to be believed, agreed to announce the insurance scheme only after multiple representations by the union.
“The insurance (amount) will be exhausted in three to five days, according to present-day hospitalization charges,” says the letter, “So, the affected workers do not have adequate insurance or medical facilities.”
Reduced shifts, same employee strength
Another bone of contention between management and union stemmed from Renault-Nissan’s apparent refusal to cut footfalls by 50 percent, in keeping with widely acknowledged and followed COVID-19 protocol.
“We suggested reducing worker strength by 50 percent to reduce the possibility of spread of COVID-19, but this was disregarded by the management,” the letter added.
While the union filed a writ petition at the Madras High Court over this refusal, a single-judge bench prima-facie observed that while the matter was a policy decision, reducing footfall was a necessary safety measure.
What Renault-Nissan then did, according to its labour union was cut three shifts down to two, while continuing to maintain the same employee strength on the factory floor.
“The production rate (at the factory) remains the same: 27 jobs per hour on Line 1 and 40 jobs per hour on Line 2. Therefore it requires the same number of workers as before on production lines,” said the letter.
“The chances for the spread of COVID-19 could have been reduced if the management implemented measures for reduced footfall in consultation with the union,” it added.
More factory workers on fewer shifts have resulted in cramped canteens, with no scope for social distancing, the union alleges.
“Responding to this, you removed alternate to increase the distance between two seats,” states the letter, addressing management, “However, with the number of workers being the same, workers are compelled to stand in long queues and in narrow spaces to have lunch as the duration of lunchtime is also limited, and workers have to go back to production.”
If overcrowded canteens were one issue, the union has also pointed out that expecting a full-strength team to turn up to work even as “95 percent of the workforce below the age of 45 remains unvaccinated” is a violation of the Tamil Nadu Government’s mandate to vaccinate factory workers while continuing production.
The letter ends with the union announcing its decision to go on strike starting May 26.
“If 3,500 workers do not turn up to the plant, there is little scope of Renault Nissan running operations,” said M Moorthy, General Secretary, Renault Nissan India Workers Union, speaking to CNBC-TV18.
“I know for a fact that contract workers do not want to take the risk of going to work and contracting COVID-19 and will not turn up either,” he added.
The strike at Renault-Nissan comes even as Hyundai Motor India has announced the suspension of production at its Irungattukottai plant till May 29 owing to the pandemic.
Reports said that Hyundai factory workers
had been engaged in fortnight-long parleys with the company in order to secure leave owing to fears over health and safety.
Renault-Nissan has not released a statement on labour issues or the allegations made by the union, as yet. CNBC-TV18 has written to the company for a response and will update this story if and when it responds to our queries.