People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 32

August 08, 2010



Govt Gives up Responsibility


S P Rajendran


NEARLY 250 workers fell ill, experienced headache, dizziness and nausea, and also vomited blood after inhaling an unknown toxic gas on July 23 at a production plant belonging to a multinational company in Tamilnadu.


This incident came to the people of Tamilnadu as a reminder of the Bhopal tragedy.


The concerned company is Foxconn India, a mobile phone accessory maker. It is part of the Taiwan based Foxconn Technology Group worth 1.74 billion US dollars. After Hyundai Motor India and Nokia India, it is the third largest industrial employer in the special economic zone (SEZ) at Sriperumpudhur near Chennai, with nearly 9,000 workers.


The company's Sunguvarchatram plant, employing 500 workers, was reopened on July 23 after nearly nine months, on the strength of increased orders for mobile accessories.


This particular plant is situated close to the back entrance of Nokia India, a major MNC in this SEZ. It is to be noted that Foxconn India has been manufacturing the mobile components mainly for the Nokia India.


When the plant gate reopened and the workers, including women, entered it on July 23, they began to faint and fall ill.


Immediately they were taken to a local hospital at Sriperumpudhur in the absence of a dispensary with first aid facilities in the company premises. However, that hospital did not have sufficient facilities either. So some 235 workers were taken to the Sri Ramachandra Medical College hospital at Chennai with the help of workers at Foxconn India's main plant.


At the Sri Ramachandra Medical College hospital, some 45 workers vomited blood and were put in the intensive care unit (ICU).


The other workers, who were sent back home after treatment, complained of continuing sickness, vomiting and breathlessness.


This sickness is said to be a symptom of isopropyl alcohol poisoning. Though the company said the plant did not have any gas tanks or gas related production, workers said that the plant uses isopropyl alcohol, a colourless inflammable chemical with strong odour, as a cleaning agent in all the sections.




Even after the toxic gas incident, officials of the company refused to shut the plant down and compelled the remaining workers to continue work. When the workers opposed, the management of the company used the Labour Progressive Front (LPF), the ruling DMK's trade union, to compel the workers to continue work. Ezhilarasan, president of the LPF in Foxconn, was found extra-vocal in denying that isopropyl poisoning was the reason behind the workers falling sick. He acted as a puppet of the management during this whole episode. One notes that the LPF has got recognition from the company.


At this juncture, members of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) intervened and organised the workers in the premises, demanding safety for their life.


Very soon after the incident, Kancheepuram district CITU secretary E Muthukumar and other leaders reached the plant. They addressed the workers and concretised their demands. The workers complained that there were no safety measures in the plant. There were nearly 9,000 workers in the company but in the name of a dispensary, it had only a small room without any facilities.


While lambasting the behaviour of the pro-DMK union in the factory, the CITU also lashed out at the management and demanded immediate shutdown of the plant till all safety aspects were checked and cleared by the authorities concerned. It also demanded that all the workers must get full salary for the period of closure. The management must immediately open a full-fledged dispensary with five per cent beds relative to the workforce in the company.


Next day, on July 24, CITU state general secretary A Soundararajan, E Muthukumar and other leaders visited the workers at Sri Ramachandra Hospital. Soundararajan released a statement there, condemning the state government, the state’s labour ministry and the authorities of the Pollution Control Board for not conducting regular observation of safety measures of the industries in the SEZ. He sharply criticised that the DMK government, which has provided all kinds of facilities including uninterrupted power supply for the multinational companies in the SEZ, but is not ready to implement the labour laws including safety measures in the SEZ industries. He accused that the DMK government is implementing the centre's neo-liberal policies in Tamilnadu and has given up its responsibility in relation to the safety of workers in the industries.




While the CITU indicted the Foxconn India, however, the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) gave a clean chit to the company, saying only some of the workers had complained of nausea.


In a statement issued on July 26, the TNPCB said the workers fell sick after inhaling a strong- odour pesticide. “Around 4 p m on July 23, four workers had vomited and fainted. They were taken to the hospital and sent home," it said.


The CITU vehemently condemned this false report of the TNPCB and asked how the Pollution Control Board could issue such a statement even after 250 workers had fallen ill and 40 of them had to be admitted to the ICU.


After the forceful intervention of the CITU, the Tamilnadu government had had to order on July 26 evening the closure of the plant till the safety measures were checked.


On July 27, Tuesday, a team of district officials inspected the assembly unit at the company's plant in Sunguvachatram where employees had fainted. These included district revenue officer S Sivarasu who is also the collector in-charge of Kancheepuram, public health deputy director (Kancheepuram) S Rajasekaran, the state labour department’s joint commissioner K Madanamaohan and the chief factories inspector S Raghunathan. "When we inspected the site, we found there is no proper ventilation facilities available for the staff and three of them are not working. We asked them to provide better ventilation facilities to employees," Raghunathan later told the media.


However, for reasons unknown, he ruled out any possibility of a poisonous gas having leaked. Instead, he said the lack of a proper ventilation system and air conditioners, combined with the spray of malathyon, a pesticide, might have led to suffocation of the employees.