India’s largest automaker is struggling to end labour unrest at its Nano factory

Image: Reuters/Vivek Prakash
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It’s been 15 days since a strike threw operations out of gear at Tata Motors’s factory in Sanand, Gujarat—and things are only getting tougher for India’s largest automaker at what was once thought to be a marquee facility.

On March 9, the Mumbai-based company that also owns Jaguar Land Rover, filed a complaint against striking workers in a local court seeking an injunction to the strike. It asked the striking workers to report back to work on March 11.

In an email to Quartz, a spokesperson for Tata Motors said:

“The company has again reached out to the striking workmen and advised them to resume duty on or before 11th March, 2016, failing which the company would be compelled to take appropriate legal actions… As a normal practice in such cases, Tata Motors has also moved the Ahmedabad Session Court for an injunction to prevent any agitations on the plant premises to ensure protection and safety of its people and property. We understand the court has now asked the suspended workmen and their counsel to respond to our move for injunction.”

But, the move to approach the court hasn’t gone down well with the workers. For now, they have decided to continue their strike, and have also found support from a few local trade unions. “There will be a dharna at the Ahmedabad Collector’s office, even if we do not get permission. More than 100 people from the Gujarat Civil Society are expected to join the dharna, with the workers from the Sanand plant,” Sagar Rabari, the secretary of Gujarat Khedut Samaj, a trade union, told the Financial Express newspaper.

Tata Motors has, however, held its ground. The company spokesperson said:

“A few workmen have resumed work over the last week and we have learnt that many workmen are keen to resume work… However, some who are against the best interest of workmen and smooth operations, are intimidating them from resuming work. We urge all workmen to return to work giving heed to our public notice and government order prohibiting the strike.”

Trouble broke out last December when two employees were suspended for indiscipline. In February, 26 others were suspended after they reportedly damaged vehicles during a protest against the suspension of the first two workers. The company accused them of damaging inventory and indulging in coercion.

“It was observed that around 40 production cars had scratch marks on them; while four vehicles were also found to have cuts in the wiring harness. Viewed as attempts to coerce the management, around 26 workmen have been suspended (pending enquiry) on various charges of serious misconduct,” the Tata Motors spokesperson added.

Some 420 workers went on strike on Feb. 23. Almost a week after, on March 3, the state labour department prohibited the strike, and referred the matter to the industrial tribunal.

The Sanand factory was primarily set up to make the Nano car, which the Tata group had believed would revolutionise the Indian car market—it was initially priced at just Rs1 lakh ($2,500). Concerns over safety and the cheap tag, however, kept Indians away from Nano.

Between January 2014 and December 2015, only 42,561 Nano cars were made at the factory, though it was capable of producing 250,000 every year.

The strike couldn’t have come at a worse time for Tata Motors. Only last month, the company had started using the Sanand facility to make its latest hatchback, Tiago. Earlier named Zica, Tiago is a model the company is betting on to reclaim lost ground. Over the past five years, sales of the company’s passenger and commercial vehicles have floundered and market share tanked.

“There has been some impact on production but not significant and the plant continues to remain in production every day,” the spokesperson added. “We hope good counsel will prevail amongst workmen and they will restore normalcy.”

Ironically, Tata Motors moved to Gujarat’s Sanand locality in 2008 with much fanfare after a plan to set up a Nano factory in West Bengal’s Singur was met with stiff protests from farmers. Prime minister Narendra Modi, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat, had texted Ratan Tata, the former chairman of Tata Motors, to set up the plant in Sanand as soon as the group decided to leave West Bengal.

The plant was constructed in a record 14 months, and was showcased as one of the biggest achievements of the Gujarat government, under Modi.