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India: A new deal for labour

by Praful Bidwai, 9 August 2012

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The News International

August 07, 2012

India’s first great automobile success story, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd (MSIL), has plunged into notoriety. Its factory at Manesar in Haryana witnessed terrible violence on July 18, which led to the death of a manager and injuries to over 100 people. The violence must be condemned, strongly and unequivocally.

The MSIL management has imposed a lockout and is demonising its workers as criminally irresponsible and violence-prone. It wants to sack about a third of the 1,000 permanent workers and half the 2,000 contract workers. It has mounted enormous pressure on the government to arrest as many workers as possible and guarantee industrial peace, failing which it could pull out of Haryana.

The management’s reaction, most Indian employers’ response, and much media coverage of the issue, is excessive or biased. The Manesar factory has a history of labour unrest, but none of violence until July 18. It defies credulity that 1,000 workers indulged in violence. That number exceeds the strength of an entire shift. It takes only a handful to start a riot. Sacking people en masse for the action of a minority reeks of “collective punishment”, which is illegal and morally repugnant.

By all accounts, the trouble started in the morning when a supervisor hurled casteist abuse at a Dalit worker. Strong protests broke out. Yet, there were negotiations between the recognised Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union and the management. The workers were enraged when the abused worker was suspended, but contrary to normal practice, the supervisor was let off.

MSWU claims that to quell the so-far-peaceful protest, the management sent in the hundreds of “bouncers” it employs to thrash the workers, who then retaliated blindly with whatever they could find, including tools and car parts. Hence the indiscriminate violence. “Outlook” magazine has confirmed the bouncers’ presence. MSWU blames the management for causing and aggravating the violence, in which more workers were injured than managers.

Nobody has convincingly refuted this account. It’s not as odd as it might seem. Employing bouncers and goons is a routine or standard management practice in the Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera industrial belt near Delhi. They intimidate workers, break strikes, physically attack activists and undermine legitimate trade unions. This is documented not by ultra-radical activists, but by mainstream union federations including the Congress-led Indian National Trade Union Congress.

It’s extremely difficult to establish the use of bouncers conclusively in the specific case of MSIL because no worker or white-collar employee is willing to talk. More than 110 workers, including apprentices and interns, have been rounded up by Haryana’s notoriously brutal police. Each has been charged with murder or attempt to murder. Such charges wouldn’t stand scrutiny, but they serve the purpose of denying bail to the accused.

Most MSIL workers have gone underground in legitimate fear of detention and beatings. The police have unleashed a reign of terror, harassing workers’ relatives or acquaintances who aren’t even remotely connected with the violence. The operational principle here too is “collective punishment”.

The Haryana police has become particularly trigger-happy under the pressure of political bosses who are only too eager to please Maruti-Suzuki. There is no rule of law in Gurgaon-Manesar. A citizen has no protection from the state’s predatory agencies.

The MSIL workers’ discontent must be understood against the backdrop of callous management practices, including back-breaking workloads, large-scale employment of contract labour on ultra-low wages, refusal to negotiate working conditions and reduce gaping wage disparities, and non-recognition of unions chosen by the workers.

MSIL workers are subjected to a harsh shopfloor discipline to produce a car every 50 seconds. The situation resembles oppressive super-mechanised production immortalised in Charlie Chaplin’s “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. No wonder there is “unbearable tension” in the factory.

The Suzuki management has taken the cult of compulsory attendance, obsessive punctuality and relentless productivity increases to extremes. Work, measured in “actions per minute”, has been speeded up to ultra-stressful levels. Both workers and managers complain of high mental stress and rude behaviour by superiors tasked to extract as much work as possible. Understandably, slain manager Dev wanted to quit MSIL.

MSIL workers get just nine days’ leave annually, besides the weekly off. For every day missed beyond the nine, Rs1,500 is deducted. 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. An industrial consultancy (Karvy) says the real issues at Manesar are “more psychological” than “materialistic”.

But MSIL scores poorly on “materialistic” issues too. Most of its workers live in unhygienic, indeed inhuman, conditions. Four men share a tiny room and 30 men a filthy toilet. Two-thirds of MSIL workers are on contract and get paid less than one-half the permanent workers’ wages – although they do the same work and are needed around the year. This violates the principle of equal pay for equal work.

For the management, the contract labour issue is non-negotiable. But the key to the union’s strength lies in solidarity between the permanent and contract workers. Other issues like wages have also proved intractable at MSIL. Nothing could be a better recipe for bad faith which turns the factory into a tinderbox.

MSIL has witnessed two strikes in 13 months. A two-week strike last October was over the management’s non-registration of the workers’ preferred union. The state government intervened and a tripartite agreement was arrived at. The union says the management is trying to wriggle out of this and refuses to negotiate the union’s charter of demands in good faith.

The Suzuki management has shown great cultural insensitivity towards workers – for instance, over customs like Vishwakarma Puja, when workers worship the machines they work with. In an unusually harsh public statement, Tamaki Tsukuda, minister (economic) in the Japanese embassy in New Delhi, says: “The management did not quite know how to deal with a new band of people representing the workers”; it wasn’t aware of their pent-up emotions.

The Maruti-Suzuki violence marks a watershed. However, similar conditions and employer-labour tensions exist in many other Indian factories. There is growing frustration among workers at their declining real wages and rising job insecurity. Wages’ share in manufacturing value addition has dropped from 30 percent to under 12 percent over 30 years, while the share of profits has more than doubled from 23 to 56 percent.

This should prompt serious reform of industrial relations in India. What’s needed is a high-powered commission comprising labour studies scholars, sociologists, jurists, unionists, enlightened managers and administrators and policemen of impeccable integrity. First, it should investigate what happened at Manesar, based on forensic evidence and testimonies of witnesses protected against identification, intimidation and harassment, unlike the victims of Gujarat’s communal carnage.

Secondly, the commission should look into the causes of India’s vitiated industrial relations climate, and ways of remedying it. Under a new industrial relations deal, the worker’s basic right to a living wage and decent working conditions, as well as the right of association and collective bargaining, must be respected, while the pernicious practice of contract labour is abolished.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi.


The above article from The News International is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.