Trying times for industry as workforce tensions rise in Tamil Nadu plants

by Murali Gopalan 28 May 2021


Tamil Nadu has not only been reporting high Covid cases but also growing anxieties among the workforce at automotive plants.

Recent days have seen this surface at Renault-Nissan and Hyundai Motor India where fears of being infected have led to protests and subsequent closures. The good news is that these are not going to be prolonged lockouts resulting from issues relating to wages which means plants will reopen once the pace of infections slows down.

The recent spate of incidents, however, throws up further disturbing questions. Will such face-offs between labour and management now spread to Maharashtra and Haryana which, like Tamil Nadu, are critical auto hubs? For now, this seems far-fetched if one were to go by projections on the pandemic which suggest that cases will start falling rapidly by the end of June.

If indeed this does happen, there would be no cause for concerns as normal life resumes and people head back to work in a calmer state of mind. The downside is if the third wave sets in and there is panic all over again as seen in the recent plant closures in Tamil Nadu where the Madras High Court also had to intervene in a particular case.

People pushed to the edge
The stark reality this time around is that more lives have been lost and families are naturally concerned about the wellbeing of their chief breadwinner. From their point of view, he is the one who keeps the home fires burning and therefore needs to be absolutely safe. It puts in context why the last few days have seen such a reaction from the workforce: the fear of losing their lives has pushed people to the edge. 

The debate here is not about who is right or wrong, labour or management, but to acknowledge the stark reality that Covid has wreaked havoc in the human psyche and it will take a while before things truly come back to normal. Typically, after any showdown at the workplace, it takes time to rebuild trust and confidence and this is where companies need to go the extra mile in ensuring that emotional baggage is gently dealt with. These are not the easiest of times and temper flare ups will only add salt to the wound at a time when it needs to be gently healed instead.

After all, there have been enough (and more) instances in the past which have shown how labor strife has had catastrophic and tragic consequences. Uncontrolled aggression has resulted in loss of lives and destruction of assets leaving behind a trail of sorrow, misery and distrust. Prolonged lockdowns have also resulted in loss of production and layoffs over the years across West Bengal, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

In the process, this has been a futile effort where livelihoods have been destroyed and this is something that just cannot afford to be repeated this time around. It is bad enough that Covid has already seen thousands  of jobs lost over the last year — the auto industry just cannot afford an encore, especially when it is one of the key growth engines of manufacturing GDP.

The other reality that also needs to be factored in is the worker exodus that has happened over the last few months since the time infections started rising alarmingly. The biggest casualty in the process has been the vast chain of medium and small scale enterprises that are already grappling with a host of issues like higher input costs, difficult access to funds, shortage of semiconductors and the like. 

For them to lose manpower at this point in time is literally the last straw since supplies to larger Tier 1 suppliers will be badly hit too. As a result, vehicle manufacturers will not get their requirements on time either and tempers will be naturally running high. The next few weeks are going to be critical for the automotive industry and even after lockdowns ease out, it will take a while before smaller enterprises can put their house in order.

At present, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka find themselves in the same situation as Maharashtra did a couple of months ago when infections were spiralling out of control. There is really no way out but to be patient and wait for this crisis to slowly fade out. Bigger automakers have already started vaccinating their employees and should now extend a helping hand to their partners in the ecosystem, especially those who are more fragile and vulnerable.

It is also premature to infer that the worst will be behind everyone after the April-June quarter since the rebuilding process will continue into September. The need of the hour is for the Centre to loosen its purse strings and help beleaguered states. Once confidence returns, workers and management can rally around and keep the production lines humming all over again while keeping their fingers crossed about the third wave.