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Sumant Banerji, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, March 23, 2011
In a body blow to Gujarat's image as an industry-friendly state, the worker's strike at General Motor India's car plant in Halol entered the second week on Wednesday even as the state government hinted that a smear campaign was being run to tarnish its image. The strike began last week and has been termed illegal. It has resulted in a production loss of over 600 cars for the American car maker while forcing it to shift production of its small car Spark across the border to its bigger Talegaon plant in Maharashtra.

The Halol plant is currently producing only 70 cars a day against its peak capacity of 190 cars, and is running one general shift against two.

"Gujarat's ability to attract investments across sectors is unparalleled and it is a bitter pill to swallow for the opposition," said an official with Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation who is not authorised to speak to the media. "We have seen labour organisations like INTUC (Indian National Trade Union Congress) and AITUC (All-India Trade Union Congress) get aggressive over the last one year with the motive of smearing the state's investment-friendly image and to destabilise industrial activity."

This is the second time in less than a year that the factory, the oldest car plant in the state, is seeing labour unrest. In October 2010, workers had gone on strike demanding higher wages. That had led to a new three-year agreement in December.

The strike lends credence to Gujarat's poor industrial relations record as reflected in the Economic Survey 2010-11.

The state topped the list for lockouts and strikes during the year.

This time, the workers have alleged that health hazards inside the plant were leading to spine-related problems among their brethren.

"We have documentary evidence to prove that a large number of workers are suffering from spine-related problems because they have been forced to work beyond their capacity," said Mihir Desai, general secretary, Gujarat Kamdar Mandal, a new entity founded with the backing of INTUC. "Only last week the factory inspector had identified seven workers suffering from serious spine problems and it was brought to the company's notice as well."

The claim has been refuted both by GM and the official employee's union, which is not participating in the strike.

"We are happy with the working conditions in the plant... the strike is unofficial and has the support of only 150-200 workers," said Bharat Maganbhai Patel, general secretary, GM Worker's Union. "The sole intention of the strike is to create another union within the company with the backing of INTUC, which would only be interested in politics."

Around 900 employees work in GM's Halol factory that has a capacity to produce 85,000 cars per annum. Patel claimed that around 550-600 employees reported to work on Wednesday, and that the number is rising

Meanwhile, Gujarat government refused to comment on the issue. Gujarat's minister for industries Saurabh Patel, when contacted, refused to talk on the issue saying, "We will look into the issue."