Changing industrial relations in India’s mobile phone manufacturing industry

A new report by Cividep looks into the mobile manufacturing industry in India. Apparent from the industrial analysis in this report is that companies have a great interest in staying in India. One such place that has been cultivated to be a manufacturing hub for mobile phones is Sriperumbudur. Cividep analyses the disparities between company accounts and workers’ experiences. One such prominent issue is the precariousness of employment in the mobile manufacturing plants, i.e. the high volume of temporary, probationary, contract work created in direct contrast to regular employment with statutory benefits. This is simply glossed over by company representatives, mass media and more shockingly, by governmental officials responsible for implementing development policies and labour laws. An equally crucial feature of working conditions in mobile manufacturing plants is the myriad ways in which workers’ issues and grievances are firmly channeled through management-controlled groups which, by nature, lack the independence, resources and power that permit workers to address these collectively. Besides bogus workers’ councils, as proven in the case of Nokia, other ways are described in which the freedom of association is thwarted by management through their recruitment and human resource management practices.

Changing industrial relations in India’s mobile phone manufacturing industry

The Indian labour rights organisation Civil initiatives for development and peace Cividep, has issued a report entitled "Changing Industrial Relations in India’s Mobile Phone Manufacturing Industry".

The most prominent feature of the mobile manufacturing industry that is apparent from the industrial analysis in this report is that companies have a great interest in staying in India. First, the open-field market over which the leading industrial players continue to compete represents a significant ‘pull’ factor to keep the industry within the country and motivate individual companies to develop strategies in place. Second, the longevity of the industry in India is partly influenced by the extent to which a component supplier base can be established within the country to shorten the time lag for raw materials to be converted into the final product, and reduce the costs involved in imports. Both of these factors affecting the industry’s ‘rootedness’ (as opposed to its ‘footloose’ character) means that there is a window of opportunity to demand more accountability from companies before they would seriously consider relocating overseas simply to avoid their social responsibilities. However, it is certainly possible that companies will transfer part of their production to their plants elsewhere or to greenfield sites within the country in the face of an industrial dispute.
One such place that has been cultivated to be a manufacturing hub for mobile phones is Sriperumbudur.
It would be worth understanding the spatial strategies of companies within India in order to build a pro-active coordinated response in the face of impending relocation during a labour campaign.

A key element is the need for a sharper understanding of the disparities between company accounts and workers’ experiences. Grave issues emerge from the accounts of workers but these are either downplayed or missing in the companies’ profiles. One such prominent issue is the precariousness of employment in the mobile manufacturing plants, i.e. the high volume of temporary, probationary, contract work created in direct contrast to regular employment with statutory benefits. This central feature of mobile manufacturing, and electronics production in general, is simply glossed over by company representatives, mass media and more shockingly, by governmental officials responsible for implementing development policies and labour laws.

An equally crucial feature of working conditions in mobile manufacturing plants is the myriad ways in which workers’ issues and grievances are firmly channeled through management-controlled groups which, by nature, lack the independence, resources and power that permit workers to address these collectively. In theory, employees’ forums are set up for workers to air out any concerns and complaints in particular areas such as health and safety and sexual harassment, or make suggestions that may benefit themselves. In practice, they circumvent workers’ attempts to organize themselves into collective bargaining units and genuinely defend their interests vis-à-vis the employers. Besides bogus workers’ councils, as proven in the case of Nokia, other ways are described in which the freedom of association is thwarted by management through their recruitment and human resource management practices.

Awareness needs to be raised among the growing workforce about existing mechanisms which support them. As workers come from poor, rural communities and are in precarious employment situations, they are reluctant to voice their concerns and risk their sole source of livelihood. It is important to empower workers with in-depth knowledge about their rights and entitlements according to national and state legislation, international labour standards, and their employers’ own corporate codes of conduct, where these exist. This could be achieved in a collaborative effort between civil society organizations and companies, with governmental sponsorship. Such joint educational sessions would demonstrate genuine corporate engagement with civil society organisations, a component of corporate social responsibility which is still missing in India’s mobile manufacturing industry.

Click here for full report.