As India approaches the new year with great expectations for becoming the pre-eminent “emerging economy,” something unexpected has emerged at a flagship factory. An angry labor dispute at a tech factory near Chennai on Monday has erupted with scores of arrests—and the rising superpower’s neoliberal dream now heads into 2015 with a rude awakening.
The workers at the Special Economic Zone are frustrated by harsh recent cutbacks at Foxconn, a Taiwanese-owned electronics supplier for Nokia and other brands. The clash began when “[a]bout 250 people tried to enter the gates of the plant to punch the clock to claim wages,” reports The Wall Street Journal. The police blocked them, and the union says about 168 were arrested, as of Monday morning. They were expected to be released shortly, but talks between the union and management remained stalled.
Punching in normally isn’t an act of revolt, but these workers were acting in defiance following the announcement that the factory, once a key producer of smartphone parts for the affiliated nearby Nokia plant, would be “scaling down operations at the plant due to a lack of orders.”
Dissent has been stirring in the industrial park for several weeks, since Nokia announced it would “suspend manufacturing” starting in November, due to tax disputes with the government. While business observers might be concerned about potential disruption to India’s aggressive courtship of foreign investors, the workers who have for years fueled Nokia’s global brand now face mass displacement. They’ve been cast into economic turmoil that has become all too familiar for the tech-industry workers who have been left stranded by India’s modernization agenda.
The roots of the conflict run deeper. Workers have reportedly long struggled with economic instability and threats of job loss. Their campaign is a flashpoint for broader protests against the social inequality and corporate exploitation that the tumult at Nokia represents. A local advocacy group called the Ilanthamizhagam Iyakkam (Young Tamil Nadu Movement) circulated a pamphlet after Nokia’s announcement of cutbacks and forced “retirement,” to depict the struggles of a workforce that’s often invisible to the global consumers they serve:
Can you hear these voices as caller tunes in your mobile phones?
“I know only to assemble mobile phones. Will I get a job now, at this age?”
“Will the planned wedding be held?”
“How do I repay my loan without job?”
“The money we get from the mandated voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) may be enough for few months; only a permanent job would help me to survive.”
These are few voices from thousands of employees who had kept the Sriperumbudur Nokia manufacturing plant active and profitable with their hard work. These innocent workers had expected a positive sign for their job security, either from Nokia or from the government, but what they actually got was the opposite.
The stories echo the narratives of Foxconn workers at massive Apple supplier plants in China, whose hyperproductive assembly lines have in recent years become notorious for exploitative labor conditions and for a spate of shocking worker suicides.
The Nokia campaigners argue that the corporation’s pullback is not rooted in tax issues nor the plant’s profitability but, rather, it’s more fundamentally about the naked pursuit of ever-cheaper labor—part of a longstanding race to the bottom through capital flight, in which multinationals strategically shift operations to suppress wages and maximize revenues. A decade ago, India launched minimally regulated Special Economic Zones to lure multinational investment, which, according to Ilanthamizhagam,
paved the way for the [multinational corporations] like Nokia to make huge profits with minimum investment and allowed the government to aid the corporates with tax holidays, tax concessions etc. in the name of “national” development. On the other side, the relaxation of Labour laws restrict the employees to gather and to put up a strong fight for their justice.
Newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi has championed free-market reforms and rolling back regulations to draw in fresh foreign capital. But in the wake of the new regime’s “Make in India” campaign slogan, Ilanthamizhagam demands equity for the workers who actually do the making:
Ensure alternative job for those who lost their jobs, because of Nokia plant shutdown.
Nokia’s assets should be seized.
Labor Laws should be tightened and enforced immediately.
While factory workers bristle at the decline of Nokia and Foxconn, tensions are percolating on the white-collar side of the business. Ilanthamizhagam used the Nokia campaign as a pivot for its ongoing campaign to mobilize disgruntled tech professionals. In a recent initiative for workers with the consultancy firm TCS, the group has published workers’ testimonies and pressed for stronger labor protections in the face of threatened layoffs.
One worker activist expressed the ethical and social conundrums that haunt India’s “rising middle class,” and the need for a political resistance to neoliberal consumer culture:
The financial independence we got from our job had made us live as a separate community, and had made us believe that anything can be achieved by an individual. This has broken our social living and collective thinking concepts…. While we master consumerism and nuclear family lifestyle, I also worry that we don’t even join to give voice for our rights.
Ilanthamizhagam tells The Nation via e-mail:
Most of the people in this category are of middle class with more individualism, consumerism and in favour of the government’s neo-liberal policies.… We would like to work towards the goal of lining up the newly evolved middle class section to the ongoing struggles spanning decades in order to attain the democratic rights of the oppressed [class].
And since globalization has been the vehicle for Silicon Valley’s expansion, the group believes its movement must be just as borderless, arguing, “We should build an international solidarity with other tech workers across the world. First we are concentrating to build a strong base among tech workers in our Chennai, Bengaluru [and] then expanding to other cities of India, and then to international techies.”
For years, the global information industries have shrunk the world through technological advancement. But 2015 may be the year that people power forges new connections between labor struggles on many shores.