“Kaarmikarannu gulaamaragi noduva Toyota management ge dikkaaara, dikkaaara!” (Down down to Toyota management which sees its workers as slaves) echoes through the streets outside Toyota Kirloskar Motors (TKM) manufacturing unit in Bidadi, Karnataka as a sea of employees are gathered, all holding up umbrellas, sloganeering against the company.
It is day 33 since a lockout was declared by the administration of the plant, with 60 employees being suspended so far. The pandals installed by the protesting workers because of the harsh afternoon sun were suddenly removed on a day they decided to visit Bengaluru to support the farmer protest. But the workers, part of the Toyota Kirloskar Motor Employees Union (TKMEU), have no intentions of backing down. They are now sitting in protest with umbrellas.
Of Toyota Kirloskar’s total staff at Bidadi of nearly 6,000, around 3,500 are part of the union and a majority of them are still protesting. As of writing, the protests entered day 37.
The lockout was first declared on November 9, after a group of employees gathered to talk to the management about issues they have been facing at work.
“We gathered during lunch to try and talk to the management. But they stopped the second shift and announced a holiday because we gathered in front of the office. We were asking for the management to come out and discuss with us, but they didn’t come. Around 2,000 of us sat in the company overnight in protest. On November 10, they announced the lockout,” says Chandan, one of the office members of the union.
The trigger for the protest, according to him, was that one union member approached the management to voice issues, but false allegations were purportedly foisted on him and he was suspended.
The lockout was briefly lifted after the state’s labour department intervened, and the government instructed the management not to ask employees to sign an undertaking. However, according to Chandan, employees were asked to sign an undertaking that stated that they will do whatever the management says in order to maintain peace. Some employees returned to work, but the lockout was reimposed in a few days.
TKMEU workers protesting at Bidadi before their pandals were taken down
Workers allege that while there have been issues of harassment at the workplace for a while now, the company is using the COVID-19 pandemic to increase their workload significantly.
TKM’s Bidadi plant produces Innova, Camry, Fortuner and Yaris. Until November, the plant was churning out 300 cars a day in two shifts of 150 each. TKM allegedly wanted to raise the number to 360.
TKMEU says that earlier if it took 3 minutes to assemble an Innova, they now had to do it within 2.5 minutes. This increase in workload came with no additional manpower, pay, and had to be done within regular working hours.
This increase in workload, the union alleges, was unscientific and illegal and was put in place without enough technical study.
“If any defects happen because of this, workers will be impacted. They will issue a notice and then cut our salary. This puts a lot of pressure on us, and will eventually make us leave,” Prasanna Kumar, the president of TKMEU, says.
Workers allege that they are made to work without even being allowed bathroom breaks or time to drink water. If a worker has stepped away from the assembly line for even a minute, their salary was cut. They are also subject to disciplinary action, according to the union.
Making matters worse, workers were paid a limited amount for their work between November 1-9 and have not been paid since. According to Chandan, the company called the strike unlawful and cut the salary for eight days, putting employees in financial difficulty with bills to pay and households to run.
Another allegation made by employees and workers is that the company has been pushing for those in the company to opt for a voluntary separation scheme (VSS), in order to be replaced with contract workers. This way, employees allege, all the company has to give is the severance amount. According to TKMEU, over 1,000 employees have left in the last two-and-a-half years, and in the last month, 150 people have left the company by way of VSS.
Lockouts are hardly new to the auto world, and it’s not new to TKM either. In fact, for this very plant, there have been multiple protests and lockouts since it came up in 1997, one of which led to the formation of TKMEU in 2001. The last lockout was in 2014 when workers demanded a hike in pay. What is unusual this time, however, is the lockout being prolonged for as long as it has, and there being no dialogue between the union and the company.
While the suspension of the employee is what precipitated the current strike, the underlying issue did not start now, and at its core lies the Toyota Production System, followed globally by the company. In 2016, TKM and TKMEU signed an agreement for working hours and working days for the years going up to 2019, and the same continues into 2020. The union, however, says that this does not prescribe work norms or workload.
According to Toyota, Toyota Production System is a "lean manufacturing system," or a "Just-in-Time (JIT) system". The idea is to make vehicles in the quickest and most efficient way, in order to deliver the vehicles as swiftly as possible.
Toyota describes the process as follows: “The Toyota Production System (TPS) was established based on two concepts: ‘jidoka’ (which can be loosely translated as "automation with a human touch"), as when a problem occurs, the equipment stops immediately, preventing defective products from being produced; and the ‘Just-in-Time’ concept, in which each process produces only what is needed for the next process in a continuous flow.”
Sobin George, assistant professor at the Centre for Study of Social Change and Development (CSSCD), pointed out in the Economic and Political Weekly back in 2014 that an important aspect of the system is the element of labour control, which takes every single movement of workers into account. This system, he wrote, also disciplines labour, subverts the agency of workers and intensifies work.
“These ‘value-added/subtracted movements’ of workers also constitute an indicator in their performance appraisal by their supervisor. The lower performance points could lead to punitive actions like reduction of a salary and even to termination of jobs on the grounds of “non-performance”,” the article reads.
This is also similar to what workers are now accusing TKM of. The work culture, they allege, will become worse with the new system.
“The company is trying to fix work in milliseconds. It’s almost impossible. It’s inhuman. They don’t even allow us to drink water,” employees union president, Prasanna Kumar adds.
The union says that several employees are now suffering from leg pain, back pain, neck pain, varicose veins, and other health issues because of their job at TKM. In addition, they allege that they are often denied leave even when it's a serious health issue or a death in the family and are made to go on unpaid leave.
At present, the assembly lines at the Bidadi plant have been manufacturing a fraction of the cars they used to — around 80 cars per day as opposed to the usual 300. TKM resumed production earlier in December with supervisory and other staff and workers who signed the undertaking.
This, Toyota said was “in keeping with the larger goal of maintaining business continuity and catering to the market demand”.
The strike is now on day 36, but the blow to TKM may not be as hard, allowing it to drag out this lockout.
TKM has an alliance with Maruti Suzuki India, as part of which TKM sells Maruti Suzuki’s Baleno and Brezza models under its Glanza and Urban Cruiser brands. These two brands alone reportedly account for around 50% of TKM’s sales and are produced at Suzuki Motor Corp’s and Maruti Suzuki India’s plants in Gujarat and Haryana. Even with a protracted lockout, 50% of the auto company’s volumes continue to remain safe at these units.
The production of Innova Crysta, which reportedly accounts for 36% of the company’s sales and is its largest selling model, is limited.
In the numbers reported this month, Toyota posted numbers of dispatching 8,508 units in November to dealers. 9,072 of its cars were registered, with the company having a 3.12% market share.
TKM maintains that the protest is illegal and unlawful, while workers continue to question their right to dissent.
“We wanted to tell them that they shouldn't take our freedom and rights away, but the company decided to go for a lockout and remove the workers without any government permission. We protested against the lockout decision and asked for it to be lifted. We were told protesting in front of the company factory is wrong. We have written to everyone — ministers, labour department, etc and yet, we are still outside in the streets and we are facing charges that are non-existent,” Pradeep N, VP of TKMEU says.
When TNM visited the protest site, workers said they were willing to get back to work but wanted a tripartite meeting — with TKM’s management and the government.
The state government too has tried to resolve the stalemate. Soon after the lockout was reimposed, a delegation of TKM, led by Vikram Kirloskar said that it met with Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa and other government officials. In a statement, it had said that it had the full and 'unrelenting' support of the government. On Tuesday, Karnataka Labour Commissioner Akram Pasha met with the workers and the management of the company individually. He told Moneycontrol that the strike and lockout were illegal, but no resolution was reached. TKMEU president Prasanna told TNM that there was no resolution yet, and that the protest will continue till the workers are able to talk with the management.
Meanwhile, TKM has said that it initiated disciplinary action against one member, followed by 39 others who it claims were involved in a series of disruptions that violated the company rules, and had decided to place them under ‘Suspension Pending Enquiry’ (SPE) on November 6 and 12 respectively. It then initiated similar action against 30 more members on December 3.
TKM maintained that it had to declare a lockout as the sit-in strike was “illegal” and was called to protest one of the employees suspended pending enquiry.
“As a part of the ‘sit-in strike’, the team members had unlawfully stayed in the company premises and had compromised COVID-19 guidelines, thereby leading to a potentially volatile situation at the factory. This led TKM authorities to declare a lock-out for unionised employees at its plant in Bidadi, bearing in mind the safety & well-being of its employees,” it said.
In its statement, TKM said that employees being suspended pending enquiry was “neither a punishment nor a loss of job but a standard legal measure to ensure free and fair enquiry of the misconduct of an employee by a third party enquiry officer.” It maintained that it was working to sustain plant operations and protect the interest of employees.
(TNM visited the TKM Bidadi plant on the 33rd day of the protest. At the time of writing, the issue continues to be unresolved.)