Workers at Ford's southern India plant seek halt amid COVID-19 surge

CHENNAI, May 27 (Reuters) - Dozens of workers staged a lunchtime sit-in protest on Thursday at Ford Motor Co’s plant in India’s Tamil Nadu state, demanding paid leave and health benefits, three sources familiar with the matter said, as the country battles the coronavirus.

The incident is the latest expression of discontent and reluctance among factory employees in the southern state, home to India’s flourishing automobile industry, to work amid a surge in virus infections.

Thursday’s brief protest, which sources said did not affect production, came a day after the Chennai Ford Employees Union expressed concern over workers’ safety in a letter sent to management after 230 workers caught the virus.

“The company should pay all medical expenses of workers affected by the coronavirus,” the union said in Wednesday’s letter, reviewed by Reuters, and called for the plant to be shut during a full lockdown in the state that runs until Monday.

It also sought compensation of 10 million rupees ($137,890) each for the families of two workers who died of the virus.

Ford did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Other automakers in the state, such as South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co and France’s Renault, as well as its alliance partner Nissan Motor Co, have halted production over workers’ safety concerns as infections grow.

With more than 30,000 cases a day, Tamil Nadu is one of the states worst hit in India’s second devastating wave of infections, but factories turning out automobiles are among those it has allowed to stay open during its lockdown.

Ford is in talks with the union and is considering a plan to bring forward a six-day maintenance shutdown it had planned, said one source familiar with the talks, adding that a final decision could come as soon as Thursday.

All the sources sought anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.

Ford has two car manufacturing plants in India to meet domestic and export needs.

The Tamil Nadu facility, with annual capacity of 200,000 units, makes the EcoSport and Endeavour sport-utility vehicles.

The other, in the western state of Gujarat, can produce 240,000 cars a year.

Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan; Additional reporting by Aditi Shah; Editing by Clarence Fernandez