April 1st, 2014madhudutta

 The young leader extolled “We are 6000, but only one union…others have 3000, but many unions. We have unity, we will fight….”. A roar of approval rises from the crowd, whistles and claps rent the air. M Saravana Kumar, President of Nokia India Thozhilalar Sangam was addressing a 3000 strong crowd of permanent workers from Nokia India Pvt Limited (NIPL).

We are infront of the state government guesthouse at Chepauk in Chennai.  Workers from the Sriperumbadur factory of NIPL have gathered in Chennai to observe a one- day hunger fast demanding that their employments be secured as the Company and the governments (Centre and State tax departments) fight out the tax battles in the courts.

The crowd is vocal and energetic. There is anger and hope and a sense of frustration as we speak with the workers, who are mostly women in their mid twenties or early thirties.

The trouble started in March 2013, when the Central Income Tax department raided the Sriperumbadur factory and slapped a Rs. 2000 crores tax evasion notice on NIPL. That was also the time when the Thozhilalar Sangam negotiated its long-term wage agreement with the management and the workers were happy with their new wages.

NIPL challenged the tax claims first in the Income Tax Tribunal, then in the Delhi High Court and finally took it to Supreme Court of India. Meanwhile, the tax claim figures rose to a whopping Rs 22,000 crores. In March 2014, Supreme Court of India rejected Nokia’s plea and ordered it to give a guarantee Rs 3500 crores. Right on the heels of the SC order came the Income tax notice from the Tamil Nadu government asking Nokia to pay Rs 2400 crores for selling its products in the domestic market instead of exporting while claiming the export concessions.

While the tax shenanigans were going on in India, in September 2013 Nokia Corporation in Finland announced a USD 7.2 billion deal with American software giant Microsoft to buy its global handset business. This meant that the NIPL factory located in Sriperumbadur would get transferred to Microsoft. This factory has been Nokia’s high volume factory that achieved ‘500 million handsets in 5 years’ beating their Chinese counterparts who took ‘15 years to achieve the same’.

The announcement of Nokia-Microsoft deal galvanized a slew of actions by IT department that froze Nokia’s assets and bank accounts in India and put a halt on its transfer to Microsoft fearing non-recovery of tax dues if the transfer went through. Nokia went to court and the long legal battle started.

While all this was going on, the workers were assured by the Nokia management in India that their employments will be protected and they will soon become ‘smart workers’ of Microsoft. But the workers noticed the changes that were happening inside the factory. The volumes of handset being produced were going down (from 13 million handsets a month to 4 million), frequent no production days, shifting of machinery to the newly constructed factory in Hanoi, the layoff of over 1500 contract workers between November-December’13, the arbitrary sacking of the trainee operators, the change in shift patterns from 3 shifts to 2 shifts…all this created a sense of anxiety amongst the workers in the last few months. Finally, in March 2014, in a communication meeting, the management informed the Union that a possible job cut of 2000 permanent workers might be inevitable. At the same time workers also learnt that NIPL had split into two entities-NIPL and Nokia India Sales Pvt Limited (NISPL) and that the tax issue will affect only them being employees of NIPL under which the factory operates.

The young workers, who had finished their school and joined Nokia when they were 18 years old, many of them now married with children, with their families dependent on their salaries now feel ‘let down’ by the company they had once thought was their ‘family’. Most of them have loans and are repaying their debts from their salaries. They come from all over Tamil Nadu, mostly from MBCs and SC castes from farming or weaving background, this being their first factory jobs where they have spent 6-8 years. Now they fear that after assembling phones for Nokia for so many years and not being young anymore—‘companies prefer 18-23 years of age, we are 26-27 years, who will employ us’-they may have become ‘un-employable’.

Listen to some of their voices as we speak to them while they brave the sun and heat and gather here to demand that justice be done!

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(Story filed by TN Labour Blog and Radio Potti)