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Men wearing protective face masks walk past broken windows of Wistron Corp near Bengaluru (REUTERS)
Men wearing protective face masks walk past broken windows of Wistron Corp near Bengaluru (REUTERS)

Karnataka assures to help re-open Wistron plant, Centre steps in

Contract workers at the Wistron plant said that there were cases of assault by company staff, unexplained cuts in wages, just 50 minutes break in a 12-hour shift and ill-treatment that fuelled the violence

A day after reporting serious violations at Apple Inc’s contract manufacturer Wistron Corp’s Kolar plant and an ongoing investigation notwithstanding, the Karnataka government on Wednesday said that it will help reopen the facility in the next 15 days.

The central government too has stepped in, with both the labour ministry and Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) seeking detailed reports on the violence, that potentially threatens to dampen investment sentiment and the 'Make in India' campaign.

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"This is an unfortunate incident and we are in touch with the company, union government and doing all we can to help restart the factory within the next 10-15 days. Around five contractors have not paid workers for the last three months and this has angered workers. Provisions like 8-12 hour shifts, inadequate arrangements for women on night shifts are some of the issues. Wistron is a new company (in Karnakata) and workers never came to us with these problems earlier. When incidents like these happen concerning industries that give employment to 10,000-20,000 people, it sends the wrong signals," Shivaram Hebbar, Karnataka's labour minister told Mint.

Hebbar’s comments come after two different reports submitted by state departments since Saturday's violence, which found multiple faults including labour rights violations, non-payment of salaries, inadequate communication on the repercussions of 12-hour shifts and gaps between the practices in the factory to the statutory stipulations under the law.

One of them also questioned the role of the contractors of Wistron who are suspected to have siphoned off a lion's share of worker wages. It also added that the HR department of the company has not been adequately set up with “personnel of sound knowledge of labour laws."

Non-payment of salaries and work hours were not the only reason that triggered the rampage. Contract workers at the Wistron plant said that there were cases of assault by company staff, unexplained cuts in wages, just 50 minutes break in a 12-hour shift and ill-treatment that fuelled the violence.

Assurances of being paid 300 more per day to employees if they forgo breaks, additional remuneration for working in the festive season and other promises, workers and their families say, were never fulfilled.

"We went to the contractor on Saturday who then sent us to the company and both were not telling us who was responsible for the wage discrepancies which fuelled anger," said a contract worker, requesting anonymity.

The police said that the clash began among workers and which quickly escalated into violence, arson, manhandling of other workers and even looting of factory machinery, laptops and iPhones.

"Our job is to reassure and playing a supporting role in reconstruction which we are doing," Gaurav Gupta, principal secretary of the Karnataka industries department said.

The incident at Wistron is being compared to violence witnessed at Maruti's Manesar factory in July, 2012 where an HR manager was killed amid worker unrest.

Trade union activists and other elected representatives said that governments often compromise on labour rights to bag the investment.

Apple Inc., for whom Wistron produced the iPhone-SE and iPhone-7 at this plant, has initiated a probe to determine if its manufacturing partner did indeed provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity, respect, act fairly and ethically as part of its supplier code of conduct policy.

Wistron has said it is assessing the extent of the damages in various areas of the facility’s campus.

"Unlike earlier reports stated, the violence did not cause any material damage to major manufacturing equipment and warehouses, with preliminary estimates of damages in the range of NTD 100 to 200 million," the company said in a filing on Taiwan Stock Exchange.

This would bring down its damages from 437 crore reported initially to between 26-52 crore.

"Wistron is co-working with related government authorities and police officials regarding investigation of this incident as well as negotiating with Insurance companies," it said.

An independent report by the All India Central Council of Trade Unions terms it as ‘sweat-shop" like conditions.

Much of the recruitment of these contract workers are through word of mouth and surrounding villages waste little time to get their children to take up any job available at one of the many corporations like Honda, Mahindra and Scania among other companies who have their factories in the 700-acre Narasapura industrial area.

As a border district, workers came from neighbouring states like Andra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and from other regions of Karnataka, who live in pitiable conditions in one of the adjoining villages of Kolar city.

Apple has faced some labour trouble in China with its vendor Pegatron which did not involve violence.

As just one of three countries that manufactures Apple products, the incident in Narsapura has changed how locals view the company, one which assured a dream job but went horribly wrong.

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