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: