Workers vs Volvo: Wheeling in Industrial Dispute

Far from Haryana, where industrial unrest at the Maruti Suzuki factory has been in the limelight, is an ongoing protest at the factory of another automobile giant.

Largely unreported by mainstream media, the workers at the only factory of the Swedish bus manufacturing firm Volvo, have struck work for around 60 days now (starting August 2). So for 60 days, every regular employee of Volvo has been protesting outside the factory premises against the oppressive management practices adopted by the company.

Located just 30 kilometres from Bangalore, the strike proceeds even as the management continues to push forward production using a combination of less experienced trainees, probationers and other assorted contract workers hired from staffing agencies. Needless to say, the quantity of production has been strongly impacted and the clients that placed orders with Volvo would need to be doubly concerned about the quality of buses delivered during this period of time.

One would imagine that companies that manufacture for and cater to the luxury segment of a product would manage to find enough margins to look after its workers well (each Volvo bus is sold between Rs 70 lakh to Rs 1.2 crore). Clearly, we are expecting too much here. It must be pointed out that it is the continued exploitation of the workers in this prestigious firm that initially led them to form a Union to get their voice heard.

The genesis of the conflict lies in the low wages at the factory, right from the time the Volvo buses division was set up in 2001. The share of Azad Builders, who had a 30 per cent minority stake in Volvo India, was bought out by Volvo in 2008, making it a fully-owned subsidiary of the Swedish giant. At this point of time, workers were being paid monthly wage of Rs 5,500. After continuous demands from the workers for higher wages – the management consented to give a salary hike of a measly Rs 650 in July 2009. When the workers asked for a higher wage uptick, the management of Volvo insisted that they would only negotiate with a recognised union. This requirement led to the creation of the Volvo Bus Workers Union (VBWU) and was registered in October 2009. The VBWU presented its official charter of demands to the management in January 2010.

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