HR Frankly

De-politicizing Trade Unions is a must

The recent destruction caused by workers at Wistron plant deserves a deep dive. As I always say – The mystery of your Present is baked in your History. So, let’s understand Trade union a little more.

Evolution of Workers Rights 

Mechanization increased wage worker population in urban areas. This was a global phenomenon. Old hygiene factors including work conditions with hours of labour can be termed inhumane today. The early surmise was ‘Man is Machine’ and this is the theory which approved 17-hour work shifts with zero safety.

In 1920, a study by Elton Mayo at the Hawthorne plant Illinois, however changed motivational and managerial theory completely. Western Electric Company thus is the birthing place of modern HR & IR. The advent of personnel managers came from these experiments, who later shaped into becoming Human resources.

Facilities, benefits, health care, rights, work hours have all improved since then and have seen an upward swing every passing decade. Trade Union was officially formed for the first time in 1821 in India. Jute industry of Bengal had maximum number of trade unions by 1840.

Trade Union Muscle power

Trouble is over time; Trade unions became so powerful that demands or objections could turn violent and most got away without financial or employment penalties. Violence was the aggressive style of the Union voice. It is strange that in this country, if white collared employees revolted for not being paid as promised or being short-changed or denied rights, not only will they be sacked but will be blacklisted. Not so with Labour. Laborers by definition, seem to be indemnified from criminal offenses too.

Vandalism has no excuse in any book of law or business. This is not progress. What happened at Wistron is not the first ever uprising that dared to burn down the plate it is eating from. India is known for tolerance, but we do have to learn when to stop tolerating. This country hopes and dreams of growing its economy but events like this will only drive away FDI and interested foreign investors aiding the Make in India drive.

Communism clashes with Economy 

The role of communists backed SFI has emerged loud and clear in this recent revolt & robbery of assets at Wistron. But why does this surprise India businesses?

The power communists are capable of wielding on any section of society that is marginally aggrieved is potent. This why the SFI revolt happened to an organization of this scale and size in the first place. Issues of salary, payment dues etc are not unheard of but violence as an avenue surely is not common. An ‘unattended -to’ workers issue was consumed by Communists, politically instigating the workers till chaos broke loose and now the world of Indian businesses stand hands akimbo, shocked at the scale of destruction.

Outfits like SFI stand a good chance of worming out of the sabotage they designed because of how well they are backed. The damage in the end will lie at the two extremes – the company and its people. Negative elements as mediators is the most dangerous doorway left unattended and the government will be making a huge mistake by letting this episode slip by, without learning critical lessons here.

To see if you can douse the fire one must know the source. Unfortunately, Communist influence in businesses is a fire pit. Unless SFI is disbanded legally there is no real scope to get law back in the saddle and that rings like a loud gong throughout the business corridors of this big nation. This government has a challenge on their hands and they better get it right.

No society is Utopian

Many argue for the one who appears weak in the picture little assessing that weak in large numbers, fuelled by aggression become mobs, that in the past brought revolution and freedom struggle. Does a liberated country need to tolerate mobs when there is rule of law supposedly in place? The pertinent question is why do disturbing events like this happen then? It is not the absence of systems, but missing chips in the big picture.

What’s next? 

The first need is legal compliance both sides. An empowered Labour Swift Tribunal has to be created so mediation is by 3rd party experts set up by either MSME organisations for small companies or Government approved experienced mediation arms. We don’t have a structure yet and this is a calling, especially if we wish to encourage foreign investors and investments in India.

If the government condones this act of criminal violence, vandalism, and robbery, we are paving the way for a future in which management shivers in their pants facing mobs of plant workers.

There are two ways to look at the Wistron tragedy. Lament and blame systems or look at active pragmatic solutions that will prevent further occurrences while also ensuring who breaks the law – Meets the Law.


Seema Raghunathan

A Business & HR professional with forty percent of career in leading an HR Business consultancy. The remainder of her 24-year work experience was spent in Corporate India. Her experience traversed respected brands like Standard Chartered Bank, JP Morgan Chase, Fullerton India, and John Deere with exposure in Banks, NBFC, Insurance, ITES, and Manufacturing & Consulting.
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