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Industrial unrest resurfaces

June 22, 2005 11:16 IST

Emboldened by the resurgence of the Left and aware of corporate coffers bursting at their seams, workers have struck work in a number of companies in the last few months. More are expected to do so in the near future.

The Limda plant of Apollo Tyres near Baroda witnessed a strike in the first week of this month. Workers have been on strike at S Kumars Nationwide Ltd's worsted fabric plant at Thandavapura near Mysore since May 31.

The contract transporters of Tata Motors struck work on June 7. A strike was avoided in May this year at Toyota Kirloskar Motors by a wage hike.

Company insiders say the management is thinking of expanding operations outside Karnataka, possibly to a location in North India, where, they hope, labour would be more manageable.

Hyundai Motors India Ltd, in a seemingly pre-emptive move, has agreed to a wage revision every three years starting next year. Workers of Maharashtra and Gujarat electricity boards have been threatening strikes.

And all the unions of Coal India have jointly called a strike from July 18 unless wages are revised. The indications were there last year only, with the Economic Survey showing a rise in mandays lost due to strikes to 3.20 million in the first nine months of 2004-05, as compared to 3.20 million in entire 2003.

Admittedly, things are not as bad as in 2000, which plunged the depths with 11.96 million man days lost and a violent protest at Tata Engineering's outfit in Lucknow the day Ratan Tata received Padma Vibhushan for corporate excellence in New Delhi.

However, the striking feature this time is that companies have shown excellent financial performances, as opposed to bleak ones in 2000.

Also, labour trouble is no longer confined to their historical bastions of jute mills and small units. Big companies, including multinationals, are having to grapple with industrial relations issues.

It could be because wages and salary increments have not kept pace with the growth in profits or sales of corporate India. According to a study of 650 companies by BS Research Bureau, wages and salaries as a percentage of sales moved down in 2004-05 --probably the first time in the history of corporate India -- to under 5 per cent from 5.5 per cent in the two previous years.

"The workforce wants its pounds of flesh," said the CEO of a leading vehicles maker.

Two, the presence of the Left parties at the Centre seems to have emboldened the trade unions. According to a top executive of a large manufacturing company, a Left leader, closely involved with the recent rise in EPF rates, has been seen doing the rounds in the bustling industrial areas of Gurgaon.

"Organised working class is the source of Left power. Naturally, the Left parties must be catering to the Unions' aspirations," said an industry observer.

The unions, in turn, want to reassure their clientele of their usefulness. "Of late, the focus has been on India being a low-cost country and the unions have been losing some steam in the process. Since politically the Left is very much active at the Centre, it is only natural for unions to remind the people of their existence," says the head of human resources at a multinational.

Labour pangs

  • Troubled: Apollo Tyres, S Kumars Nationwide Ltd, Tata Motors
  • Trouble brewing: Coal India, Maharashtra State Electricity Board, Gujarat Electricity Board
  • Trouble avoided: Toyota Kirloskar, Hyundai Motors
Suveen K Sinha & S Kalyana Ramanathan in New Delhi