Despite at least 21 deaths and thousands of coronavirus infections among autoworkers in southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in the past two months, the party government of the State Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) demanded that automobile production be carried out essentially at full capacity. . The government has said that “any business that exports or supplies export-oriented industries will be allowed to operate at full capacity as cases resolve.”
This policy is very much in line with that of the far-right, pro-big business Indian government Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP government openly encourages non-essential industries to operate without making even the most basic health and safety arrangements for workers. The Modi government shamelessly presides over an unmitigated health and social disaster, with more than 400,000 deaths from COVID-19 and more than 30 million infections, according to the official gross undercount, and widespread hunger for hundreds millions.
The DMK government has declared the auto industry to be an essential “utility”. This makes auto workers “front line workers,” as essential to the functioning of society as health, electricity and water workers.
While using this political subterfuge to force workers into dangerous work environments, the DMK government has issued so-called COVID-19 safety guidelines, such as social distancing, that companies are supposed to implement in their factories. These guidelines are ineffective and even fallacious. They are intended to cover the government’s mercenary policy of prioritizing the commercial interests of transnational automakers that successive Tamil Nadu governments have attracted with promises of cheap labor and health tax breaks. and the lives of workers.
Although the government has officially classified them as “essential” workers, its safety measures do not require auto workers to have priority access to vaccinations. Only 25 percent of the roughly 23,500 auto workers who work for the three largest multinational automakers – Renault-Nissan, Hyundai and Ford – are active in India’s ‘Detroit’, an industrial hub less than 170 km away. from Chennai, received a dose.
A prominent journalist, Sudarshan Varadhan, reported in a Reuters article titled “India auto hub allows auto factories to operate at full capacity despite some vaccinations” that about 4% of COVID-19 cases in Kanchipuram districts and Chengalpattu, where the auto factories are located, was counted by auto workers. According to statistics from the Microsoft Bing map, the infection rate for the two districts is around 6% for the general population. However, Varadhan reported 3,768 infections at factories from all three companies. This corresponds to an astonishing 16% infection rate among the 23,413 auto workers.
The two Stalinist parties, the older but smaller Indian Communist Party and the Indian Communist Party (Marxist), were in an electoral alliance with the DMK in the recent state assembly elections. They continue to promote reactionary DMK as a friend of the “people”. Their union apparatuses, the CITU and AITUC, as well as the Maoist AICCTU, all of which maintain a significant presence in Tamil Nadu’s auto sector, support keeping the auto factories open.
At the end of May, core employees of Korean-headquartered Hyundai Motors, American Ford Motors and Franco-Japanese company Renault-Nissan launched a sit-down strike and protests following hundreds of infections in the factories. This rebellion forced car manufacturers to close their factories for 5 days. However, they quickly moved to restart production.
The Maoist-led Renault Nissan India Thozhilalar Sangam (RNITS) group along with unions from Hyundai and Ford have refused to take any sustained action to close factories until COVID-19 is brought under control and all workers fully vaccinated. RNITS simply appealed to the Madras High Court, the state’s highest court, after the factories reopened after the 5-day shutdown in May.
The union asked the court to order production to stop, complaining that the company was flouting social distancing standards. He also argued that the poor quality of health care services provided by the company unnecessarily risked the lives of workers. This convoluted argument implies that if the company had provided better health care coverage, RNITS would have tolerated workers risking their lives for Renault Nissan.
The company told the court that “it was impossible to increase the distance between workers beyond 2 or 3 feet at some workstations.” The DMK government lined up behind the company, telling the court that the nature of auto assembly poses “challenges in maintaining social distancing.” In other words, the lives of workers should be sacrificed to produce non-essential vehicles in order to secure Renault-Nissan profits and rich dividends for investors.
In an earlier ruling on a previous RNITS petition, a panel of two High Court judges cynically stated that “[while] workers’ health is paramount, if industries break down they will no longer have a place to work. For the judges, ordering the company to stop production until the pandemic was brought under control and to pay full wages and benefits to workers during the shutdown was, of course, totally out of the question.
In mid-June, the court ordered the Tamil Nadu government to give its inspectors a tour of the Renault-Nissan factory, but not the Hyundai and Ford factories, finding that the unions at these factories had raised no objections. Highlighting the court’s indifference to workers’ health, he said the inspection should take place in July, ensuring many more workers would be infected before action is taken.
Before the court ruling, the RNITS had already concluded a “peace agreement” with the company, citing the acceptance by the management of Renault-Nissan of a slight slowdown in production speed. As the union explained to the press, this means that “after three cars on the conveyor belt [are assembled], a location will be empty so that a worker does not need to move to the next workstation to complete their work. According to the union, this totally inadequate measure can be accepted as a substitute for the most rudimentary standards of social distancing.
Union general secretary Moorthy also said management had agreed to provide employment for a family member of each of the workers who died from COVID-19. He also pledged to increase compensation for families from 100,000 rupees to 200,000 rupees (approximately $ 2,675).
These developments once again underline that auto workers can only defend their interests through their own independent action. They cannot depend on the RNITS union or the courts to protect their health and well-being. This realization is pushing Renault-Nissan and other Indian auto workers to consider an alternative strategy, as shown by recent discussions by a workers’ group with the WSWS on the formation of grassroots committees. Indian autoworkers should follow the lead of strikers at Volvo Trucks in Dublin, Virginia, who have formed a grassroots committee, recognizing that to advance their class interests, they must fight a two-pronged battle against the transnational Volvo and the pro-company United Auto Workers Union (UAW).
To successfully fight against the giant transnational corporations that dominate the auto industry, a socialist strategy that unites workers internationally is essential. Indian auto workers can play a vital role in the development of this movement by supporting the building of the International Alliance of Workers of Grassroots Committees.