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Facing shutdown, Ford Chennai plant employees ‘hold cars hostage’, stage sit-in for severance

Ford says it continues to remain engaged with employees and union representatives on all outstanding matters including compensation.

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Chennai: Dressed in a blue ‘Ford India’ shirt, 30-year-old G. Gomathi sat on a large white tarpaulin outside Ford’s Chennai car plant, which is expected to wind up operations at the end of June.

Gomathi is one of 70 women employees who work the assembly line at the plant. The women joined hundreds of their fellow male workers Thursday, the fourth day of a sit-in protest, to demand a better severance package. 

The workers seem to be holding an estimated 1,000-1,500 Ford EcoSport cars, yet to be assembled, hostage. “If we finish making the cars, then there is no connection between the management and us, and we won’t be able to demand anything,” a worker, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint. 

The production line at Ford’s Chennai car plant came to a halt Monday when workers claimed they were asked to sign an undertaking that prohibited them from holding any protests.

“I shall not engage in any activity which disrupts production (including a sit-down strike, go-slow strike etc) or be a part of any unauthorised gatherings within the plant premises,” read the ‘employee undertaking’, a copy of which is available with The Print.

Gomathi, who has been working at the plant for 13 years, said workers launched the protest Monday during the first shift that runs from 6.45 am to 3.15 pm. 

“Because we started protesting inside the plant, the management didn’t allow the second-shift workers in until they signed the form. From that day on, we started the sit-in protest and have remained here day and night,” she said.

Female workers protesting at Ford's Chennai plant | Sowmiya Ashok | ThePrint
Female workers protesting at Ford’s Chennai plant | Sowmiya Ashok | ThePrint

A group of labour union leaders went to meet the Deputy Commissioner of Labour Thursday to ask for his intervention in the matter. Union members later told ThePrint that no headway had been made.

The 2,600 workers at the Chennai plant — established in 1998 — are now split into two groups. One group is holding a sit-in protest on the shop floor inside the plant, while the other group has occupied the lawns adjacent to the plant entrance. 

Gomathi’s husband Aravind is part of the group protesting on the shop floor. “Family members of workers come to see them every day, through the gate,” she said. “It is like being in jail.”

Meanwhile, in response to a series of questions about the protest, a Ford India spokesperson told ThePrint that they “continue to remain engaged with employees and union representatives on all outstanding matters including compensation”.

“Given the ongoing nature of the discussions, we have nothing further to share at this point. As we hold the dialogue, we continue to have all manufacturing employees on the rolls in Chennai,” the spokesperson added.

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‘We believed EVs will come to our plant’

On 9 September last year, Ford announced its decision to halt the manufacturing of cars for sale in India with immediate effect. The American car manufacturer’s Sanand plant in Gujarat was expected to wind up manufacturing of vehicles meant for export by the fourth quarter of 2021, and the Chennai plant by the second quarter of 2022. 

However, on 30 May, Tata Motors signed an MoU (memorandum of understanding) with Ford India and the Gujarat government to take over the Sanand plant.

M. Manimaran, who works at the Chennai plant, said workers approached the management for clarity upon receiving word that the plant might shut down.

“They said they will ask the top management, and that perhaps electric vehicles might be manufactured at this plant,” Manimaran added.

At the sit-in protest, workers say it was Ford India’s decision to apply for the government production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme that confused them. “So, we were under the impression that EVs will come to our plant, we genuinely believed this since Ford applied for the PLI scheme,” Manimaran added.

Entrance to Ford's Chennai plant | Sowmiya Ashok | ThePrint
Entrance to Ford’s Chennai plant | Sowmiya Ashok | ThePrint

They also claimed that the management told them with certainty on 12 May that EVs will not be manufactured at the Chennai plant.

“The Gujarat plant was the one making losses and they were told from March 2021 that they will be shut down and look now Tata decided to take over, so they are safe,” said Manimaran.

“Here, they told us on 12 May that there will be no more work and things will end by 30 June. How do we negotiate a good severance package for all 2,600 of us in this short period? Then they gave us an undertaking to make sure we don’t protest. Right now, we are facing loss of pay,” he added.

Workers at the Chennai plant have experience assembling nearly all Ford models — Ikon, Figo, Fiesta Classic, Endeavour, Everest and EcoSport. Many say they even took home loans to settle down in Chennai, which is why the news of the plant shutting down came as a great shock.

Also part of the sit-in protest were workers like R. Dhasarathan who told ThePrint that he had no other source of income to pay off his debt. “After caring for our extended families, it was only now I was able to put away some savings for my own family. Just then the shutters were brought down on the plant,” he said.

Many workers are now faced with a decision on whether to enrol their children in schools in the city or return to their villages in southern Tamil Nadu.

“They say the plant was incurring a loss, but I really don’t believe that,” said R. Priyadarshini, another worker at the Chennai plant. “There was no way this plant was going through losses, there were no ‘non-production days’ till after the announcement for shutting down the plant was made,” she added.

A. Seetha, the union leader for women employees, said when workers returned to the plant in September after a holiday for Vinayaka Chaturthi, they found that a specific production line for the Endeavour model was missing. “For one week, it remained as ‘non-production days’, and they suddenly made it seem like that production line never existed,” said Seetha.

“Basically, the management made us do all the work before telling us the truth,” Priyadarshini told ThePrint.

“All these years, whatever we said or did, they kept asking us to aspire for ‘global’ standards. They said they were offering global standards in safety, process, and conditions,” she said. “The profit is global, the managers and engineers are global but ‘global’ doesn’t apply to the workforce who actually put the cars together.”

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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