Though Apple Inc has placed the Taiwanese electronic manufacturer Foxconn's Chennai plant on probation after it was found that the worker dormitories and dining rooms did not meet required standards, it brings back the memories of the violence at the Wistron plant near Bengaluru which was also put on probation by Apple. The latest row started after protests erupted when more than 250 women workers at the Foxconn plant who live in one of the dormitories were treated for food poisoning and more than 150 were hospitalised. Such incidents once again puts a question mark on the work environment and labour policies of third-party manufacturers and are a wake-up call for the industry and the regulators.
“The hospitalisation of over 150 factory workers of Foxconn at Sriperambudur in Tamil Nadu based iPhone assembling unit has exposed the ugly episode of anti-labour policies of the capitalistic houses. Good food and toilet facilities are considered as essential and any violations in this amounts to the denial of human rights. As per the labour laws, all establishments with contract labourers should be provided with toilets as per standards. Accordingly, there should be at least one toilet for every 25 women workers and the same applies to the men also. If the number of men and women are more than 100 it should be sufficient if there is one toilet for every 25 users. If the number goes up after 100 employees, it should be one rest room for every 50 or less thereafter. As per the norms, the restrooms should be covered, partitioned, fastened, and also demarcated in case employees belong to both sexes,” said Girish Linganna a defence expert and a committee member, ESI Hospitals, Department of Labour, Government of Karnataka.
Basic facilities should be provided by the contractor in the manufacturing plants from the beginning itself, he said. “Sufficient supply of drinking water, washing and first aid facilities, should be provided by the contractor in case of the existing establishments within seven days of the commencement of these rules and in the case of new establishments within seven days of the commencement of the employment of contract labour.”
Experts feel that just because the plant is operated by a well established brand such as Foxconn, it received so much publicity. But third party manufacturers are flouting labour laws regularly. “Foxconn being one of the largest manufacturers of consumer electronics in the world and working with the largest brands needs to better its image. Sometimes you wonder about the glow and glamour the brands create at what cost. The large brands have everything on paper and it should not turn into an eyewash when working conditions are considered. Unfortunately, that’s how it is turning out. People are there to be manipulated and the large companies will. Unless there are stringent laws in place, this will continue to happen. If the large companies do it this way, imagine the smaller ones. The pressure for performance is everywhere but that does not mean it would be at the cost of humanity. This should not become another story of Blood Diamond,” said Sathya Pramod, CEO Kayess Square Consulting Private Limited.
He said that unless the government makes up its mind, it cannot change. “Overall, the laws should help the citizens as well as the companies. Being too stringent can be overdoing it, but being too loose can lead to issues like this. We as a country need to have a competitive edge but that does not mean we give up on humanity and allow ourselves to be dominated. That way we keep the ecosystem growing and attract more MNCs to our fold. Also, as a country, unless we build more value and not just play on the cost arbitrage, such problems would continue to haunt us.”
Experts do agree that third-party manufacturers, particularly those that have large scale operations in Asian countries, have been known for egregiously flouting labour laws of the corresponding countries. “Third-party manufacturers in Asia also obviate the prescribed labour standards of the first party outsourcers. These are certainly not rare episodes, but they are endemic to the entire outsourced electronic manufacturing industry. The forces of globalisation is such that, should a specific nation take stringent action on the cavalier implementation of labour standards, the third party outsourcing firm will just shift to a new manufacturing destination,” Alok Shende of Mumbai-based Ascentius Consulting told THE WEEK.
There was, however, a general consensus among experts that just like the Wistron events last year the events at Foxconn were unfortunate. “Living conditions for the migrant workers must improve. We have noticed challenges faced not only in industrial clusters in India but in places like the Middle East and other parts of the world. Given the volatilities and uncertainties in the business cycles, sometimes companies struggle with paying attention to business enabling roles and as a result, a few things fall through the cracks. So it is a wake-up call for the industry and the regulators to make sure that aspects such as the health and safety are not compromised. And the principals or customers need to apply adequate controls to make sure that the working and living conditions for workers are appropriate,” said Aditya Narayan Mishra, director and CEO, CIEL HR Services.