Apple to probe worker unrest in Taiwanese company making iPhones in India

Men walk past broken windows of a facility run by Wistron in India, PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGALORE - A violent protest over unpaid wages at an iPhone assembly plant near Bangalore could complicate India's plans to woo foreign phone-makers.

On Dec 12, thousands of workers at the Narasapura factory of Wistron Infocomm, a Taiwanese iPhone supplier, gathered to demand that they be paid their delayed wages and overtime pay.

Some of the protesters turned violent, smashing glass windows and office equipment with rods and stones and setting fire to vehicles.

The company initially estimated damages worth US$60 million (S$80 million), but later revised the estimate to US$7 million.

In a complaint to the police, Wistron officials said over 5,000 contract employees and 2,000 unknown people were responsible.

The local police said they arrested over 150 people in relation to the violence for offences including rioting, unlawful assembly and criminal intimidation.

The Wistron plant began operations in September. A local labour official said that it employs 1,343 permanent workers directly and 8,490 workers through contractors.

Representatives from the All-India Central Council of Trade Unions, a national trade union federation, visited Naraspura to meet workers.

In a statement, it said that factory workers alleged they were illegally compelled to work 12-hours shifts, and that many contract workers were not paid on time and received less pay than promised. The federation said the situation at the factory was akin to "an extremely exploitative sweat-shop".

Labour officials say they did not receive any complaints from any employee association at the factory. The plant does not have a formal employees' union.

The Straits Times reached out to some of Wistron's employees, but they declined to speak, fearing arrest.

Apple's responsibility standards require suppliers to ensure that third-party employment agencies pay workers and provide legal benefits accurately and on time. The company has launched an investigation into whether its policies were breached at the factory.

Wistron said in a statement to the Taipei Stock Exchange that it "always abides by the law, and fully supports and is cooperating with relevant authorities". It said: "The accident was caused by unknown persons bursting in and causing damage to the plant with unclear intentions."

Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka C. N. Ashwath Narayan told reporters that those who took the law into their own hands would be dealt with "very strongly", but also that the concerns of both the employer and employees would be "effectively addressed."

Apple began making iPhones in India in 2017. The Narasapura plant, one of two Wistron factories in the southern state of Karnataka, assembles iPhone SE 2020 handsets, and was expected to make 5 to 10 million iPhones every year. Foxconn, another Taiwanese company, has been making iPhone 11 handsets at a plant near Chennai since July.

As part of a 'Make in India' drive, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has actively courted foreign investment into the country, including from global brands looking to reduce their dependence on China.

In September, Parliament passed three labour laws that made it easier for companies of a certain size to fire workers. It restricts workers' rights to form unions and strike.

In October, the Indian government said it was approving incentives to companies including Wistron, Foxconn and another Apple supplier, Pegatron, to set up electronics manufacturing facilities in the country. Reuters reported that the three companies planned to invest $900 million in India in the next five years to benefit from the incentives.

Over 3,500 employees of Toyota's car manufacturing unit in Bidadi, also near Bangalore, have been on strike since Nov 10 over an "unscientific increase in work load" imposed that month to increase production speed. The company has since been on lock down.

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