Wistron: Spontaneous Revolt of Angry Workers

M Aseem //

Angered by unpaid and delayed wages, 12 hour long working hours, deprived of breaks, unpaid work on holidays, cheating in marking of attendance to deduct wages and many such problems, several thousand workers of Wistron Infotech, an Apple manufacturing unit in Bengaluru, started a protest in the morning of 12th December. As the management refused to listen and respond to their grievances their long pent up anger resulted in ransacking of the unit. The workers exiting the factory after completing their night-shift, went on a rampage destroying the company’s furniture, assembly units and even attempted to set fire to vehicles.

In its initial complaint at the Vemagal police station, company executive TD Prashanth had stated that office equipment, mobile phones, production machinery and related gadgets worth Rs 412.5 crore was lost. Infrastructure worth Rs 10 crore, Rs 60 lakh worth cars and golf carts, smartphones and other gadgets worth Rs 1.5 crore were among those which suffered 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 facility. However, Wistron Corporation, which earlier said that it suffered losses worth Rs 437.40 crore in the violence unleashed by a section of workers at its plant in Kolar district in Karnataka over some salary issues, later revised the loss figure to mere Rs 43 crore, Karnataka Home Minister Basavaraj S Bommai said on 16th December. “Police has taken prompt action and arrested 164 persons. The Wistron company which said 437 cr loss earlier now has in writing that loss is 43 cr, therefore, some international media is blowing out of proportion” Basavaraj S Bommai tweeted, in assurance to the national and international capitalists.

CCTV Footage of Wistron workers being made to lie on their stomachs and mercilessly beaten by the police following the unrest at the iPhone factory: December 2020.

This immediately raised hue and cry in capitalist circles and their media that this ‘vandalism’ by the workers could impact investment in India and the Make in India scheme. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi was reported to have expressed his concern, said Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa. As industry bodies termed the incident as a blot in the industry-friendly image of Karnataka, the Centre asked the state government to expedite its inquiry. The department for promotion of industry and internal trade asked the state government to ensure that the “investor sentiment is not affected due to such one-off incident”.

As expected, in a statement issued on 15th December, the Karnataka BJP government immediately came out in full support of the company. It not only condemned the incident but also assured security and stringent action against people involved in the arson and violence. “Karnataka has always been a peaceful State and in the forefront in welcoming foreign investments. The State is committed to growth of industry, trade and business,” the statement issued by the state government said. The state Industries Department also expressed solidarity with Wistron. “Government of Karnataka is deeply disturbed over the events that happened at the Wistron factory premises recently at Narasapura Industrial Area, Kolar. We strongly condemn the violence that took place in the plant premises. Police investigations are going on and strictest action would be taken against the wrongdoers,” the government said.

This facility of Wistron Corporation, which manufactures iPhone, is located at Narasapura Industrial Area of Kolar district, 51 kilometres from Bengaluru. Wistron had received 43 acres land at Narasapura industrial area from the state government after it proposed to invest around Rs 2,900 crore and give employment to over 10,000 people. Wistron is one of the 16 entities which have received approval for incentives under the government’s production linked incentive plan under Make in India scheme of Modi government. Currently, iPhone XR and iPhone 11 are being assembled by Foxconn in Chennai, and iPhone 7 by Wistron in Bengaluru. The Kolar facility assembles the latest version of the iPhone SE.

However, while the government has taken a stand that violence of any sort cannot be condoned, it is imperative to understand why thousands of contract employees went violent that day. Times of India has reported that the employee unrest was triggered by the amount of salary remittances made to them as the workers were angry that the company was not paying the amount that was promised to them at the time of joining. “While an engineering graduate was promised Rs 21,000 per month, his/her salary had reduced to Rs 16,000 and, subsequently, to Rs 12,000 in the recent months. Non-engineering graduates’ monthly salary had reduced to Rs 8,000. The salary amount being credited to our accounts have been reducing and it was frustrating to see this,” a worker said. The company, in violation of all laws, paid paying salary for previous month only after the 10th of the succeeding month. As the salary was received on Friday 11th December, the night shift workers started discussing about their salaries on the floors and some said that they had received only as low as Rs 500 in their bank accounts. The anger turned into violence by the time the shift ended.

It has been reported in various media that according to investigations by police, trade unions, and the state government, a pressure-cooker situation had built up in the factory due to anomalies in the wage payment system after Wistron rapidly scaled up its contractual employee strength from around 3,000 to nearly 8,500 between September 2020 and December 2020. “They scaled up very fast. This facility became operational only in August. Before August, the plant was not in existence. All the recruitment has happened in the last three or four months. They sought initial permission for 5,000 people, and then went to 9,000 at their level. Maybe there was more demand. This was when they moved from eight-hour to 12-hour shifts,” said Gaurav Gupta, principal secretary of the commerce and industries department in Karnataka. The contract employees were hired and paid through six manpower supply contractors, but their work was supervised and managed by Wistron officials.

Initial police investigations have also revealed that the contractors were not paying the workers their full wages as per their contracts, or for overtime work. “The factory was being operated like a sweatshop,” even the police sources have been reported as saying in media. While wages were slashed from Rs 22,000 to Rs 8,000 in some cases, wages for November were not paid until December 11, contract employees have said. Workers were working in two compulsory 12-hour shifts. With no employee grievance redressal system in place at the firm or a union, workers were constantly asking company officials for their dues, the AICCTU has said in a report.  Even an official of the labour department conceded that the trigger for the violence during a 6 am shift change on December 12 was an argument over the attendance system not capturing the exact work hours logged by the workers.

Deccan Herald further reports that a detailed government report has laid bare a slew of violations at Wistron Infotech. The Taiwanese firm scaled up its licensed manpower strength at its Narasapura plant from 5,000 to 10,500. Seven major contractors were engaged to supply manpower to the factory: Innov Source Pvt Ltd, Creative Engineers, Needs Manpower Support Services, Randstad, Quess Corp Limited, Adecco Group and United (Housekeeping). The firms did not provide workers with employment certificates, which is a violation of Section 76 of the Contract Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. These firms have not maintained an attendance register, which they neglected to furnish to the investigation team, in violation of the section 78 of the above act.

Wistron’s working hours from 6 am to 6 pm and from 6 pm to 6 am were also found to be in violation of the provisions of Section 51 and 54 of the Factories Act, 1948. The report also said women workers have been made to work overtime at the factory, while the law provides no provision for such an engagement. When the difference of payment was brought to the attention of human resources and contractors, the HR team “assured that this would be rectified and the difference payment would be paid along with the next month’s salary”. But investigators found that this difference was not paid along with salaries in November.
However, the government report found that some firms were declaring payments to workers as per the norms while underpaying or delaying payments to workers.
“The salaries of housekeeping contract workers have not been paid to date and (they) are required to work for 12 hours a day for six days a week and are being paid the same salary which they were being paid when they were working for eight hours a day,” the report added. Investigators also found that the firm changed the factory’s worktime from eight-hour to 12-hour shifts without informing the labour department.

What The Workers Say

An enraged woman, wearing a face mask and holding a metal rod, destroys glass windows at Wistron’s iPhone manufacturing unit in Karnataka’s Kolar district. Behind her, several employees can be heard hooting, and within seconds, another young man can be seen joining her. Several such videos of employees vandalising the factory have gone viral on social media since December 12. These videos have led to the government and other political parties condemning the protests, but the truth is all the videos have only one common theme — the collective anger of the employees against their exploitation by the company.

The News Minute (TNM) has reported that they spoke to several employees on condition of anonymity, who stated that the anger among the workforce had been simmering over the last six months as management did not address their grievances as they were struggling with delayed payments and lack of overtime pay. Gagan, a 25-year-old employee, joined the company eight months ago through Randstad India Pvt Ltd, a company that Wistron has contracted to hire workforce in Kolar. When he started his job as a data entry executive, he was getting Rs 11,475 as basic salary per month, working eight hours a day. Gagan maintains that he did not miss a single day of work since joining the company and even worked on festival days. “The company’s management said they would pay us Rs 3,500 for two days if we worked on two festival days. Many employees took up this offer,” Gagan said. However, after completing one month, Gagan noticed the pay for three days of work had been deducted. Until September this year, he has lost pay for 20 days in total, and claims the company falsified attendance records and deducted the pay. “I went to them every single month and asked for the money. They kept saying ‘we will give it the next month’. I was supposed to get Rs 7,600. This may seem like a small amount to many but for me I could have paid three months’ worth of chit fund deposit,” Gagan adds. 

Parmesh, a 26-year-old employee at Wistron’s plant in Kolar complains of a similar issue. He says that the company introduced a 12-hour work day in October, promising to pay overtime for the four hours added to the standard eight-hour day. The company, he says, promised to give each employee Rs 100 per day for the overtime work. Parmesh says the employees were promised a basic salary of Rs 15,600 per month, as well as a Rs 300 allowance per day if the employees gave up two break periods, as outlined in a management notice. Almost all employees took up the offer as it would mean more money, he notes. “I have to take care of my mother and two younger sisters. Even this money would have helped me a lot,” Parmesh says. However, Parmesh says that in November, just Rs 12,670 was deposited in his account. “I had not even gotten basic pay. I didn’t miss a single day. Besides, I worked two days during the Dasara festival. According to the notice board, we were promised Rs 3,500 for two days. Besides, the company did not pay the Rs 300 per day it promised for forgoing breaks,” Parmesh says. 

Some contract employees allege they were not paid for two months at a stretch, while many saw payments delayed for days, even weeks, over the last six months, said Sandhya, who has worked at the plant for almost a year. “We are supposed to get our pay before the 10th of every month. The company paid us whenever they wanted. Sometimes it was on the 14th and sometimes even on the 20th or 22nd,” she says.  Like many other employees, Sandhya’s burdens have compounded due to the payment issues. As the sole breadwinner of her family, she has to support her two children and mother on a meagre salary. “I am in deep debt now. I have to pay loans for borrowing money when payments were not made on time,” she adds. 

Parmesh says that he and over 500 employees had approached the company’s HR department and demanded that they be paid appropriately. “They told us to ask the contractors and that it was not the company’s fault,” Parmesh adds. In October this year, over 100 employees had approached Kolar DC Sathyabhama and asked her to intervene. DC Sathyabhama said that she had visited the plant and had spoken to the management, who had promised to reduce the work hours to eight hours per day as per the Factories Act. “The company had promised to resolve the issue,” she said. 

Though Wistron has not officially reacted to the wage dispute, ‘sources’ from the company have been quoted in the media claiming that they have made timely payments. Karnataka government ministers too have said that Wistron paid contractors, who may have in turn caused delays. Labour Commissioner Akram Pasha also told the media in his initial reaction that the company has paid salaries to the contracting companies. However, an inspection report by officials of the Director of Factories Boilers and Industrial Safety, submitted on December 13 says that there was a difference in the payment that the company did to contractors and the company has agreed to rectify it. It also added that the housekeeping staff have not been paid and that contract employees were paid only by 12th of every month.

What Happened On December 12?

At around 6 am on Saturday, around 500 employees who had finished the night shift, went to hand over a letter to the Human Resources Department. The employees had listed their grievances including delayed payments, faulty attendance reports and outstanding payments for overtime work hours. Sandhya, who was among the employees who approached the HR on December 12, says that officials refused to engage in a conversation and allegedly shut the door, locking themselves inside. “They told us that we have to take this up with the contracting company as Wistron had made regular payments. We informed them that the contracting company had placed the blame on Wistron,” Sandhya recounts. 

Employees allege that this wasn’t the first time they approached Wistron’s HR Department and the employment contracting agencies in the last six months individually and collectively. They alleged that each time they were told the outstanding salary amounts would be deposited into their accounts the following month. However, the delays never really stopped. “When Wistron said they can’t do anything, this made everyone angry. I don’t know how it started but people started throwing items. Some of the employees went outside, snatched the steel bollards near the security checkpoint and began smashing the windows. A lot of employees were angry for many months and it looked like they had had enough. As soon as the violence began, a lot more employees began pelting jelly stones and broke windows with steel bollards,” Sandhya recounts. 

Findings Of Labour Department

On 15th December, Additional Chief Secretary of the Industries Department, Gaurav Gupta met with the Labour Commissioner Akram Pasha and officials with the Industries Department to discuss the issue. The Labour Department, in its report to Gaurav Gupta, said that it has asked Wistron to provide records of employees’ attendance. Besides, the Labour Department’s report submitted Tuesday states that Wistron was not directly involved in making payments to 8,490 contract employees but the employment of these persons was contracted to five different firms: Randstad India Pvt Ltd, Adecco India Pvt Ltd, Needs Manpower Ltd, Creative Engineering and Quest Corp Ltd. Another company called United was providing the housekeeping staff.

The Labour Department has also noted many employees were not paid on time, attendance reports were incorrect and employees were not paid for overtime. The report also stated that 126 employees have been arrested so far. “We have noted that the company hired people through employment agencies without checking whether they suited the role. We have also observed that without detailing the criteria, the company hired them as contract employees. It was also observed that the 1,343 permanent employees enjoyed more benefits than the contract employees, leading to the discord,” the Labour Department’s report to the Additional Chief Secretary reads. 

The Labour Department in its report said that based on its preliminary investigation it has recommended sending out notices to Wistron and the employment contracting companies under relevant sections of the Conditions of Employment Act 1936. “Clauses under the Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act 1970 and Minimum Wages Act 1948 seem to have been violated as action pertaining to these violations are recommended,” the report adds. The Department has also recommended that Wistron take employees’ demands into consideration. “We have also recommended that the company resolve the issue internally,” the report added. 

State labour minister Shivaram Hebbar told several media publications that five contractors had not paid some of the workers for the last three months – and that this was one of the main reasons for the violence. “Some of the complaints were that they were made to work for 8-12 hours with just a 50-minute break,” he said. In the end, on 19th December, Wistron admitted that some of its workers were not paid “correctly” and in some cases “not on time”. The Taiwanese firm also said in a statement that it will be “removing” its vice president who oversees the firm’s business in India. “Since the unfortunate events at our Narasapura facility we have been investigating and have found that some workers were not paid correctly, or on time. We deeply regret this and apologize to all of our workers,” the company’s statement noted.

Hence, it is clear that the company was violating all labour laws not only to exploit its workers in the usual capitalist manner but was also fraudulently cheating them of their contracted wages. All this was known to labour department of the state government, but as usual no action was taken. In the end, workers’ pent up anger resulted in this spontaneous revolt. However, this type of exploitation in violation of labour laws has become a normal practice in all industries especially as the Modi government tries to woo domestic and international investors in the name of Make in India. Another workers’ protest is going on at Toyota plant in Bengaluru on similar issues. As reported in India Today, the factory manufactures Innova, Fortuner and other cars. The employees’ union alleges that the target earlier was 80,000 cars per year but it has been now set to 1 lakh cars without increasing manpower. Earlier, if it took 3 minutes to assemble an Innova, it’s now down 2.5 minutes, employees said. They say if they take frequent restroom breaks, their salaries are deducted. Basavaraj, an employee, said “We get a 10-minute restroom break every 2-3 hours but by the time our reliever comes and we go and come back it takes more time and our salaries are deducted. Three days of salary are held back for ‘missed work hours’. This reduces our salary by Rs 3-4,000.”

Especially the big multinational companies being wooed by countries like India to set up factories there expect the governments of these countries to allow workers to be exploited without any hindrance. They employ most of the workers on temporary contractual basis and deprive them of even those few benefits which are available to them in these countries because of long struggles of the working class movement. These are mostly unorganised workers. Wherever unions do exist they have also mostly been co-opted by the capitalist owners in their designs or raise issues of only the minority permanent workers. That is why we are seeing similar spontaneous workers’ protests in many places all over the world. For example, just one week after Wistron incident, on 19th December, another Taiwanese Apple iPhone supplier Pegatron, which is also slated to begin assembling i-phone  in India, had a similar workers’ protest in its Shanghai plant by thousands of workers.

The capitalists are able to do all this with impunity even now despite some meagre legal protection being available to workers in the form of existing labour laws as all government machinery stands with them. But sometimes workers are able to get some of these measures implemented on the basis of their organisations and collective struggles. Hence capitalist class has long been putting pressure on the government to do ‘labour reform’ and do away with these protective measures. That is why we saw attempts by various state governments to remove many protections of labour laws and lengthen the workday to 12 hours during the Covid lockdown period. Though those attempts were rebuffed through protests we are all aware that the central government is now doing away with many of these already weak measures in through the 4 new labour codes which will replace all existing labour laws in the name of aggressive ‘labour reforms’ (we have written about this in earlier issues). The intensity of workers’ exploitation can very well be imagined then. But as Wistron shows we can confidently say that working class will not tolerate that silently.

[Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 9 / January 2021)]

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