Only a power shutdown could have stopped the system, a decision no one was willing to take. Agitated workers asked the technicians to break the machine so that Ambika could be taken out, but the line managers dismissed the demand by saying that the “machine was too costly”. Fifteen minutes after Ambika was taken to the hospital, all the faulty sensors were rectified, Ambika’s bloodied machine was cleaned and workers were ordered to resume work. Agitated workers were told that the company will incur losses if they stop the work. Ambika died later in the night.
Ambika, like rest of her fellow workers, risked accidents daily on these machines when the magazine rack on which the metal panels are loaded gets stuck many times a day. Ambika was working on the loader machine, which loads metal panels into a magazine rack which then moves through a conveyor belt into a blade (metal box). It is a closed loop system that works through sensors. For each such cycle, 100 mobiles are produced. At around 6.45 pm on 31st Oct, Ambika’s machine jammed. The conveyor belt got stuck and the sensor stopped functioning. “Out of 25 such assembly line machines, which are all new models, 8 machines have been regularly getting stuck atleast 20 times a shift due to malfunctioning of the sensors”, informed some of the assembled Nokia workers outside Apollo. “We have repeatedly complained to the technicians and the line managers about this for past several months. But they have not paid any attention. They are aware that we were risking our lives everyday.”
When Ambika put her head inside under the metal box to pull the magazine rack, the conveyor belt came unstuck. Immediately the sensor started functioning and the blade (metal box) came down to load the panels. The process was so quick that before Ambika could pull her head out, the metal box fell on her head and neck. The machine got jammed again, this time with Ambika’s head inside it. Ambika could not reach the emergency button behind the small door on the machine. Even if she could have, the button would not have helped as the blade would have come down to its ‘ideal’ position before stopping. Alarmed co-workers called the technicians who for 25 minutes could not figure out how to get Ambika’s head out of the machine. Nor were tools available which could pry open the blade. In those 25 minutes Ambika fainted bleeding from her nose and mouth. Her neck had got crushed under the metal box.
“We keep working like machines in these assembly lines. We have to meet our production targets at all costs. Injuries are very common. In the stamping room, hand injury is very common where fingers get crushed inside the stamping machines” said one of the workers. “It depends on the demand for a particular model. For model no. 1616 we need to assemble 40,000 handsets per day, for some models it can be 12,000 sets per day”.
Nokia’s Sriperumbadur plant produces the largest number of mobile handsets in the world. The unit, capable of producing 7.5 lakhs units per day, has produced about 350 million units since the production started in 2006 as reported by Economics Times in June 2010. Grief stricken and in a state of shock, Ambika’s parents, farm labourers from Puttithangal village in Vellore district, stood outside the hospital waiting to take their dead daughter’s body home. Nokia management had not even informed the parents about their daughter’s accident till late in the night. Under pressure from the trade unions, Nokia finally conceded to give compensation of Rs 10 lakhs and a job to a family member.
Ironically Nokia’s website claims that the Sriperumbadur plant has ‘world class’ safety systems and has been designed keeping in mind ‘worker’s safety’. Joint investigation launched by the State Labour Commissioner and Factories Inspectorate is yet to come out with its findings of the accident. No action has been taken against the management and maybe it never will. Similar investigations of accidents in Sriperumbadur area, the SEZ heartland of Tamil Nadu, haven’t even yielded a single report let alone action against any company. In July this year, 200 workers in the assembling unit of Taiwanese MNC Foxconn India Private Limited, which supplies mobile components to Nokia suddenly fell unconscious while working inside the factory in two different shifts. A few vomited blood and complained of giddiness, some suffered breathlessness, coughing, pain in the chest. They complained of ’poisonous gas leak’ inside the factory. Some of the workers had to be hospitalised for 15 days. A team of ‘experts’ led by Chief Inspector of Factories (CIF) investigating the incidence could not ascertain what caused the workers to faint. A shoddy government investigation attributed the ‘probable’ cause to a pesticide leak during a pest control operation. The CIF team gave a clean chit to the factory which reopened within a few days after being shut temporarily.
It left one wondering if it were indeed a pesticide leak then how did the management allow pest control operations while hundreds of workers were inside the factory? Foxconn management went unaccounted for exposing their workers to unsafe work conditions. Till date the real reason behind the incidence is not known.“There are accidents everyday in these SEZ units in Sriperumbadur and Oragadam. These hi-tech multinational companies flout safety conditions and labour regulations on a daily basis. In most cases accidents are not recorded or registered. These companies are getting away with murder. How can you say that an accident has taken place if it does not even get registered?” asked Soundararajan, state general secretary of Centre for Indian Trade Union (CITU).
Complaints of striking women workforce of Chinese company Build Your Own Dreams (BYD) Electronics India (P) Ltd, another supplier to Nokia in the neighbouring Oragadam industrial area, are a testimony to the sweatshop-like working conditions in some of these factories. BYD workers have 12-hour work shifts, with very little breaks in between, and no holidays for weeks. Workers are made to work even on festivals and national holidays. Worse still, they suffer all manner of injuries such as heat blisters in their hands due to handling of hot mobile covers while taking them out of the moulding machines manually. Loss of fingers and hand injuries are common accidents amongst workers, for which no compensation is given, only medical treatment in some private hospital is provided by the company.
Workers from Caparo, a fully owned subsidiary of Caparo UK, also allege that when they are injured at work, the company immediately gives them a notice of negligence at work without any investigation.
“We are told we have ESI (Employees State Insurance), but we do not have cards or ESI numbers, we don’t even know where the ESI hospital is,” lamented a woman worker who has been on strike in front of the factory since October 28. “We face hostile attitude from the line supervisors. They use abusive language when we spend a few extra minutes in the bathrooms during our menstruation. In the assembly section, we cannot even leave our spot even to go to the bathrooms till someone else replaces us”, complained another worker.
BYD has over 50% women workforce, but all the supervisors and managers are men. “Women workers from Salcomp, a Nokia component supplier inside Nokia Telecom SEZ have privately complained to us about sexual harassment and poor working conditions inside the factory. Workers from American company Sanmina-SCI have told us of similar situation. But they all are too scared to come out openly and lodge complaints. The work situation is hostile in these SEZs,” said Soundararajan.
Incidences of accidents and poor working conditions abound in Sriperumbadur area. Hyundai Motor India’s car manufacturing facility in Irungattukottai had seen seven workers severely injured in a fire in the paint shop in 2008. The accident happened nine months after four workers died in the factory while cleaning the tank which stored waste paints. For a region with more than 200 industries, the lack of adequate health facilities in the area is quite startling, not to say alarming. The local private hospitals are hardly equipped to treat any major accidents as it happened in Ambika’s case or the Foxconn gas leak.It is interesting to note that Apollo hospital is now planning to set up a 60 bedded hospital inside Nokia Telecom SEZ. It has sought exemption from the central Board of Approval in Ministry of Commerce for a waiver to treat patients from outside SEZs.
Ambika’s tragic death and the stories of working conditions in this rapidly industrialising town have thrown up a lot of issues regarding the worth of a worker’s life. The morning after Ambika’s death, listening to workers narrating their work woes outside Apollo hospital reminded one of scenes from Charlie Chaplin’s famous movie Modern Times, which showcased the desperate economic situation during the Great Depression, a direct consequence, as many have argued, of the ‘efficiencies of modern industrialisation’. Similar scenes seem to be playing out again 70 years later in these hi-tech modern industrial zones of Tamil Nadu. Efficiency and production target is given primacy over safety and dignity of the workers. The only difference being that here women are main protaganists–over 70% of the workforce in this area are women.
Source: Ambika’s Death: Madhumita Dutta & Venkatachandrika Radhakrishnan