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India: Renault-Nissan's factory staff refuse to work in lockdown

Renault Nissan Automotive India Pvt. is caught in a legal dispute after some of its factory floor staff threatened to stop work on fears of contracting Covid-19 and challenged an exemption granted to the automobile industry from local lockdown rules.

A workers' union has filed a lawsuit against the automaker and the Tamil Nadu state government in the Madras High Court, asking why they should endanger their health and well-being by working in the factory, while the rest of the state is placed under a strict lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus infections. Renault Nissan told the court it has taken all necessary precautions, including reducing the number of work shifts.

"There appears to be some tension between employer Renault Nissan and its employees, including a veiled threat of the workers desisting from attending the manufacturing unit if their concerns are not taken care of," the Madras High Court said in a May 24 order.

The next date for court hearing is May 31.

"Our employees' health and safety is of utmost concern to us and we are following all rules and regulations necessary for a safe working environment," a Renault Nissan India spokeswoman said in an email. "However, we are unable to comment as the matter is still at court."

Export Commitments

Renault Nissan told the court last week that it needs to keep the factory running - and is allowed to do so under local rules - as it had a commitment to meet export orders, according to court documents. Its workers are protesting, saying their safety cannot be compromised in the process, court documents show.

The face-off underscores the tightrope walk for companies and local authorities as they struggle to balance economic interests with public health demands in the world's fastest-surging Covid outbreak that has infected 26.7 million people and killed more than 303,700. A hard lockdown risks slowing the economy, endangers jobs but allowing factories to operate can cause new Covid infections to spike. State governments in India have exempted a few sectors they deem essential from lockdown rules.

The factory, with an annual manufacturing capacity of 480,000 units, has reduced operations from three shifts to two and is following safety norms including arrangement for workers' transportation and vaccination, Renault Nissan told the court. The first joint Renault-Nissan Alliance plant in India opened in 2010 and employs 1,500 people.

Misusing Exemptions

The workers claim that the company is misusing the exemption to meet its export orders and has not even lowered its production targets, according to court proceedings recorded in the order. The court has asked the state government to supervise the working conditions on the factory floor, while Renault Nissan has to respond on whether production has been reduced.

The pandemic has hit all the Indian automakers hard.

Maruti Suzuki India Ltd., the country's biggest carmaker, halved its production capacity, while Hero MotoCorp Ltd. - the world's largest producer of two-wheelers - said last month it was halting operations temporarily at all of its manufacturing facilities. Truck maker Ashok Leyland Ltd. has scaled down operations at some plants in May.