Hundreds of women working at Foxconn’s Sriperumbudur plant that manufactures iPhones for Apple protested on the Chennai-Bengaluru highway for several hours on Saturday, December 18. The workers were worried about the state of over 250 of their colleagues, who had taken ill, after consuming food provided at the company provided hostel. Though a small-scale protest had started from December 15 onwards, after many fell sick due to food poisoning, by Saturday, the workers had become frustrated due to lack of communication from the company. While workers alleged that neither the whereabouts of these ill workers nor the exact numbers of those affected were notified to them, a statement by the Tiruvallur District Collector Alby John reveals that 256 workers had Acute Diarrhoeal Disease on December 15, 2021. Of these, 159 had been hospitalised, while the others were treated as outpatients at different hospitals.
The workers were agitated as the officials of the Taiwanese company apparently only told them that those who had fallen sick were receiving medical treatment, and did not reveal other details. The protests became widespread with rumours of deaths of at least two workers circulating, leading to alarm. One woman worker TNM spoke to recounts that people started fainting, had dysentery and were vomiting at the Poonamalee IMA hostel belonging to Foxconn.
“One of the women looked like she was close to death. But the company simply didn’t want the information to come out, so they kept all the workers locked up in the hostel itself. The two women who work beside me at the factory did not come for their shifts for two days,” she alleged. She also alleged that the affected women were not even taken to the hospital immediately. “Nobody gave us answers at the factory, including the supervisor. It’s only after we sat in protest are they even trying to talk to us,” she added.
Table from Tiruvallur Collector's statement
The Kanchipuram Collector, M Aarthi, told TNM that the protesters dispersed on Saturday evening following reassurances from TM Anbarasan, the Minister for Rural Industries and Small Industries and DMK MLA for Alandur and an apology issued by Foxconn.
The worker TNM spoke to alleged that the government officials and even the minister, did not give them proper assurances. “They just kept saying ‘we’ll take care of it’. They didn’t even care to listen to us properly,” says the worker.
The Collector however also told TNM that the minister has promised the workers an investigation into the alleged food poisoning, and assurance that the company will bring better infrastructure and improve living conditions in the hostels. She further added that four of the women who were allegedly affected by the food poisoning are receiving treatment in hospitals. “The food poisoning did happen. Some were mildly affected, some required treatment and some needed to be admitted in the hospital. Four workers are still admitted. Three are in Mehta hospital and one is in Kilpauk Medical Hospital,” she said.
Though by Saturday evening, the District Collector did issue a statement detailing the number of people who had fallen ill, and those hospitalised and discharged, uncertainty through the day led to the massive gathering. A member of Penn Thozhillar Sangam (Women Labourers’ Union, a trade union for women workers) told TNM that for the last two days, the exact number of women affected remained unclear as did their whereabouts.
In a bid to assuage the protestors, the company took nine of the workers to a hospital with the promise that they would be able to verify the condition of the people hospitalised. But the union did not receive word from them. “The workers did not call off the protest willingly, but the decision was due to overwhelming insistence of TM Anbarasan and government officials to disperse. The workers have told us that if they continue to be kept in the dark regarding their affected colleagues, they will re-start the protest,” the Penn Thozhillar Sangam member said.
Speaking to TNM, Sujata Mody, President of Penn Thozhillar Sangam, said that the women are young, and for many, this is their first job. “They do not have family nearby. They are living in hostels run by the company, far from home and a support system. There are about 5,000-7,000 workers, all brought in by contractors or agents.”
Mody adds that the workers, despite having been dispersed, are still extremely angry. “District collector, police, the minister, and management of Foxconn - all of them arrived at the protest site with the focus on simply putting an end to the protest. Whether the families of the affected have been informed, how many in total were affected by the food poisoning, what the present situation is - none of it has been told to the protesters. They have just been told that Foxconn has apologised and how that is a good sign. To the workers, it feels like Foxconn has been given a clean chit by the government.”
TNM attempted to reach Foxconn for comments but the company had not responded by the time of publishing the story. This article will be updated with their response if and when it is received.