Dismissed Nokia workers seek reinstatement through arbitration

14 February 2014

Following a series of strikes and sit-ins by several thousand workers at the Nokia factory in Dongguan last November, the company issued warnings to the strikers and then terminated the contracts of 213 employees without any compensation.

Soon after being sacked, 70 of the workers demanded reinstatement and submitted a written invitation to Nokia to discuss the matter but got no response. The workers and their lawyer twice expressed their willingness to settle the dispute through mediation but again Nokia rejected the offer.

But on 10 and 11 February 2014, the 70 workers finally had their case heard at an arbitration hearing in Dongguan. Arbitration hearings are usually over in less than a day but given the extraordinary nature of the case, the arbitration panel allowed it to run for two days so that all arguments could be heard.

The 70 dismissed workers were represented at the hearing by veteran labour lawyer Duan Yi, Director of the Shenzhen-based Laowei Law Firm. Duan formally asked that the workers be reinstated but Nokia rejected the demand outright, claiming they had already hired replacements.

Duan and the workers present at the hearing focused on the reason for the strikes and sit-ins, namely that Nokia had singularly failed to address their two major concerns stemming from the announcement that Microsoft had agreed to acquire Nokia’s mobile phone business.

Firstly, the workers’ representatives told the panel that the factory management had failed to explain, despite numerous requests, why the title of the employer had been changed on some company documents from “Nokia” to “NTL.” The workers did not even know what NTL stood for.

The second concern of the workers was that Nokia had unilaterally announced a draft version of the new “Workers’ Manual 2.0” without any consultation with the employees. The new Manual gave the company unlimited power in interpreting what kind of employee behaviour merited a warning. This would in effect allow the company to fire workers without any compensation. Moreover, the company planned to slash night shift subsidies, night shift meals, and other benefits in the new Manual.

The workers tried on many occasions to have their grievances addressed and asked the factory union to intervene. But all attempts failed to get any meaningful response.

During the hearing, Nokia claimed it “feels very sorry that workers didn’t know, even up to this date,” that NTL stands for Nokia Telecommunication Limited, and that it neither belongs to Nokia nor Microsoft. However the company failed to explain why it was so reluctant to communicate with its workers when they first raised the issue.

The company and its lawyer were equally evasive on the issue of whether or not the factory trade union could legitimately represent the workers and “agree with the changes in the Manual” given that the union chairman holds a senior management position in the factory. Duan pointed out that the chairman’s dual identity violated the All-China Federation of Trade Unions’ regulations on how the union chair should be elected.

Duan Yi argued that a major reason why the workers resorted to strike action was the fact that they were “represented” by such an impotent trade union. Nokia countered that it had provided workers with “many channels to express their concerns” but that workers specifically chose to take “excessive actions that violated company rules”.

Duan pointed out that company rules did not apply to workers’ collective actions but Nokia insisted that the workers were unorganised individuals and did not take part in any collective action. Nokia claimed the workers simply “gathered in the factory” and did not “stage strikes” but it later contradicted itself by naming a video clip “the striking workers” in one of its own pieces of evidence.

Nokia also failed to explain why, if the dismissals were the purely result of individual rule violations, the company decided to dismiss the unprecedented number of 213 employees in just two or three days. Previously, workers said, it would normally take five days for an individual employee to receive a warning and then have their contract terminated.

Duan argued that under the Trade Union Law and Collective Consultation Regulations, the workers were entitled to take strike action because their conditions of work in the Manual had been changed without consultation, the company refused to talk and the trade unions failed to perform its duties.

In conclusion, Duan said: “All the workers want is respect. That is something a global conglomerate like Nokia should be able to demonstrate, because they have much more to lose if they don’t.”

The arbitration panel is expected to reach a decision in the case within the next two weeks.

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