By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It’s a matinee show and the film is not a blockbuster, but the small audience sitting on plastic chairs in a community center in India’s Tamil Nadu state are watching nevertheless.
Staring at the flickering screen are men and women in their early 20s, who work six to eight-hour shifts, six days a week, for various electronic companies in Sriperambadur, an industrial hub near the port city of Chennai.
Most Sundays they forgo a bit of extra sleep to watch in this tiny room, the struggle of thousands of workers who suddenly lose their jobs or become exploited by ruthless bosses.
“It’s not something I thought could happen. If I was in that situation, I really wouldn’t know what to do,” said V Kumaresan, an engineering graduate who has just joined the workforce.
For the past month, workers’ rights group Cividep India has been screening films about labor issues on the wall of the center in an effort to encourage electronics and IT workers to meet and discuss labor laws, workplace abuse and exploitation.
More than 4.3 million people are employed in India’s electronics and IT hardware sector with roles in manufacturing, sales and marketing, repairs and maintenance of mobile phone components and accessories.
The bulk of the workforce in the electronics industry works on factory assembly lines, making chips for mobiles, assembling smartphones, checking and packing finished products.
With the sector attracting young workers, many of them straight out of high school, there is a danger that abuses go unreported because of a lack of knowledge about their rights, campaigners said.
“The need for workers to stay connected with each other and clearly understand labor laws that impact them was felt after the Nokia crisis, where thousands lost their jobs overnight after the company shut shop,” said Jasoon Chelat from Cividep India.
She said most companies operating in Tamil Nadu discouraged freedom of association. “The worker is often isolated and unaware,” Chelat told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The documentary screened last Sunday, “Disconnecting People”, was made by a trade union after Finnish firm Nokia closed down its Sriperambadur factory in 2014 – one of its biggest mobile phone assembly plants globally.
The film featured the aspirations of young job seekers and their fascination with working in a big company. It also captured their heartbreak and helplessness at being let go.
“They (workers) are all equally vulnerable, being part of global supply chains. The precariousness of jobs and exhausting working conditions are seen in these sectors,” research scholar Madhumita Dutta, who speaks on behalf of the workers in the film.
Cividep said it planned to screen a range of labor rights documentaries as part of its initiative to highlight the conditions of workers across the globe.
“I didn’t know that providing food to employees or dropping them back after work was mandated by labor laws,” said R. Sasikala, who works on an assembly line for 5,000 rupees ($74) a month.
“I just thought the company was being nice and it was compensation for my low salary. This film was an eye opener,” she said after the screening.
($1 = 67.1760 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)