Maruti Suzuki Manesar plant workers protest
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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 31, Dated 04 Aug 2012: NEARLY 1,200 policemen and an oppressive heat hung over the burnt remains of Maruti’s Manesar factory in Haryana, the day after. On 19 July 2012, one day since a workers’ mob attacked senior managers with iron rods and set offices on fire, the place felt and looked like a giant funeral pyre. But even the burnt walls and shattered glass could not convey the horror on the faces of the staff that emerged from the gates. Or the extreme shock of Awanish Dev’s family, the HR manager who was charred to death. Burnt beyond recognition. Ninety-eight managers and staff from Maruti spent the next few days in hospital — 23 are still there, legs in casts, their families stare in bewilderment at the only possible question — who would have thought? Inside the Bhondsi jail, 75 km from the Manesar plant, 22 year-old Pritesh Singh, had exactly the same question for his prospective lawyer — who would have thought? TEHELKA spoke to the jailed workers from Maruti charged with homicide. Pritesh claims that like him, most of those arrested were not part of the mob at all.
They were picked up from the shanties after their shift was over, because the police arrested whoever they could find from Maruti. Pritesh was on the ‘A’ shift on the morning of the 18th. He’d been working at Maruti for two years and the job meant everything to him. It was a means for him to send money home to his village in UP’s Azamgarh district, to treat his sick parents. On that fateful Wednesday, Pritesh was trying to leave when he found at 4pm that the workers’ union had blocked the gates. Pritesh had been oblivious to the growing tension in the factory since 10 am. Apparently, a supervisor on one of the shop floors had made a casteist remark about a worker called Jiya Lal. After which, Jiya Lal slapped him. The supervisor was told to go home but Jiya Lal was suspended. By noon, the workers union protested and asked the top management to revoke the suspension. By the time Pritesh’s shift was over, things were slowly coming to a head. At 6 or 6.30, he managed to sneak out into the crowd and get back to where he stayed — a village called Aliar. “I thought that since I hadn’t been part of the mob, nothing will happen to me.
But the villagers in Aliar started blackmailing me and the other boys, saying they’d turn us Maruti workers in to the police. We fled and the police caught up with us. They didn’t even ask me what I’d done. No one asked me anything.” Pritesh’s colleague and jail-mate Anupam Dubey also went to his supervisor when the shift changed. “I want to leave but I’m not being allowed to, so tell me what to do.” His supervisor advised him to work overtime, which is what he was doing until he heard an announcement from the workers’ union asking everyone to come to the gate. He was eventually betrayed by his taxi and sent to the police. “Can we get a personal lawyer?” “Will you ask our supervisors at Maruti to tell you what they know about us?” “Won’t the CCTV footage prove our innocence?” “Will we get out of jail?” For now, these voices, recorded by their prospective lawyer, Rajendra Pathak, are drowned out by the overwhelming situation the workers are in. A large number of them are perpetrators. The police claim to have caught six of them this week. They’re in police custody. Twelve others, all unionists, have non-bail able warrants issued against them.
But there is another side to this story that needs looking at. A senior Maruti executive who didn’t want to be named stitched together many eyewitness accounts. The grisly story of how a hundred managers at Maruti were beaten with iron rods till their legs fractured so they couldn’t run. And then the mob went after their skulls. It all began with the Jiya Lal incident at 10am. When the union didn’t budge on their demands, senior management assured the union leaders that Jiya Lal’s suspension would be temporary, pending an inquiry. The workers’ union didn’t think this was enough. By 6.30 pm, people with armed rods were at the gates. They ordered the rest of the workers from shop floors to join in. The mob entered the conference room, where negotiations between workers and senior management had completely broken down. Workers started smashing the conference tables and then their managers’ legs. They then aimed for the heads and when the managers covered their heads with their hands, the hands took the hit. After which they set the place on fire. It’s not clear where HR manager Awanish Kumar Dev was when the fire broke out.
Some accounts suggest his legs were broken and he had ducked behind a desk. That he was asthmatic and that when the fire broke out he was unable to move trapped because his legs were smashed. The post-mortem report says he died of suffocation and hundred percent burns. There is still no clarity on the exact sequence of events. But trade unionists and workers suggest there were bouncers within the Maruti establishment even as negotiations were on during the first half of the day. And that brought an element of coercion to the management side of things. A claim Maruti’s spokesperson rubbishes completely. But workers in jail confirm having seen bouncers. They say this is common practice when negotiations break down. Gautam Mody, a career unionist and currently secretary of the NTUI (New Trade Union Initiative) says, “Hiring bouncers is standard practice in Haryana.” A procedure adopted by managements after the 2005 strike at Hero Honda, which was seen as a big victory for workers.
Even now, the most important version of what happened that day is still missing: the point of view of the perpetrators. Why did they do what they did? To those tracking the Maruti story, a history of hate is clearly visible, leading finally up to last week’s violence. Trade unionists trace this anger back to the 2000-01 strike when Maruti was to be privatised. The strike went on for 84 days. Once it ended, unionists claim, Maruti began a process of subordinating its workers. Supervisors on shifts began timing their tea breaks and refusing to let workers go to the toilet. Workers said that a lunch break of thirty minutes and tea breaks of seven minutes didn’t factor in that the shop floor was often half a kilometre away or more from the canteen. That if they got back to their station a minute late they were scolded and humiliated. A car had to be rolled out on the automatic conveyor belt every forty seconds, no matter what. Many unionists believed the condition of Maruti workers at Manesar was far worse than the Gurgaon plant. For one thing, 50 percent of them were on contract, not permanent staff. Their wages, therefore, often for doing the same job as their co-workers on permanent rolls was half, or even less.
They got about Rs 6,000-11,000 a month whereas permanent workers were paid anywhere between Rs 17,000-25,000. Aliar, Dhana, Kho – the villages around the Manesar plant where workers stay are visual evidence of depressing living standards. The mohallas have no permanent drains. Dingy and overcrowded homes are rented out to workers where there is one toilet to every four rooms. These are places no one with even a half-decent wage would be willing to live in. But when workers and their union affiliates describe abysmal living conditions, what they are describing is in fact urban, lower middle class poverty. Which is different from the workers who went on strike in Bombay’s textile mills in the 1980s? Who were much more close to the edge by comparison? Recruits at the Maruti plant — both permanent and contract — were specialised technicians, trained at ITI institutes. They were mostly in their twenties and thirties and as much in a hurry to join the middle class as everyone else. This made them inherently more volatile than the workers who in the 1980s spent their entire lives working in one factory.
But liberalisation also brought with it a much more fiercely competitive corporate culture. Many studying the impact of this on worker today say profits, particularly in the highly competitive automobile sector, are made by squeezing wages more and more. Not just Maruti but many auto makers have relied on contract workers with much lower wages to keep their profit margins intact. Which is why, apart from Maruti, most strikes of the last decade like at the RICO auto parts manufacturing unit and Honda have been about making contract workers permanent and about wages. And finally about letting workers form their own unions. Manesar, meant to take India’s shiny new liberalisation dream forward, had begun to split wide open; its workforce pushed beyond the brink — an industrial town hollowed out from within. The real rupture at Maruti, however, was not about the appalling conditions of its workers at Manesar. But the total breakdown of communication between them and Maruti’s management, especially after October’s strike was crushed. While workers saw their plight as a continuous history of suppression, their managers inhabited an altogether different universe.
One in which Maruti’s spokesperson says everything was going well. “The issues of last year were completely resolved. Wage negotiations were proceeding smoothly with unions in Manesar as well as Gurgaon. There was no sticking point at all.” The punishing targets on the automatic conveyor belt were changed. Tea and toilet breaks were no longer an issue. And Maruti’s Chairman RC Bhargava had also announced that the system of depending on contract labour would end by March 2013. This, of course, is the official version. Telling the story any other way for Maruti’s management would be an extremely inconvenient truth. For them to see a history of continued suppression would mean conceding that their 1,700 cars per day production by a staff of 4,000 odd workers are based on a highly exploitative work structure. Therefore, Maruti’s Chairman RC Bhargava described the incident of 18 July as an “absolutely unforeseen event,” a ture rather than a continuum. It’s this theory — of presenting the violence at Maruti as erupting out of nowhere — that became a much more convenient truth to foster.
It’s taken the state government down the path of suspecting outside influences, Maoists at work, a pre-planned attack — everything that points outwards and away from the disruptive history between Maruti’s workers and managers. The Maruti story, in fact, sits in a landscape of violence of these workers across corporate India attacking their managers once they’re suspended. In the year 2009, thousands of workers in Haryana went on a strike in solidarity with their co-workers from the company RICO, where a worker died in a clash following a strike. And in January this year, another workers’ strike in Puducherry’s Yanam district met a horribly violent end. When their leader was allegedly killed by the police, they retaliated by smashing the skull of the president of the company they worked for. Aditya Nigam, currently researching a book on ‘Capital’ and a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, puts things in context. Workers today, he says do not have labour commissions that look at how companies often violate the Factories Act. “Today, these labour departments are playing second fiddle to corporate interests.”
WHAT HAPPENED at Maruti was violence on a scale that is perhaps unprecedented in the history of workers’ violence following economic liberalisation in India. And it is therefore even more essential that last week’s violence be seen in its entire ugly truth. Not as hermetically sealed from the past, but as an uncontrolled violent out outcome of it. If Maruti has to truly honour its HR Manager Awanish Kumar Dev, then many would argue, it needs to do what he did. Listen to both sides. A worker who knew and respected Dev speculated that it’s precisely this quality that may have made Dev feel hemmed in by workers’ demands on one side and management on the other side and made him turn in his resignation to Maruti six months ago. But Dev’s wife and close friend don’t want to see it like that. They say Maruti was his dream job. He may have offered to quit but then he took that back and stayed on.
Either way, his colleagues in the management and workers agree perhaps on just this one thing. His death is terribly ironic. Should Maruti’s management now take their cue from the HR man they’ve lost and listen, even to the voices of jailed workers who claim they were not part of the mob? For now, the opposite appears to be happening. In response to TEHELKA’S question on whether Maruti will stand by and testify on behalf of potentially innocent workers, this is what their spokesperson said. “The investigation, arrests and legal action are being handled by the government. It is not proper for us to comment.”
Further, they say, “there was no breakdown of communication between workers and management.” Critics would describe this as Maruti with its eyes wide shut. But critics of Maruti often have a fixed line of vision as well. ‘Capital equals exploitation equals the total suppression of workers.’ If Maruti’s corporate bosses speak in absolutes, so do unionists and by extension, workers. If the fixed positions on either side have led to the spilling of this much blood, can those absolutes change? The burial of the dead must begin by at least looking at these questions. And tell the story of violence with history rather than without.
One Response to “The Maruti Suzuki, Manesar workers’ protest” sanhati.com/blog
The Maruti Suzuki, Manesar workers’ protest
October 13, 2012
This July again brought to the fore what had been thought to be a closed chapter in Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant in Gurgaon, Haryana. The triumphalism of the Maruti managemen0t at having ‘bought’ the leaders and put an end to the labour trouble was undone and labour again asserted itself. Last October the newspapers were rife with rumours of the leaders having been given hefty sums of money and packed off. There was a feeling of dejection and demoralisation and no one seemed to have any answer. Life gave the answer this July when worker power again asserted itself. Yes, individuals can be bought and sold but the class asserted it. It brought to the fore the resilience of the awakened working class movement in Gurgaon. “Nipping in the bud” remained a mere phrase here with the workers averring the fact that the grave diggers of the bourgeoisie will keep their inhuman adversaries engaged in class battles. Since June last year strikes at the Maruti-Suzuki car manufacturing plant are recurring. Workers are fed up with the working conditions at the plant and this has been leading to such strikes. Their various demands got crystallised into one main demand – the right to form their own independent union. The management had set up a union here – the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union which remains a stooge of its patrons according to the workers.
The appalling working conditions in Maruti-Suzuki and the use of low-paid contract labour has fuelled discontent among the workers and they desired to have their own union which would take up these issues in the interests of the workers. The strike began with an occupation of the factory and ran into 13 days before ending. The management which had suspended eleven of the leaders had to rescind its decision although the management wanted them to sign “undertaking of good conduct”. Still the newly formed Maruti-Suzuki Workers Union was not recognised but it had started functioning. There were pay cuts also for taking part in the strike but the workers could feel the difference between being a submissive lot and one which forces the issue with the powers that be. The management or the managements of Gurgaon-Manesar are known for their strong arm tactics and union busting.
Whether it be the 2005 strike at the Honda Motorcycles and Scooters Limited plant in Manesar when the unsuspecting workers on strike were called to the mini-secretariat in Gurgaon for a meeting with the administration and then brutally beaten up by the police or the killing of Ajit Yadav during the Rico Auto strike in October, 2009 the managements have remained true to what is never explicitly taught at any management or business school but which is standard practice dictated by class instinct – strong arm tactics. Playing second fiddle is the ever loyal Haryana government, administration, labour office and police. Haryana welcomes investment after all! But Labour? Seething with discontent forever! What fuels such vehemence on the part of labour? Why does it feel so wronged? Consider the appalling conditions of work here. This is what Tehelka, a mainstream magazine, reports – Here is what a Maruti Suzuki worker says his average day at the Manesar plant is like. You catch a bus at 5 am for the factory.
Arriving a second late to punch in your card means a pay cut, but you can’t leave the premises once you’ve entered. At 6.30 am, you exercise and supervisors give you feedback on your previous output. Start work at 7 sharp. Everyone does his one task — assembling, welding, fixing — for a minimum of 8 continuous hours. A car rolls off the line every 38 seconds, which means you can’t budge from your position, ever. You get two breathless breaks during the day. At 9 am, a 7-minute break to drink tea or go to the loo, or both. After a while you might, like many of your friends here, end up taking your hot tea and kachori to the bathroom with you. Then lunch breaks of 30 minutes, in which you walk about a half kilometre to the canteen, wait in line with everyone, eat and walk back. Returning even a minute late from any break, or leaving the assembly line for any reason even for a minute, means half a day’s pay cut. Older systems used to include an overseer for every small group of workers who could step in if someone needed to take a breather. But, the cost logic of production is perennially at odds with workers’ rights. If we don’t blink at seeing a man climbing down to unblock a sewer for a few hundred a month, it’s likely we think of a Rs 16,000 factory job with a uniform as clean and comfortable.
But even the salary is an illusion, as the workers’ salary slips show. A baseline of Rs 8,000 is all most are guaranteed. Take a day from your legally granted casual leave or sick leave, for any reason, and lose Rs 1,500. Take two and lose Rs 3,000, and so on up till half your salary disappears. (Why they strike? Why you should care?; Tehelka, Sept 24, 2011) This is the extreme stress faced by the workers while on the shop floor and they get a pittance when they are ‘remunerated’ for all this. Rightly did the workers aspirations at the plant level get focused on the right to form a union. No one should have any quarrel with that. That is theoretically speaking of course. In the real world union busting is a serious management practice even in the advanced capitalist countries which proudly call themselves mature democracies. In our own Haryana it would mean bad policy to have unions at all. How will it count as a capital-friendly investment destination! So the Haryana labour department knew how to turn the 13-day strike into a plea for refusing registration to the newly formed union. It claimed that the illegal strike was reason enough for not granting registration.
The struggle of the classes with the bourgeoisie and the state on one side and the workers on the other raged on. The crux of the issue was the formation of this collective of the workers to engage their adversaries at the factory level. They knew that formation of this fighting body was a prime requisite to struggle with the management. Many a question is being raised about the workers issues getting sidelined before this issue of union formation. The workers know the importance of organisation to carry on the battle against their predatory employers and so union formation remained the issue. Those who cannot understand the importance of this think that this issue is getting undue importance over more ’substantive’ issues like lessening the workload. The workers know that without an organisation they cannot take forward their struggles. The antagonist clique – the Maruti-Suzuki management, the government, the bureaucracy along with the labour department and the police – is after all immensely ruthless.
Their job is to ensure peaceful labour – by strictly keeping labour laws to the place they belong to– the law books, and any violation of this unwritten law is met with due punishment. The machinations of the management is such that struggle is almost an everyday affair at the plant. After the end of the June strike the management kept up the pressure on the workers. It started finding excuses for punitive action and came up with the ruse of sabotage of production. On this ground it wanted the workers to sign good conduct bonds. The workers refused to toe the line of the management and once again trouble started brewing. On the 1st of September, 2011 the workers organised a huge gate meeting in protest and this was joined by about six thousand workers from other factories in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt. The workers refused to sign the ‘good conduct bond’ and in fact it is surprising that when surveillance systems are said to be in place everywhere inside the factory (even in toilets they say!) how could any worker have got away with sabotage? There were no specific charges but only general ones and that showed the flimsiness of the sabotage charge.
This was done in order to press forward the punitive ‘good conduct bond’ upon the workers. Maruti Suzuki closed the plant and declared a lock out. The agitation and the lock out dragged on for a month and on the first of October a settlement was reached. 18 suspended trainee workers were taken back but 44 others were not. Workers were required to sign good conduct bonds. After some time reports appeared in the mainstream media about the leaders having been ‘bought’ and the Maruti Suzuki management appeared to have triumphed. It was too early for the judgement to be passed. The antagonists again braced up for a fight this June. It seems that what they don’t teach in B-schools is what management is all about. It’s about managing workers with high-handed even brutal behaviour on the shop floor, managing the administration and government and raising the right bogeys at the right time to get things done. At the end it is really what matters and it is quite logical, after all it is about holding the working class down and getting things done. So the Gurgaon-Manesar belt is known for the high-handed way the workers are treated while on the production line.
It so happened that on the 18th of July a supervisor abused a worker, Jiya Lal, calling him casteist names. This was objected to by the worker and an altercation ensued. The management suspended the worker while the supervisor was let off. This was protested by the union and it asked for action against the supervisor and wanted the suspension of Jiya Lal revoked. The union also wanted the management to institute an impartial inquiry into the incident. The negotiations dragged on. There was a shift change but the workers of this shift (A) remained there in solidarity with the suspended worker and in view of the fact that negotiations were going on. Meanwhile the workers of Shift B carried on with their labour. The negotiations kept dragging on. It seemed the Maruti Suzuki management was buying time in order to make proper arrangements to ‘deal’ with the workers. In the evening the management broke off the negotiations and about a hundred bouncers were called in to deal with the workers.
Acting as agents provocateurs they resorted to arson in which a high ranking manager was unfortunately burnt to death. Anyone who has been to a big protest demonstration in India knows the role of such planted men who take rash action to provoke rioting in order to facilitate repression upon the protestors. The organisers are always wary of such agents provocateurs. It appears that the Maruti-Suzuki management resorted to the same tactics so that the workers could be blamed and drastic action could be taken on this ground. After this incident the management resorted to mass sacking of the workers and declared a lock out of the plant. The ever pliant government machinery swung into action arresting the workers. About 3000 workers are reported to have gone into hiding in order to evade repressive action. The police is said to have tortured workers to get confessional statements and the government has shown strong will to deal strongly with the workers (A recent PUDR report confirms the fact that third degree methods were used to torture the workers). Not only that all the reactionary elements around Manesar got together in support.
They called a ‘maha-panchayat’ in support of the Maruti management. Among those who attended it were district BJP leaders Kamal Yadav and Mukesh Pahelwan and Congress members Ved Prakash Vidroi and Amina Sherwani. All the other bourgeois parties stood in support of the Maruti management. Here one could see the battle lines being drawn. Workers strikes in the factories of Gurgaon-Manesar belt are also known for the fraternal solidarity that is shown by the workers of other factories who take out rallies in favour of the striking workers, organise sit-ins or go to strike in sympathy. The mass sacking of the workers in the Manesar plant has been protested by the workers of Maruti’s older Gurgaon factory. Towards the cause of the Maruti workers a 16 member committee of unions has been formed, a parents committee of the workers has been formed and there was a demonstration in Kaithal, Rohtak on 21st August. The workers are working in coordination with the terminated workers and the jailed union leaders in Bhondsi jail. The 21st August protest showed the solidarity of the workers and was a manifestation of their deep rooted class feeling.
The workers of Maruti Suzuki plant in Manesar have had to go on strike again and again for their very legitimate, legal and constitutional right to form a union. Every time they had to face not only pecuniary hardship and punishment like suspension etc. but also heavy repression from the government machinery. This time it was worse. With a manager having been killed the powers that be were baying for the blood of the workers. Even the fourth estate, the mainstream media joined in by its harsh criticism of the the killing of the manager and put the onus of the killing on the workers. It was a playing out of famous playwright Bertolt Brecht’s Exception and the Rule. In this play the capitalist exploring for oil shoots down the worker who goes to offer water to him in the desert of Yahi. He thinks he is being attacked! But the bourgeois judiciary acquits the capitalist for they hold that he was justified in feeling threatened by the worker and shooting him in self-defence! That is what was being played out here.
The arsonists the bouncers and their keepers, the management were exonerated but the workers were implicated for the death of the manager. This is Mera Bharat Mahaan our great democracy when it comes to the workers. Those who swear by dalit empowerment are nowhere to be seen. There is no hue and cry about applying the SC/ST act on the supervisor for his pejorative casteist abuse of Jiya Lal. The much trumpeted love of dalits cannot cross the strict boundaries dictated by corporate and imperialist interests. This was again one great achievement – the strong class feeling that the Maruti workers showed. (While one union federation which professes novelty has played up the caste factor in this case it has found it convenient to gloss over this manifestation of class solidarity. This is in keeping with its accent on identitarianism). Struggles in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt are showing that in its efforts to assert itself the working class is unravelling the ugly reality of our much trumpeted achievements. If it shows the hypocrisy of our democratic pretensions it also shows the seamier side of our shining, globalising, liberalising economy. Gurgaon is a symbol of neo-liberal achievement. Gleaming office blocks, huge spread out malls and rows of huge houses and apartment blocks is a showpiece for the neo-liberal gang.
What has been revealed now is the squalor in which those who have created all this wealth, the workers live and the appalling conditions in which they work. It has shown more starkly than any gini-coefficient figures can the huge gap between the rich and the poor. It has shown that those who work in state-of-the-art factories suffer from the same problems that the millions of poor working in the informal sector do. It has shown that is what is to be expected when we join the race to the bottom in our crazy endeavour to invite foreign and domestic capital to our places. The Second Labour Commission report wanted flexible labour laws and we have all this in practice in this leading industrial belt. It shows that laws perhaps remain what Marx and Engels called them in the Manifesto – prejudice of the bourgeoisie. It shows the failure of the reformists and the revisionists whose parliamentary votes can only stall amendments to laws not implement them.
The Montek Singh Ahluwalias plead for flexible labour laws, informalisation and here is the latest organised sector production base putting them into practice. Here is cheap labour to be exploited and any effort to stop this would mean loss of India’s ‘comparative advantage’ in this globalised world and a plummeting of its growth rates and an end to the Indian growth story. As a ’stop press’ it may be commented here that the Muruti Suzuki management has recently said that it will do away with contract labour. Yet the facts speak otherwise. In the current round of hiring, even contract workers with 5-6 years experience have been asked to go through the written examination and interview. It seems to be a ploy only to get rid of these workers in the name of making them permanent. Further we know that it is standard practice in India to renew letters of contract every few years with the workers to show “break in service” and thus deprive them of the benefits of being a permanent worker. Every strike which wants labour laws to be implemented, which wants wage hike goes on to hit at this ‘comparative advantage’ of capital in India i.e., low wages.
With the laws of capital in this neo-liberal economy working with the force of elemental laws our vast army of reserve labour is getting augmented every day. Expropriation is the word here whether due to forced displacement or displacement caused by the economic motion of capital. The Nathas are multiplying everyday and capital looks to exploit them at inhuman wage rates. The struggle between capital and labour becomes the defining moment of this economic condition. For labour it is plain that it has nothing to gain in this economic logic. If labour is to ameliorate its condition capital must go under. Maruti-Suzuki workers in their struggle against corporate and multinational interests have again brought this to the fore. The working class is raising its head again. If this is how the spontaneous working class movement is asserting itself how revolutionary would its conscious manifestation be.
Violence at the Maruti Suzuki plant in Manesar highlights India’s industrial relations malaise and demands radical remedies
SECURITY GUARDS STAND near the burnt-down reception block of the Maruti Suzuki factory in Manesar. THE horrible violence and arson on July 18 at the Maruti Suzuki India Ltd (MSIL) automobile factory at Manesar near Gurgaon in Haryana has created a furore and provoked the captains of Indian industry to demand “ruthless” action against the culprits. Revulsion against the violence, in which general manager, human resource, Awanish Kumar Dev was killed and scores of employees were injured, is wholly justifiable. The violence must be condemned unconditionally and unequivocally. However, most media reports on the incident have treated the MSIL management as some kind of neutral authority, the sole victim, and the last word on the issue, rather than as an interested party. Yet by many accounts, more workers were injured in the episode than managers. The management’s response has been disproportionate. Besides imposing a lockout, it has decided to withhold the workers’ earned wages – prima facie violating the Payment of Wages Act.
Even more vindictively, it has reportedly decided to sack more than 1,000 workers – including about a third of the permanent workers. Given that there is no credible evidence that such large numbers indulged in violence, this amounts to collective punishment for the actions of a small minority. Collective punishment is illegal and morally impermissible. The management is also mounting enormous pressure on the police to arrest as many workers as possible – with or without reason. The precise sequence of the events of July 18 remains somewhat fuzzy – not least because no eyewitnesses except those loyal to the management are willing to talk. What could have provoked the workers, who until then had conducted their agitations, including strikes, entirely peacefully, is unclear. The police have not been able to establish the veracity of the management’s version despite arrests and inquiries.
What is clear, however, is that trouble erupted that morning when a supervisor hurled casteist abuse at a Dalit worker. The management-recognised Maruti Suzuki Workers Union (MSWU) rightly demanded disciplinary action against the supervisor. It held negotiations with the management, but these broke down. The supervisor was let off. Instead, the abused worker was suspended. This understandably angered the workers. Protests broke out, but remained largely peaceful. A posse of 50 policemen was present at the gate. But it was not called in by the management for four hours. At this point, says MSWU, the management sent in 200 “bouncers”. They started mercilessly beating up the workers, who retaliated in self-defence with whatever was at hand, including tools and car components. This account, reiterated on television channels by office-bearers of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) – an organisation with a creditable record of solidarity with workers in new industrial belts, as well as unorganised workers – has never been convincingly refuted.
The account is not as far-fetched as might seem. It is a routine management practice in the Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera industrial corridor to employ large numbers of bouncers and musclemen to intimidate workers, break up their agitations, bludgeon them into submission and cripple the trade union of their choice from functioning. Creation and maintenance of an atmosphere of fear and insecurity on the shop floor is integral to the way managements function here. Even MSIL managers used to complain of “unbearable tension” in the factory. Blatant use of muscle power has been documented at length by mainstream Central union federations, including the Centre of Indian Trade
Unions (CITU), the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and even the Congress-led Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), in many plants in the area, including Honda Motorcycles and Scooters and Maruti Suzuki, and dozens of ancillary units. Admittedly, it is not yet possible to establish the role of bouncers and agents provocateurs conclusively in the MSIL case.
No MSIL worker or even white-collar employee is willing to talk to the media. The Haryana police have unleashed a reign of terror in some 60 villages nearby, where most MSIL workers live. Almost the entire 3,000-strong workforce of MSIL has gone into hiding in legitimate apprehension of being arbitrarily detained and harassed as were some MSIL contract workers who innocently identified themselves as such. The police has arrested more than 90 MSIL workers and charged each of them with murder or attempt to murder, which will make it virtually impossible for them to get bail even if the charges are dropped later. The police are busy harassing such relatives and acquaintances of MSIL workers as they can lay their hands on by intruding into their homes. Collusion between the zealously pro-investor Haryana government and managements is a decades-old phenomenon, which is revealed periodically through attacks on workers agitating for their rights, such as the gruesome police violence against Honda Motorcycles workers in July 2005.
This Column (Frontline, August 26, 2005) said the Haryana police was blooded “in anti-labour violence more than 30 years ago as part of a policy of industrial promotion. Haryana’s political leaders like Bansi Lal – who deservedly acquired notoriety during the Emergency – decided to promote Haryana as a State “safe” for industry because it would permit no unions and no labour unrest. “This was ruthlessly enforced by the police. I was witness to it in the Faridabad-Ballabgarh belt as part of a group of activists, many of whom were at Jawaharlal Nehru University, including Jairus Banaji, Neeladri Bhattacharya, Sumit Guha, Lajpat Jagga, Dilip Simeon, Rana Sen, R. Bhaskar, Vijay Singh, Chitra Joshi and others who have attained distinction as social scientists in India and abroad. “The police ensured that no stable union would be formed, by simple and brutal means: they would periodically pick up workers and budding union activists, and beat them mercilessly, or lock them up illegally for days.…
Trying to form a union in those days meant putting your well-being at grave risk from a bureaucracy that viscerally hated any kind of progressive activism or defiance of arbitrary authority. “Oppressive police practices were the key to Haryana’s success in drawing in capital then fleeing and de-industrialising eastern India, especially West Bengal. That success further normalised and encouraged the oppressive practices. By the early 1990s, when Gurgaon began to develop as an industrial hub, a whole elaborate structure of anti-labour practices was in place. By the mid-1990s, Bansi Lal was back in power in Haryana….” In the current Gurgaon-Manesar situation, too, there is no rule of law, the citizen is insecure, and the State continues to bend over backwards to coddle managements. Therefore, the truth of what happened on July 18 can only be established by an independent high-level Central commission of inquiry, composed of labour studies scholars, sociologists, jurists and experienced administrators and policemen of impeccable integrity. This must be demanded by all political parties and civil society groups committed to defending civil liberties and workers’ rights.
Such a commission would do well to dwell into the deep-rooted causes of discontent among MSIL workers and their grievances, including back-breaking, recently intensified workloads, rampant employment of contract labour on ultra-low wages, refusal to negotiate better working conditions and reduce gaping wage disparities, and the imposition of company trade unions and non-recognition of the unions chosen by the workers. The MSIL workers are subjected to despotically harsh shop-floor discipline and must produce a car every 50 seconds. The situation resembles the oppressive conditions of super-mechanised production immortalised in Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times. MSIL workers must labour hard for eight hours, with only two 7.5-minute toilet breaks and a 30-minute lunch break. Both the canteen and the toilets are half-a-kilometre away. It has been said that some of Japan’s most successful corporations domestically practise “samurai capitalism”, under which their managers have undivided loyalty to the company: they must be available at all hours and for all the tasks specified by the chief executive officer (CEO).
At MSIL, “samurai capitalism” has been extended to blue-collar workers. The terrible intensity of work at the Manesar plant, now measured in “actions per minute”, would embarrass even Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of “scientific management” and industrial engineering, who conceptualised modern assembly-line production a century ago by analysing, breaking down, and then synthesising workflows to dictate to workers the mechanical, repetitive movements they must make to maximise productivity. Both workers and managers at MSIL have long complained of high mental stress and rude behaviour by their superiors, who are tasked to extract as much work as possible from all employees. Fed up with this, apparently, slain HR manager Awanish Kumar Dev wanted to quit the company. MSIL workers get just nine days’ leave in a year, besides the weekly off. For every day missed beyond the sanctioned days, Rs.1,500 is deducted from their wages. If they turn up even one minute after their shift begins, they lose half-a-day’s wages. Their grievances are usually ignored. Supervisors are routinely rude, and allegedly, often violent.
The consultancy Karvy Stock Broking holds that the real issues at dispute at the Manesar plant are “more psychological” than “materialistic”. However, MSIL scores poorly on “materialistic” issues too. Two-thirds of its workers are contract employees who earn Rs. 6,000 -7,000 a month, of which one-half goes into rent. Their wage is less than one-half of what permanent workers earn – although they do the same work and are needed around the year. This, as former Union Labour Secretary Sudha Pillai says, violates the principle of equal pay for equal work. Such contract employment is a pernicious practice – and the root cause of a great deal of industrial unrest in India. The MSIL management insists that the contract labour issue is non-negotiable. But unionists know that the key to their strength lies in the unity of the permanent and contract workers. Similarly, issues such as wages and union recognition have often proved intractable at MSIL. All this has turned the factory into a tinderbox. Consider yet another gross anomaly.
The MSIL factory is probably as neat, antiseptic, sleek, glossy and modern technology-intensive as any contemporary industrial plant anywhere in the world – an iconic symbol of the 21st century. But it is surrounded by villages that have not yet fully emerged culturally from the Middle Ages, and have among India’s lowest child sex ratios and the greatest domination of khap panchayats. MSIL workers live in these villages in appallingly unhygienic conditions, where human excreta mixes freely with uncleared garbage and highly contaminated water. (“Hard News” magazine (hardnewsmedia.com) carries a telling description of their living conditions.) No less impressive for conforming to pre- or anti-modern motifs is the MSIL management’s obscurantism. It has hired a Bangalore-based “vedic astrologer” to sort out “ vaastu issues” at the Manesar plant ( The Times of India, July 31). The issues arise apparently because “a section” of the 600- acre plant site “is said to have once served as a burial ground. Three temples, which existed at the site, were razed to set up the plant.”
The astrologer will purge the site of “all negative energy” through a series of rituals spread over two to three weeks. Maruti Suzuki is an exemplar of some of India’s most profitable and fastest-growing industrial companies in a cutting-edge technology sector, which thrive on similar anomalies and contradictions – and on squeezing their workers. Thus, real wages in industry have fallen since the mid-1990s by 15 per cent even while the net value added per worker has more than doubled. Over the past three decades, the share of wages in the net value created by manufacturing firms has declined sharply from 30.3 per cent to 11.6 per cent, while the share of profits has increased by 140 per cent to 56.2 per cent. These adverse trends are part of a severely non-inclusive, unwholesome and warped pattern of industrial growth at the heart of which lie multiple and rising iniquities.
These are bound to lead to greater distortions in income distribution, wider inter-class and -group disparities, and greater social degradation and retrogression, besides more industrial unrest and intensified social strife. All this will have extremely unhealthy, indeed sordid, consequences for our society, for our industrial and work culture, and for our politics. It should shame us all that the most ultra-modern sector of our economy is mired in the worst of squalor, inequality, obscurantism, despotic authoritarianism and injustice to be found in our society. We need a different industrial growth and industrial relations paradigm, in which the worker’s basic right to what the International Labour Organisation (ILO) calls “decent work” and to a living wage is respected, and the right of association and collective bargaining is made inviolable without exception.
This means effectively outlawing and abolishing the demeaning practice of contract labour employment, tightening labour protection, promoting job security, upgrading wages and working conditions across the board, and lightening the burden of work to humane levels. This will need amendments to many laws, which govern minimum wages, payment of wages, the physical environment in factories, working conditions, redress of workers’ grievances, conciliation and arbitration mechanisms, termination of services, and industrial relations. That would be best brought about through a new National Commission on Labour, which bases itself on ethical norms and the imperative of equitable development, besides international best practices.
Maruti violence: How workers went from celebration to carnage in Manesar
It was over tea and samosas that the first embers of the unrest were sparked. At 8:30 am on July 18, the tea break for the ‘A’ shift was underway at Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant. At the rest area, where workers have tea and light snacks in groups of 15 or more, supervisor Ramkishor Majhi was giving feedback to one worker about the need to improve in certain areas. Jiya Lal, a technician and an office bearer of the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union, interfered in the conversation and asked Majhi to restrict the feedback to the shop floor and leave them alone during the tea break.
Majhi protested that he was speaking to another worker and not to Lal, who had no business interfering. Lal raised his voice, and said Majhi would do well to leave them alone during the tea break. When the seven-minute tea break ended, Majhi called Lal aside and said it was not right on his part to slight him publicly. By multiple accounts, this routine, mildly tense exchange was the beginning of an altercation, Lal’s suspension and the standoff that eventually deteriorated into a campaign of violence unmatched in its scale and brutality in recent memory.
The 750-acre Manesar facility, a highly automated factory that produces 600,000 units for India’s largest automaker each year, was in the news for labour unrest that resulted in three strikes over five months in 2011. In October last year, the workers, the company and the Haryana government’s labour department reached an understanding, the plant resumed production and most stakeholders thought the worst was over. In November, it emerged the entire leadership that led the unprecedented protests, had accepted a golden handshake from the company—most of the 30 leaders took Rs 15 lakh each as part of a negotiated deal, while some were paid more. UNION POLITICS
The desertion by the union leadership left the workers feeling betrayed. But they also felt oddly empowered because the company had agreed to their key demands— the bus service was reinstated and the sacked contract workers were taken back. The benefits of being organised were made evident to them. Kuldeep Jhangu, the general secretary of the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU), who was elected to the post in 2011 in the first elections in Maruti’s Gurgaon plant in 10 years, says the Manesar workers were always more aggressive. “Originally, I had organised them. But then they came under other influences and demanded a separate union, which is fine by me. But there is a way of exerting pressure on the management. You start with a tool-down protest for an hour, and then increase it gradually. A full-fledged strike should be a last resort. But these guys are young, about 80% are unmarried.
They wanted a strike from day one. And they wanted us to shut the Gurgaon plant as well. When I refused, I became their enemy,” he said. But after the original leadership disappeared, and because the Manesar workers had boycotted the July 16 elections into MUKU, the new union at the plant was nominated, and not elected. In a union with thousands of angry young members, unelected unions are easily accused of being in cahoots with the management. Also, the new leadership had little track-record in leading workers, and little real legitimacy or wide acceptance among sections of workers, according to the accounts of various union activists in the area. While the original leadership had several outside advisers including AITUC’s local leadership, some leaders of the New Trade Union Initiative, the Hind Mazdoor Sabha and others at various stages, it is unclear whose advice the new leadership trusted. Suresh Gaur, the Gurgaon district president of the All India Trade Union Congress and a former president of the union at the neighbouring Honda factory, once had the ears of Sonu Gujjar and Shiv Kumar and helped them file an application to form a union.
“But by the second strike last year, it was clear to us that they were under the influence of others,” Gaur says. The “others” straddle a wide spectrum of political ideology, including the ultra Left. The Haryana labour department rejected that application. The new union formed after the settlement in October last year was set up with the cooperation of the management. “The union was recognised by the management and we had helped them out with whatever paperwork they needed, etc.,” a company spokesperson said.
Gaur says that while unionisation raised expectations of the workers sky high union leaders tend to talk up the deals that they expect to eke out of the management—over time, workers started feeling that all this talk was not amounting to much difference in their lot. The union leaders came under constant pressure from its members to be a more effective political force. They were under pressure. Because the union members don’t know what are the compulsions on a negotiating table. You have to be reasonable. You know that the HR managers are not authorised to take decisions on behalf of the management. You need to be tactful and patient. May be the leaders failed to temper the expectations of the workers,” said an official of the Haryana labour department familiar with the situation at Maruti.
When the union registration came through in March this year, the workers at Manesar celebrated. They now had a recognised union that would represent them in the upcoming wage negotiations Wage negotiations
The previous wage settlement happened in 2009 and its terms are effective up to 31 March 2012. When the settlement happened in 2009, Maruti had no union in Manesar and the Gurgaon union was an unelected, nominated union widely seen to be a “management-pocket union” in workers’ parlance. In Gurgaon, subsequent to the labour strike in 2000, nearly 1,300 workers accepted voluntary retirement. Once the unionised workers were out of the company, it saw little union activity. Even the union office in Gurgaon remained shut for 10 years until it was reopened last year, subsequent to the elections in July 2011. According to workers in Gurgaon, the 2009 wage settlement, which applied also to Manesar, was not exactly a negotiated settlement, as the then union had little real clout. Hopes were high around the settlement negotiations this time. In Manesar, there was a union movement that had shown its teeth, there was a recognised union that could negotiate on the workers’ behalf, and for the first time since the Manesar plant started operations in 2007, the workers could now negotiate with the management on equal terms.
By some accounts, the worker’s unionisation had exacerbated tensions on the shop floor. Their relationship with their immediate supervisors, who, in the workers’ eyes, belong in the management, but are not vastly different from them in their socio-economic profile, had turned frostier. While the worker supervisor friction is neither new nor unique to Maruti shopfloor, the union was a new variable in the equation. Workers flaunted their union strength, and supervisors used to counter them saying the union won’t be able to save them from consequences of indiscipline. Union general secretary Ram Meher was suspended for indiscipline in May. It was revoked three days later after he apologised. The Manesar union’s charter of demands ahead of the wage settlement negotiations was ambitious (See box: We Demand…), perhaps in line with a long-standing negotiation tactic of starting high. But the labour department official says their top demands this time related to contract workers.
They wanted higher wages and regularisation of casual labour. Even though contract workers are not part of the union, they have strong ties of clan, caste and region with the permanent workers. A large number of them are related, or have been employed through references from permanent workers to the labour contractors. But once on the shop -floor, they work alongside for very different terms and remuneration. The details of how the negotiations were progressing are unknown as workers are mostly on the run following the violence. Maruti chairman RC Bhargava said last week that wage negotiations were proceeding smoothly and all outstanding issues during the strike last year had been resolved. The labour department official said that on the fateful day, the management had agreed to revoke the suspension of Jiya Lal. They told the union leaders that they can work things out once the workers go home. Union leaders were adamant that the suspension should be revoked right then. But there was a minor technicality— Jiya Lal had refused to accept the suspension letter. So how could we revoke the suspension when the letter is still with us, the executives argued? As the subsequent events attest, logic was a casualty that evening.
Recent reasons for dispute
* Started as a petty rift over tea time between a supervisor and a worker Jiya Lal, during which supervisor also allegedly used caste based slur, snowballed into one of the goriest incidents of recent times. When Jiya Lal was suspended and the management refused to revoke his suspension the same day. * The account is not as far-fetched as might seem. It is a routine management practice in the Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera industrial corridor to employ large numbers of bouncers and musclemen to intimidate workers, break up their agitations, bludgeon them into submission and cripple the trade union of their choice from functioning. Creation and maintenance of an atmosphere of fear and insecurity on the shop floor is integral to the way managements function here. Even MSIL managers used to complain of “unbearable tension” in the factory
* The basic reason for the ongoing impasse of the last one year and its culmination in the grisly violence this July is the demand of the young Manesar workers to have their own representative union.
* Blatant use of muscle power has been documented at length by mainstream Central union federations, including the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and even the Congress-led Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), in many plants in the area, including Honda Motorcycles and Scooters and Maruti Suzuki, and dozens of ancillary units. * The police ensured that no stable union would be formed, by simple and brutal means: they would periodically pick up workers and budding union activists, and beat them mercilessly, or lock them up illegally for days.… Trying to form a union in those days meant putting your well-being at grave risk from a bureaucracy that viscerally hated any kind of progressive activism or defiance of arbitrary authority.
* Both workers and managers at MSIL have long complained of high mental stress and rude behaviour by their superiors, who are tasked to extract as much work as possible from all employees * The Suzuki management has taken the cult of compulsory attendance, obsessive punctuality and a relentless search for ever-rising productivity to new extremes. Work has been speeded up to ultra-stressful levels, where the limits of mental alertness and physical endurance can be easily crossed. The management has imported its practices and mantras straight from Japan, and has imposed them on local managers in Japanese through formulas (such as the “3-K” sutra for interpreting and obeying shop-floor orders strictly and exactly, with no room for difference, originality or creativity).
Various industrial relation issues
* The management which had suspended eleven of the leaders had to rescind its decision although the management wanted them to sign “undertaking of good conduct”. Still the newly formed Maruti-Suzuki Workers Union was not recognised but it had started functioning. There were pay cuts also for taking part in the strike but the workers could feel the difference between being a submissive lot and one which forces the issue with the powers that be. * This, of course, is the official version. Telling the story any other way for Maruti’s management would be an extremely inconvenient truth. For them to see a history of continued suppression would mean conceding that their 1,700 cars per day production by a staff of 4,000 odd workers are based on a highly exploitative work structure. * Supervisors on shifts began timing their tea breaks and refusing to let workers go to the toilet. Workers said that a lunch break of thirty minutes and tea breaks of seven minutes didn’t factor in that the shop floor was often half a kilometre away or more from the canteen.
That if they got back to their station a minute late they were scolded and humiliated. A car had to be rolled out on the automatic conveyor belt every forty seconds, no matter what. * The Suzuki management has taken the cult of compulsory attendance, obsessive punctuality and a relentless search for ever-rising productivity to new extremes. Work has been speeded up to ultra-stressful levels, where the limits of mental alertness and physical endurance can be easily crossed. The management has imported its practices and mantras straight from Japan, and has imposed them on local managers in Japanese through formulas (such as the “3-K” sutra for interpreting and obeying shop-floor orders strictly and exactly, with no room for difference, originality or creativity).
They could own shares and there could be equitable sharing of profits above the salaries fixed for different levels. It will be good to follow the socialist leader late Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia’s criteria that the difference between the lowest and highest incomes should not be more than ten times. The basic reason for the ongoing impasse of the last one year and its culmination in the grisly violence this July is the demand of the young Manesar workers to have their own representative union The Constitution of India provides the ‘freedom to form association’ as a fundamental right and the Trade Union Act also gives a set of workers the right to form their own union.But the Maruti management (and the Haryana government in collusion with them) systematically denied this basic right to the workers for the past year, rejecting them and frustrating them in every possible way – threats, coercion, force, enticements, etc.
Scenario today For one, the company has undertaken a programme to regularise all contract workers engaged in core production activities across its five factories in Gurgaon and Manesar. The trouble in all the strikes has emanated from the contract workers who get paid lesser than regular employees, don’t get social security benefits and depend on the whims and fancies of the manpower contractors for their livelihood. While the screening and critical examination procedures for the 1,870 contract workers at Manesar (who worked at the factory prior to the incident on July 18) are underway, the regularisation of contract workers at Gurgaon will commence around March 2013. The entire recruitment process is now routed through the company’s own human resource department. In the new dispensation, manpower contractors will not be in the picture at all.
According to the plan, Maruti Suzuki will have a workforce of 4,500 at Manesar by the end of this month. In fact, daily production at the unit has increased by 15 per cent to 1,950 vehicles from 1,700 vehicles rolled out before July 18. The company had previously been taking a large number of workers from contractors on a casual basis to meet cyclical demand of the car industry. These workers can be offloaded during the lean months and can be re-hired when the demand picks up. That’s because the country’s inflexible labour laws make it impossible to adjust the regular workforce in tune with the ups and downs of the market. “Contract workers are used largely because companies require flexibility,” Maruti’s Chief Operating Officer (administration) S Y Siddiqui had earlier told Business Standard. “Business has become so competitive that industry has stumbled upon this per force.” Two, the company has increased wages by a record 50 per cent for permanent workers at its Manesar and Gurgaon facilities. Gross salary has been increased by Rs 14,800 per month spread over a period of three years for these workers.
While they will get 75 per cent of the increment in the first year, 12.5 per cent each will come in the second and third years. “We are working out increments for technicians as well”, Siddiqui had said at the time of inking the wage pact with the workers. The gross salary of an entry-level worker in the company was Rs 23,500 per month. According to the new wage structure, the average entry-level salary will increase to Rs 37,800 per month over the next three years. For an experienced worker at Gurgaon and Manesar, the increased salary will stand at Rs 51,800 and Rs 39,800, respectively. The wage pact had benefited around 2,800 workers at Gurgaon and around 700 workers at Manesar. Besides, the company has offered an additional Rs 1,000 in an ad hoc payment to workers, travel allowance of Rs 1200 every month, interest-free personal loans of up to Rs 20,000 and doubled insurance coverage to Rs 5,500.
Dearness allowance has been made variable so that it will take into account all inflationary pressures. The revision is considered to be very healthy, considering that the company had given an increment of Rs 9,300 per month when wages were revised last in 2009. Despite the handsome increment offered by Maruti Suzuki in the new wage agreement, the company’s wage bill is expected to remain the lowest among listed automobile companies. The company’s wage bill is expected to increase by Rs 65-70 crore per annum because of the increments. Maruti Suzuki Chief Financial Officer Ajay Sheth had informed recently: “Because of the settlement and regularisation of contract workers, the wage bill will increase by 0.15-0.3 per cent of the net sales over the next two year”. According to estimates available with industry experts, Maruti Suzuki reported employee benefits of Rs 843.8 crore (Rs 8.43 billion) in the last financial year, which amounted to 2.4 per cent of the company’s net sales. It is also worth noting that Maruti Suzuki has chosen Gujarat for its expansion in the future.