AS FACTORIES WORK – LIVES OR PRODUCTION?

about 1 month ago
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Yesterday was Guru Poornima and apart from all the teachers in our lives, we need to bow down to Corona too. It has in fact been a very big teacher, teaching us life lessons and making us adapt too, which in normal circumstances would have failed.

Today we all have accepted the truth that the only certainty as taught to us by our scriptures is death. We are learning that the only certainty as we live is uncertainty. Now, this is on a spiritual level but on the factory floors? What is the big lesson which India Inc has learnt or is learning?

One big lesson – corona chalks its own course and does not follow any rules. It has no speed limit and thus businesses are learning that the speed to adapt, using quick fixes and workarounds is the only way to stay afloat.

All this comes to mind as we read the situation at Bajaj Auto’s Waluj factory in Aurangabad. Currently, 300 workers are said to have tested positive and the factory continues to run. It’s a Catch-22 kinda situation – health and life of the workers or production of factory? For us, the answer is pretty simple - life of course! But for the company, which is already recouping from a shutdown and needs to run the factory to ensure manufacturing slowly returns to normal, the decision might not be so cut and forth.

For a company whose CEO has been very vocal about the need to remove the lockdown and its impact on the economy, saying that people will learn to live with the virus, this might be a tough cookie to munch. Though the company has put in place norms of social distancing, when working on assembly lines, it is next to impossible to have any distance or have no direct contact, workers say that’s where the infection is happening. There is no alternate to assembly line; the workers know that so the workers union is demanding the temporary closure of one of its plants even as the company is trying to scale up production. The plant is understood to be running in two shifts with the first shift starting at 6:30 am and the second shift ending at 12:30 am

What is irking is that in a letter to the employees, Bajaj said that salaries of those not reporting to work despite being asked to come will be cut 100% for that period, exception being for those in containment zone or in quarantine. The company said that there will be a 50% cut in all salaries and wages if the government shuts down the plant for covid-19 reasons.

This plant accounts of 50% of company’s total production and a small break once again in production is bound to impact. The company is yet to respond to the union’s demand.

This is not just a case with Bajaj Auto; most factories which have opened, are facing the same issue; its not only the worker who tests positive but all those who have been in contact with him are quarantined, disrupting the work force. Its like soldiers on the front; one after the other, they all seem to be falling, almost like its inevitable. Toyota Motor Corp is also seeing some of its workers testing positive at its Bidadi plant near Bengaluru. Maruti has installed partitions on shop floors to ensure compliance with social distancing norms while issuing separate set of guidelines for common areas.

Disruption and closure of offices and factories after resumption of work has become a common occurrence. Smaller factories and offices across India have opened and shut as an employee tests positive, all going into quarantine for 14 days.

Factories cannot wait to reopen till a vaccine comes but at the same time, management needs to know that lives are more important – money can be earned but lost lives cannot. So, disruption in production schedule should be a part of the business plan for all companies in these covid times. Shop floors of all companies will face challenges and maybe we will see innovation happening in terms of adoption of digital technologies in manufacturing sector. EY, in a report stated, “A digital shop-floor with specific interventions on planning and execution will become the new normal." The EY report said auto firms must adopt digital manufacturing technologies to uplift operational efficiencies in all aspects with the current constraints of manpower and resources in the auto sector.

The human story of covid at shop floors – we will have to content with robots in the near future.

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