Global brands, local exploitation

Wistron iPhone plant violence: Global brands, local exploitation

An alliance of capital, politicians and consumers made the wage issue in the Wistron affair seem less important

Security personnel stand guard outside Wistron Infocomm Manufacturing India Pvt Ltd at Narasapura area in Kolar. Credit: DH Photo/Pushkar V

The latest in the winter of discontent is the worker unrest at the manufacturing unit in Kolar district. The unit hired contract labour to assemble global giant Apple’s iPhones. Scenes of workers involving in arson and destruction of property and equipment predictably drew the ire of law enforcement. Despite the fact that their revolt was on the grounds of non-payment of wages, that issue has been made to seem less important by an elite alliance of local and global capital, politicians and consumers. It compels us to understand these outwardly wanton acts of destruction instead as a critique of power.

The government has made a show of punishing perpetrators, anxious to retain its ‘investor friendly’ image. The incident is not the first in a state that has auctioned itself to all forms of capital. The other recent instance is that of poor working conditions and ill-treatment complaint by workers at Toyota Motors in Bidadi. Justifications such as the ‘ease of doing business’ conceal the complicity of State, local capital, and multinational companies in exploiting labour.

At the root of the crisis is a familiar pattern of exploitation of cheap and surplus labour through partnerships between multinational brands and contractors, whether an international giant as in the case of Wistron Corporation or local contractors as in the case of textile factories. Merchandise, garment brands and retail chains like Adidas, H&M, Lacoste, Zara, Nike, Gap, Walmart and Tesco –to name only a few here -- have an egregious history of labour exploitation in South Asian and East Asian countries. Workers’ complaints have ranged from denial of bonuses, salaries and overtime wages; meager wages; long work shifts; inhuman and unsafe working conditions; lack of amenities and benefits; and social exploitation of women, children and minority groups.

Now, what makes this form of abuse lethal is that production is carried out by vast interconnected supply chains that are often undocumented in the long trail of intermediaries, contractors and sub-contractors. This happens by a complex division in the production system, engineered into distinctive components which are normally (and increasingly nowadays) sourced from respective suppliers from different parts of the world. As a result, since the process of production is undertaken by multiple independent establishments who, in turn, directly or indirectly engage the labour force, it exonerates the global brand from any legal responsibility.

All this is mediated through the structure of labour laws and regulations that aim at balancing the interests of the worker and capital. Let us take The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, which governs a new trend of employment in factories and establishments. It casts a joint and several liability on the principal employer and the contractor to ensure the payment of wages and provision of basic facilities and amenities in the workplace. The Act aims to protect persons hired ostensibly for specific work and a fixed period of time. Section 10 of the Act lays down the prohibition of contract labour if the work is found to be necessary, perennial, can be done by regular workmen, and if it is sufficient to employ full-time workmen. However, the nature of (over) production has meant that contract workers actually perform tasks that are routinely necessary, permanent and substantial, thus, evading their regularisation as permanent employees.

Politics of insubordination

There is a need to situate these backlashes to understand the complex structures within which these acts are encased. Workers’ resistance demonstrates a dormant consciousness that defends its interests. Dismissing these eruptions as merely ‘spontaneous’ belie an implicit pattern of operation within their social networks. The anthropologist, James Scott, coined the term ‘hidden transcripts’ in his fieldwork that studied Malay peasant narratives of revolt. Interpreting acts of arson, looting, foot-dragging, slander, rumor, gossip, etc., as everyday forms of disguised resistance against power, he argued that peasants adopt anonymous tactics of defiance behind the backs of the dominant which fall short of an outright revolt.

Legal reforms affirm a parasitic structure that simply seeks to manage the extent of exploitation, thereby making it more uniform and dangerous. Earlier this year, the Government of Karnataka amended its labour laws by further liberalising exemptions in labour-related provisions that apply to establishments. Not only has it relaxed government permissions required by employers, it facilitated easier termination of employment. The labour minister bizarrely justified increasing the limit of maximum overtime hours as a way to “provide opportunities for those who want to work overtime.” In the larger current scenario, the ‘Make in India’ initiative appears as an invitation to extract labour and resources for the collective enrichment of a system that perpetuates itself.

(The writer teaches political philosophy and ethics at OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat)