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 management 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 itself. 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 a lunch break 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. 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!