Workers assemble Royal Enfield motorcycles inside a factory in Tamil Nadu. Photo: AFP / Arun Sankar

Automobile factories in and around Chennai city are feeling the heat as the second wave of Covid-19 sweeps across Tamil Nadu, one of the worst-affected states in India. Many have been forced to suspend their operations after a number of their employees became infected by the virus.

The latest to do so was Eicher Motors, which manufactures the popular motorcycle brand Royal Enfield. The company announced it would shut down its three manufacturing units on the outskirts of Chennai from May 27 to May 29, according to media reports. The motorcycle maker had earlier shut its plant for three days from May 13-15.

Meanwhile, worker unrest is growing among automobile units in Tamil Nadu state, often referred to as the Detroit of India, amid a rising number of coronavirus cases and fatalities among employees.

India’s second-largest carmaker Hyundai Motor has closed its factory in Sri Perumbudur near Chennai for five days, from May 25 to May 29. The management took the decision after workers on Monday stopped production and demanded the closure of the factory, the Indo-Asian News Service reported.

The workers’ union pointed out that about 750 employees had caught Covid-19 in April and May and seven had died. The management was initially reluctant to close the plant, but later agreed.

Workers at Renault Nissan Automotive India, a joint venture between French auto major Renault and Japan’s Nissan Motor Company, decided to stop work from May 26 onward, alleging poor safety protocols at the plant.

In a letter to the management, the workers’ union warned that unless their safety was ensured at the plant, employees would not resume work.

They also approached the Madras high court, alleging that social distancing norms were being flouted and factory health policies did not sufficiently address the risks to their lives.

Renault-Nissan said it was following Covid-19 safety protocols. The lawyer for the workers argued that while the company had reduced the number of shifts, production numbers had not been cut and the headcount remained the same, leading to crowding on the factory floor. The case is ongoing and the next hearing will be on May 31.

There were also reports that worker dissatisfaction was brewing at Ford India’s car plant on the outskirts of Chennai.

The Tamil Nadu government has imposed a strict lockdown in the state, but has allowed some factories, including auto plants, to continue operating. The government has brought them under the continuous process industries designation.

During the lockdown, continuous process industries, manufacturers of essential commodities and medical supplies and other essential services such as hospitals, ports, airports, warehouses and telecommunications, have been allowed to function.

The state government has asked industrial units and factories to provide transport arrangements for their employees. It has prohibited employees from commuting on motorcycles.