Indian union plots mass protest against 'unfair' treatment of pharma sales reps


A strike by Sun Pharma employees this week is just one symptom of a campaign by a prominent trade union to seek more equitable working conditions for pharma sales representatives.

The Federation of Medical and Sales Representatives' Associations of India (FMRAI) claims many reps working in India do so with contracts that contravene their working rights--as well as Indian employment law. It is trying to organize a mass demonstration on the streets of the capital, New Delhi, on November 21, and is threatening an all-out national strike if its demands are not met.

This week, around 500 Sun Pharma sales reps engaged in a one-day strike to protest what they call unfair treatment of workers who joined the company from Ranbaxy Laboratories, including unpaid wages and expenses, and demotions to a lower working grade. Sun Pharma acquired Ranbaxy in a $3.5 billion deal that closed in March 2015 and created India's largest pharma group.

The dissatisfaction with sales rep working conditions goes well beyond the Sun Pharma protest however, and comes after similar actions by other companies. On August 4, some 2,000 reps from Alembic Pharmaceuticals Ltd also went on strike to protest against "arbitrary" working conditions, forced transfers and anti-union action, says the FMRAI.

FMRAI supported the Sun reps' sit-out, after it filed a lawsuit in June seeking payment of unpaid monies and challenging demotion of sales staff, according to a Livemint report. Other Indian media reports suggest that around 24% of the combined Sun-Ranbaxy workforce has left the company since the takeover--and that the bulk of those departing are former Ranbaxy employees.

FMRAI alleges that unfair labor practices are rife in the Indian pharma market. Sales reps fear losing their jobs if they become ill--or simply at the whim of their managers.

Reps also risk "cruel and unjust punishment" if sales targets--which it says are often unrealistic--are missed. Managers dock wages or reject expense claims to retaliate, the union asserts, while the use of electronic reporting systems means reps can effectively be locked out of their work and dismissed "at the touch of a button."

The pressure put on reps hit the front pages in India after the July suicide of Ashish Awasthi, an Abbott Laboratories employee who left a note blaming his actions squarely on the pressure he faced over his sales targets.

The union wants India's government to set statutory working rules for sales employees and to strictly enforce the existing Sales Promotion Employees (SPE) Act. It's also calling for stiffer penalties--including the threat of jail--for employers found to have victimized staff. 

"Field workers are determined to halt this outrage in the industries and refuse to allow the atrocities on the sales promotion employees to be passed up as such," it said in a statement.

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