Struggles ‘Made in India’

August 7, 2015

On the series of factory riots, occupations and (wildcat) strikes in Delhi’s industrial south, 2014


The following article documents material concerning eighteen factory struggles in Delhi’s industrial belt between early 2014 and mid-2015.

— January 2014: marauding workers in Faridabad shut down dozens of factories demanding minimum wage increases — February 2014: wildcat gatherings of over 2,000 female auto-electronics workers at Jai Ushin in Manesar enforce pay hikes — April 2014: male and female workers of two Napino factories occupy their plants for ten days — May 2014: police evict over 1,000 workers from Shriram Piston factory using tear gas and live ammunition — February 2015: after management injures a worker several thousand workers start attacking their factories and bosses’ cars —

(The text will be published as part of GurgaonWorkersNews no.64)

We focus on a series of riots around garment factories and a cycle of factory occupations, largely in the automobile sector, which took place in early 2014 in close geographical proximity, involving a new generation of female workers. This short cycle of struggles had the potential to make a qualitative leap into new forms of workers’ organisation.

Most of the struggles became known to the public only at a point when either violence occurred or workers were engaging in longer protests outside the factory – which means that struggles often become visible at a moment when workers are on the back-foot [perhaps this needs to be explained?]. If the prelude to the struggles is not revealed, our understanding of the strong and weak points of current workers’ unrest will remain skewed. The prelude and underlying tendencies don’t reveal themselves easily – and we would not have known about them were it not for the continuous and regular efforts of comrades of Faridabad Majdoor Samachar [1], an independent workers’ newspaper, to listen to workers and to circulate their experiences. The material provided in this article is largely based on translations of Faridabad Majdoor Samachar.

Firstly, we will explain the extent to which the local series of struggles in Delhi form part of the emerging ‘global strike wave’. We then look briefly at the general economic background of the struggles, namely the wage pressure from above and below, and the political situation, namely the parliamentary integration of the anti-corruption movement.

This is followed by a brief comparison of the garment workers’ riots in Delhi with those of their co-workers in Bangladesh and of the automobile wildcat strikes in Delhi with the struggles of Honda and other automobile workers in China 2010. Bangladesh and China were outstanding examples of workers being on the offensive so we make the comparison to see what common tendencies exist between them and the situation of workers in the same sectors in India.

We then look at the specific composition of the factory occupations in terms of permanent and temporary workers and emphasise the importance of the emergence of female workers’ autonomy. Finally we analyse the relation between workers’ actions on the shop floor and the formation process of company unions, in order to question the general assumption that trade union federations help workers overcome the ‘cellular’ or company-limited character of their struggles. We end with a critical reflection of the common (far-) left interpretation of both the ‘unlawful’ character of current workers’ struggles and government attempts to change the labour and trade union law.

Riots and spontaneous mass-protests:

* Riots in NOIDA and Okhla industrial areas, February 2013
* Spontaneous mass-factory shutdown, Faridabad, January 2014
* Orient Craft Riot, Gurgaon, March 2014
* Spontaneous mass-protests at Northern Complex Industrial Zone, Faridabad,
September 2014
* Udyog Vihar Riot, Gurgaon, February 2015
* Orient Craft Riot, Gurgaon, June 2015

Factory occupations and wildcats:

* Napino Auto Dispute, Manesar, 2010 to April 2014
* Munjal Kiriu, Manesar, December 2013 – January 2015
* Shriram Piston, Pathredi, January 2014 – May 2014
* Jay Ushin / JNS, Manesar, February 2014 – September 2014
* Asti Electronics, Manesar, February 2014
* Baxter, Manesar, February 2014
* Bajaj Auto, Gurgaon, February 2014
* Track Components, Manesar, April 2014
* Subros, Manesar, May 2014
* Autoliv, Manesar, June 2014
* Wearwell, Okhla, September 201
* Orient Electric, Faridabad, October 2014
* Premium Moulding, Gurgaon, October 2014 to June 2015

You can find both shorter summaries of each dispute and longer chronologies after the footnotes of this text. We particularly recommend reading the longer chronologies of Napino Auto, Asti Electronics and Jai Ushin disputes for understanding the general contradictions of current disputes.


*** The cycle of struggles of a new generation of factory workers in Delhi emerged synchronous to the global intensification of class struggle, also termed, ‘the global strike wave’. [2]

During the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, many speculated about a possible ‘de-coupling’ of the Indian economy [3]. But it quickly turned out that despite India having only a relatively small share in total global trade, the impact of the crisis was pretty immediate, e.g. micro-credits for small peasants dried up, wages in call centres were cut, garment exports came down. The situation in India is closely related to wider global developments not only regarding the circulation of capital, also in terms of the circulation of struggles. In India’s industrial areas a new cycle of struggle started around 2005, while on a global scale workers’ struggles started to culminate simultaneously, building up to a ‘global strike wave’ around 2011. In the Delhi area the stages leading to the new cycle can be roughly described as follows:

a) Like in most ‘developing countries’ the mid-1970s were characterised by draconic state measures, culminating in violent attacks on workers’ militancy in the late 1970s, e.g. the Faridabad Nilaam Chowk massacre in 1979. In the 1980s the introduction of electronics and new (synthetic) raw materials in, amongst others, metal and textile, contributed to the de-composition of this older workforce [4]; the Bombay textile mill strike in 1982 bears resemblance with many defensive mass struggles of this decade e.g. of the miners in Britain.
b) The global crash of 1990/91 resulted in a foreign debt crisis in India, which accelerated the restructuring process in industries. From then on mainly temporary workers were hired, to much worse conditions – again, a global phenomenon.
c) The dispute at Maruti Gurgaon plant in 2000/01 [5], which ended up with around 2,000 permanent workers being dismissed and replaced by casual staff. This marked a final point of this decade’s development of casualisation; since then temporary workers form between 50 and 80 per cent of the workforce in the ‘organised’ manufacturing sector.
d) It took the working class more than a decade to re-compose itself. The new generation of permanent and temporary workers entered the stage during the 2005 Honda HMSI conflict in Gurgaon [6]; at the time, given the composition of the workforce, permanent workers were already dependent on temporary workers joining their struggle in order to put pressure on management. Given the continuing ‘boom’ period in the sector the company was able to offer significantly higher wages to the newly formed permanent workers’ union, mainly through productivity incentives, which relied on the increased exploitation of temporary staff, and thereby managed to re-divide permanent and temporary workers. A year after the dispute the permanents earned four to five times as much as their harder-working temporary colleagues.
e) During the factory dispute at Hero Honda motorcycle plant in 2007 [7], for the first time temporary workers appeared with a new and necessary form of struggle: the ‘spontaneous’ occupation. However, given the wage differences the occupation remained limited to the temporary workers and given their inexperience they did not manage to sustain the occupation through support from outside.
f) The 2008 crisis changed companies’ abilities, particularly in the automobile sector, to finance significantly higher wages for the 30 to 40 per cent permanent workers amongst their workforce. In many situations, for example in the new Maruti Manesar plant (built in 2007), permanents initially earned only around one and a half times as much as the temps. This was only a third of what permanents earned in the older Maruti Gurgaon plant. The factory occupation of both permanent and temporary workers at Napino Auto in 2010 and especially the two occupations at Maruti Manesar in 2011 [8] expressed this underlying similarity in material conditions. From then on it became much more difficult for management to divide the workforce. These struggles can be compared to the series of wildcat struggles in the Honda and other automobile plants in China 2010 – see below.
g) The series of struggles in 2014 and 2015 that this article deals with are an extension of the Maruti Manesar experience. Struggles were directly and indirectly affected by the Maruti struggles e.g. through changes in production if they were part of the Maruti supply-chain or in terms of management’s responses with the violence at Maruti lurking in the back of their minds. The new quality of this series of struggles since 2014 is the participation of female factory workers, largely in the automobile electronics factories.

Relating these local developments back to the question of the global strike wave we can say that the synchronous character is partly based on a more short-term and regional commonality of neoliberal boom and bust (in particular within the BRIC states). But more generally and long-term we can say that globally it took the working class over a decade to discover how to struggle under the new conditions of a casualised and generally very mobile workforces, new supply-chains and ‘lean-and-mean’ factory regimes with new modes of (technological) control.

*** The current struggles take place against the background of a concerted wage freeze from above and a continuing wage pressure from below, where the general economic conditions still allow for a workers’ offensive.

The garment export sector and the automobile sector have been affected by the global slump, but so far there haven’t been mass lay-offs. The growth rate of passenger cars sales has come down, but sales have not yet declined. [9] Friends employed in the supply-sector told us that since end of 2014 there is less overtime in their factories, working hours have come down from 72 hours per week to 58 hours. The Indian Automobile Employers’ Association announced that in 2014 there were 200,000 job cuts in the sector, out of a total 19 million people employed. According to a recent survey these job cuts are largely due to an increase in automation, claiming that foreign direct investment in the sector rose from $200 million in 2009/10 to $646 million in 2013/14, mainly in automation technology, not in new capacities. In 2014/15 garment exports from India still grew by around 13 per cent compared to the previous year. All in all, profit margins have come down, but workers are not threatened with dismissals due to lack of work – which allows them to express their discontent about depressed wages.

Accounting for inflation, calculating in 2011/12 prices, if a worker earned Rs 8,154 per month in 1990/91, she earned only Rs 7,972 per month in 2011/12. In real terms, workers today earn less than they did in 1990. This mirrors a global trend. At the end of 2013 the chief minister of Haryana – the state where Faridabad, Gurgaon and Manesar are located – announced a substantial increase of the local minimum wage from around Rs 5,500 Rs to over Rs 8,000, but this did not materialise. In January 2015 the government met with leaders of all established trade union confederations and representatives from companies to debate an increase to Rs 7,400, but again no result. Minimum wages for unskilled workers in July 2015 were still below Rs 6,000. The central state knows that wages have to stay low and so do the companies: there has been a concerted effort within the automobile sector to fight any wage increase for permanent workers above Rs 7,000 over a three- year period or Rs 3,000 for temporary staff. Maruti or Honda would accept weeklong production stoppages at their suppliers, as long as workers are not successful in imposing higher wage hikes – and thereby giving encouraging signals to their workmates.

*** The struggles take place against the background of the political degeneration of the ‘anti-corruption’ movement and its parliamentary wing. In 2014, with BJP in central state government and the AAP (Aam Admi Party) [10] in Delhi, parts of the local working class experienced a ‘Syriza’ (or ANC, Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) Brazil, Muslim Brotherhood, Obama etc.) effect.

The global integration of class relations in India is also reflected in developments within the political sphere. The 2008 crisis destroyed neoliberal liquidity and revealed the personal power relations behind the scene: who profits from so-called ‘privatisation’, what kind of personal relations it needs to progress up the career ladder etc. Popular movements against ‘corruption’ and ‘lack of democracy’ emerged in many countries after 2009, from Spain to Turkey to South Africa to India.

In India Anna Hazare and Ram Dev were prominent figures of a movement of mainly lower-middle class people protesting against those in parliamentary power, but also Maruti workers during the Manesar dispute expressed the hope that these ‘extra-parliamentary’ mobilisations could change the political landscape. Apart from a few ‘local’ industrial workers and certain Delhi ‘professional’ groups, such as inner-city auto-drivers, most workers are completely outside of the electoral sphere – not mainly because they are registered on the electoral roll only in their far-away village, which they hardly visit, but because their general proletarian condition relates little to the political circus. The middle-strata movement institutionalised itself as the AAP and became a government force in Delhi state – and quickly revealed itself to be unable to offer much to the common people: in actual fact, it repressed the strike of temporary bus conductors in Delhi, who were demanding the permanent contracts that had been promised to them prior to the elections; in June 2015 rubbish collectors had to strike for weeks in order to get paid; and hundreds of health workers launched an indefinite strike, staging a protest outside Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s (AAP) residence demanding regularisation of services and fixation of minimum wages. On the central state level the BJP faces similar problems, having won the election mainly on the ‘anti-corruption’ ticket. Workers globally face the problem of how to interpret this demise of the ‘popular movements’ post-2009 and what it means for the political generalisation of their own struggles.


*** The two main new tendencies within current struggles in the Delhi area we can schematically distinguish in garment workers’ riots and automobile workers’ factory occupations.

Since 2010 we’ve seen an increase in industrial area riots and factory occupations as two forms of workers’ struggles.

a) While not exclusively, riots erupted mainly in industrial areas dominated by garment industries (or construction) [11]. The way the industry is organised is based on there being irregular busy periods e.g. lots of overtime when new orders come in; there being lots of temporary under-employment after orders are finished; a high level of capital flight potential because it is easier to relocate garment factories due to a lesser degree of machine investment; and disputes tend to evolve around individual skill levels as skilled tailors can negotiate piece-rates according to their professional groupings. We can state that this more irregular, mobile and individual character of the garment industry forces workers to act more quickly and opportunistically. This is also a reason why hardly any trade union manages to establish a permanent basis in the garment sector – in contrast to the more ‘industrial’ textile mills in the 1980s.
b) The factory occupations emerged as a necessary measure to counteract managements’ strategy to lockout workers and replace them with newly hired people. Due to the extensive division of labour, people can be trained and put to work fairly quickly. Therefore occupations mainly happen in factories with a more regular production process where workers cooperate within a more sophisticated division of labour, e.g. in the automobile sector. They only tend to be successful in situations where two shifts remain inside the plant while the third shift supports from outside. If more than 200 – 300 workers are inside the plant the police tend to be more cautious concerning evictions, or at least it takes them longer to prepare for it.

*** The riots, mainly by garment workers in Delhi, are less extensive compared to those in Bangladesh. [12] This is largely due to the lesser significance of the sector for the national (political) economy.

When we analyse the garment workers riots in the Delhi area it makes sense to contrast them with the recent garment workers struggles in the neighbouring country Bangladesh, where, unlike garment workers in India, workers have managed to enforce significant wage increases since the mid-2000s.

Looking firstly a bit closer at the six riots/mass protests in Delhi mentioned in this article, we see that two remained limited to the factory that employed the disgruntled rioters. They occurred after work accidents and involved around 1,000 workers. Two riots spread mainly against the background of a ‘symbolic’ general strike called for by otherwise minoritarian trade union federations. The workers involved in the riot were neither union members nor part of the mobilised sectors, nevertheless between 5,000 and 10,000 workers took part. One mass protest was a collective response to a common but temporary problem (accumulated sewage water) and involved 3,000 workers. And only one riot was in response to management harassment and went beyond the company boundary, involving between ten to twenty times as many workers as in the originally affected factory, a total of 10,000 to 20,000 workers.

Apart from two riots, which happened at the same factory ground, all the others happened at different industrial areas – meaning that it is unlikely that individual (groups of) workers were involved or experiencing it twice – another major difference to Bangladesh. The riots also took place in industrial areas (Okhla, Gurgaon Udyog Vihar), which are in different areas from those that became centres for factory occupations (Manesar). This does not mean that they were not felt in other areas, e.g. in the case of the riot in Okhla managements of various companies in Manesar decided to send workers on holiday the following day, fearing copy-cat effects.

Each riot only lasted for several hours. The main targets were the factories themselves plus (bosses’) cars. While police was fought initially, workers retreated once the police deployment became overbearing. There were very few arrests on any of the occasions. During the riot in Gurgaon Udyog Vihar, workers made sure to destroy CCTV cameras and recorders. As far as we know there were generally no attempts at looting.

While the two riots/mass protests that took place against the background of the trade union mobilisations raised demands of minimum wage hikes, the other riots/mass protests remained without clear demands. In Bangladesh it seems that riots are more extensive, regular, organised and – at least in hindsight – connected to general demands. These demands don’t have to be raised explicitly by the workers; rather the ruling class in Bangladesh interpret them as such. In India though, this does not happen so explicitly.

What explains the difference?

While the average factory size, sizes of industrial areas, wages and working times are fairly similar in both countries, the first obvious difference is the workforce: in Delhi mainly ‘skilled’ men work in the garment factories, male workers comprising around 70 per cent of the workforce, while in Bangladesh, the majority female workforce are mainly seen as ‘unskilled’ workers. In Delhi the industry still relies on male workers who have learned the skill from older family members in the village. The fact that companies can integrate these artisanal skills without major training costs means that in many factories workers still produce full garments or at least bigger parts of it, whereas newly trained younger workers are generally employed in ‘chain-systems’ with a more minute division of labour, e.g. sewing on single collars or pockets. In this situation of skilled-worker-dominated industries, wage disputes tend to be more individualised. Because a lot of the ‘skilled’ male workers are on piece-rate wages, they tend to negotiate individually or as groups and relate less to the general minimum wage. This individualisation or professional basis of the industry might also account for the fact that riots tend to spread less extensively and regularly as in Bangladesh.

The more important difference is the significance of the garment export sector for the national economy and differences in the general political landscape. In Bangladesh the garment export sector constitutes around 12 to 13 per cent of GDP, 80 per cent of total export and employs 4 out of 160 million people, whereas in India garments and textiles (!) together make up 4 per cent of GDP, garments constitute 12 per cent of total export and the sector employs around 8 million out of 1.3 billion people. [13] This means that first of all workers in Bangladesh know that they have bigger economical and political clout, but it also means that various opposing political forces, NGOs and trade unions are interested in developing influence amongst the workers. Rioting workers in Bangladesh know that the political class will hear them, whereas in Delhi the riots were portrayed as mere ‘hooliganism’. There is no, or hardly any trade union organising amongst garment workers in Delhi and most attempts to establish unions failed either due to workers disinterest or repression of employers. Similarly, none of the political parties would address the largely ‘migrant’ garment workers in Delhi, partly because they are not on the voting register anyway. The situation in India is politically more stable than in Bangladesh, workers are less seen as a necessary force to gain political influence vis-à-vis a police state.

*** The automobile factory struggles in Delhi have similar features to the Honda strikes in China in 2010. [14] Although the automobile struggles in India are more extensive in scope, more frequent and in some cases more severely attack management power over the factory, due to their democratic and trade union mediation, they don’t seem to pose a similar ‘political’ potential to generalise and to pose a threat to the ruling class.

The wildcat strike wave in the automobile industry in China in 2010 – first of all the strike at the Honda gearbox factory in Nanhai – got a lot of public attention, in the global north in particular. Compared to the (automobile) factory struggles in India we can say that a very similar generation of workers is involved: young workers in their twenties, coming from a semi-rural background, but often with technical qualifications, working on casualised contracts, e.g. as workers hired through contractors, as company casuals or trainees, comparing their conditions to an older permanent workforce who do similar work in the main plants of Honda or Maruti Suzuki (or even to those wages and conditions of car workers in Japan or US/Europe). They manufacture cars for the middle class, which they themselves cannot buy – while their parents might still own a tiny patch of land in the countryside, which won’t feed anyone anymore. The urban promise is not kept, workers can’t go back, but they also can’t properly arrive.

In the 1970 and 1980s industrial workers around Delhi were able to buy an (‘illegal’) plot of land and build a slum-house on it and wages were high enough to raise a family ‘in town’. Partly due to the land price development, partly due to relative wage decline, this has become largely impossible. Where in China ‘rural-urban migration laws’ and a dormitory system regulates the precarious living conditions of migrant workers, in India it is the more subtle force of the market: state and capitalists plan industrial areas, but they leave workers’ accommodation to the local ex-peasantry, who build blocks of small rooms and become landlords. Reproduction costs of the workers are lowered and the local population is integrated through taking part in the exploitation through rent.

Inside the factories, workers face more similar situations. During the (initial) dispute they are not represented by the existing union structures, they engage in wildcat actions, largely confined to their immediate factory surroundings, though news of the struggles spread further, often through making use of mobile phone / social media technology. Their strikes tend to threaten the wider production chain, meaning that often the main automobile companies intervene in the dispute. In some cases workers put forward their own representatives when dealing with the company; in some cases the existing unions get engaged during a later stage of the dispute, brokering between workers and management; in many cases workers don’t send any formal representation. In many cases management reacts with concessions to the initial dispute. These are some similarities.

The differences mainly concern a) the position of Indian and Chinese manufacturing on a global scale; b) the relation between workers’ struggle and the state form; c) and therefore the democratic mediation of struggles through the unions and the possibility for workers in India to set up their own union and/or to affiliate to different union federations.

The first two points are fairly obvious.

With regards to the position of Indian and Chinese manufacturing on a global scale, we can see that the difference in importance of the national economy explains partly why the series of struggles in China got more public (global) attention: unlike India, China is the ‘factory of the world’. In 2013, India’s share of global manufacturing stood at just above 2 per cent, while China accounts for 22.4 per cent. World consumption depends on workers’ behaviour in China, which alone explains why struggles attract more attention.

In terms of the relation between workers’ struggle and the state form, we can see that in India the state itself rarely feels politically threatened by workers’ mobilisation: democracy provides various ways to channel workers’ discontent, through parliamentary representation, the right to have toothless protests at the parliament itself, through year-long court cases, through the paralysing bureaucracies of the trade union apparatus and their symbolic marches and general strikes etc. While at the same time the state locks workers up in jail for years without trial, such as in the case of 150 Maruti Suzuki workers after the struggle in July 2012. Or the state shoots workers with live ammunition, as seen in hundreds of cases over the years, e.g. in the example of Shriram Pistons mentioned in this article. These regular ‘exceptions’ of democratic rule are obviously followed by official inquiries and public blaming of the responsible political/police representatives, with little to no general consequence. In this sense in many incidents of discontent, ‘democracy’ allows the state to act more brutally.

The state in China however, has less of these channels available, or at least they are less flexible, when trying to insulate workers’ discontent. In many cases company management is forced to give concessions to workers just in order to avoid workers’ dispute becoming more publically visible. As far as we are aware, one of the main tools of management in India to deal with workers’ unrest, namely the lockout, is less used by management in China because of that reason: it is a bigger political risk to have workers sitting and demonstrating ‘in public’ for months and possibly accumulating in some sort of ‘Tahrir’ effect. To sum it up, the higher degree of attention workers’ struggles in China attract is partly explained by the spectators’ expectation that they might play a catalyst role in some sort of regime change. Here the third point, the trade union question comes into play.

In China the trade union federation ACFTU is the official state union, most workers’ ‘representatives’ are members of company management, the right to engage in labour disputes are restricted. Looking to the last point about the democratic mediation of struggles through the unions, in China, most labour activists and left-leaning academics think that the forming of ‘independent union structures’ would be the precondition of a) overcoming the ‘cellular character’ of the factory struggles, meaning, bringing workers of different companies and sectors together and b) challenging the undemocratic form of the regime. The latter point is historically founded: in most cases of ‘regime change’ from formal dictatorship to ‘democracy’ trade unions played a major role as transmission belts between ‘mass power’ and ‘political representation’: from Spain 1975 to Poland 1981 to Brazil 1985 to South Korea 1987 to South Africa 1994, but also in the post-Morsi government in Egypt.

The question remains why in all these cases the working class let themselves be betrayed by ‘their own representatives’ as soon as (or at least shortly after) they or their political wing got into state power. Although in most debates the role of unions in overcoming factory boundaries and their role in regime change are kept slightly separate or seen as a ‘two-stage’ model (‘unions as the school of workers’), we think that looking closer at how trade unions ‘overcome’ the factory boundaries of workers’ struggles and how they ‘connect’ individual company workforces is the key to understand why the ‘regime changes’ have historically ended in ‘letting workers down’. This is mainly because of trade unions introducing and/or strengthening the rules and laws of bourgeois forms of representation and segmentation of economic and political struggle within workers’ struggles. This is not surprising when we see how the union form and rules from the very start of a struggle use segmentations and hierarchies to their advantage.

But even if we don’t address the question of the relationship between the two stages in the ‘two-stage model’ mentioned above (between union organisation ‘as school’ and regime change), we still think that looking at the role of trade unions in the disputes in recent Delhi struggles might be fruitful. This is primarily to add to the debate about whether independent trade union representations, ‘collective bargaining’ or a democratisation of the ACFTU in China could solve the problem of the allegedly ‘cellular’ character of struggles there.

In China we can see how management and GDFTU (regional trade union federation branch) reacted to the wildcat strikes in 2010: they collected ‘concrete demands’ from workers through union surveys, they tried to involve workers’ representatives in the negotiation process without handing over control, they established a type of regional ‘collective bargaining’ in the affected industrial areas (“Guangdong Provincial Regulations on Collective Contracts in Enterprises” (GPRCC)) in order to curb the spreading of unrest from individual company to company etc., meaning, they actually implemented a lot of the mechanisms which are generally seen as features of ‘democratic industrial bargaining’. The ‘collective bargaining’ basically brought about a more systematic communication and collaboration between union representatives from various companies, local authorities and an emerging association of management in various supply-chain companies.

A closer look at the inner composition of the struggles in Delhi will further reveal that workers have little to gain from state-recognised national trade union federations with ‘democratic structures’ and will have to depend on setting up their own struggle coordination if they want to overcome the limits of their struggles so far.

*** How representative are the examples from Delhi for struggles in (automobile) industries in the rest of India?

Before looking at the individual disputes and their composition we have to ask how representative they are for the situation in general. Out of the thirteen factory struggles listed below, around half of them made it into the public spotlight, mainly because they were drawn-out and took place outside the factory gates. The way these struggles played out are representative of struggles that make it to the media/the left’s attention. Four of the struggles listed below were more ‘low key’ and less visible (workers stayed inside the factory or came outside only for a short for meetings and protests). But they were generally more ‘successful’ in terms of getting some concessions from management. In this sense we have to deal with a certain problem: struggles that enter the public debate do not necessarily represent examples of workers’ current power vis-à-vis the bosses.

Three companies out of thirteen are not part of the automobile supply chain (a major fan and light bulb manufacturer, an international pharmaceutical company, a significant garment export company). All the others are part of, amongst others, the first-tier Maruti Suzuki and/or Hero Motorcycles supply chain, which are the main local (and Indian) automobile companies. Most of the companies employ between 500 and 1,000 workers. Seven of them have joint ventures (or formed corporate groups) with ‘foreign’ companies, mainly from Japan, which does not impact much on workers’ conditions. In most of them production levels were high at the time of the dispute, meaning companies did not plan to lay-off workers. All of these aspects are fairly representative of the general (automobile) industrial structure across India.

Eight of the factories are located in IMT Manesar, an industrial zone 30 km from Gurgaon and 60 km from Faridabad, with around 800 factories and up to 150,000 workers. Although this might not be representative in terms of the size of IMT Manesar compared to Faridabad or Gurgaon industrial areas, it hints at struggles being concentrated within a certain area. We can say that this concentration happened neither due to the mere fact of workers being part of the same supply chain (which reaches into all corners of Delhi, UP and Haryana) nor due to formal organisational links between them, but because of the mutual influence of workers who live and work in the same area and under similar conditions. Workers recognise these similarities and learn from each other.

*** Under similar sectorial conditions the form and course of current struggles is mainly determined by the specific composition of firstly, permanent and temporary workers; secondly ‘local’ and ‘migrant’ workers.

In nine of the factories, workers hired through contractors (temporary workers) account for more than 60 per cent of the staff, which is representative of the general situation. The temp/permanent workers ratio/relation is the main line of division within the workforce.

In most cases permanent workers earn considerably more than their temporary workmates, in particular if we take various bonuses and allowances into account. While permanents in the (older) main assembly plants of Maruti or Honda can earn up to four to five times as much as their temporary colleagues, since 2009/10 the newly hired permanents are less well paid and the wage gap shrank. Apart from the pay gap, differences on the shop floor might mean workers wearing different uniforms, or permanents getting easier jobs or better treatment in general.

In legal terms temporary workers are not treated as ‘workmen’ of the company they are employed at, which means, amongst other things, that they cannot become members of the same trade union as the permanents. This fact becomes one of the main stumbling blocks in workers’ struggles and, in many cases, a handy tool in the hand of management to divide workers’ collectivity – see point on the role of the unions below. Here the seniority of temp workers also plays a role: in many of the factories concerned, a considerable share of temp workers had been employed at the company for several years. These workers were more prone to support the process of permanent workers’ union formation.

Apart from the ratio between permanent and temporary workers, the division between ‘local’ (meaning workers from Haryana) and ‘migrant’ workers (meaning, from Bihar or other states) can play a role. While it was the case that companies were reluctant to hire local workers, they now form a considerable share of the workforce, in particular in companies located outside of Manesar, closer to the Rajasthan border. The main difference is that ‘local’ workers can fall back on their families or their own house more easily, e.g. during time of unemployment or longer dispute, whereas the ‘migrant’ workers have to pay rent and their families are much further away. The other difference is workers’ connection to local authorities, such as the village councils – in some cases workers on strike appealed to these authorities, asking them for support or to play the role of arbitrators. In most cases these local authorities take management’s side and even threaten workers to stop their agitation. In regards to the thirteen disputes dealt with here only in one case did the ‘local’/’migrant’ question seem to have played a role.

*** We see a new quality of female worker involvement in factory struggles and occupations, mainly in automobile electronics factories, which questions the gender regime.

In three of the factories women workers formed the majority within the workforce and in one they formed a considerable minority.

In general, female employment rates in urban-industrial areas are low, between 10 to 20 per cent in North India. This is a major difference to the situation in China and Bangladesh. These differences cannot mainly be explained by referring to a more conservative culture or the composition of the industry, e.g. there being only a small electronic consumer goods manufacturing industry in North India. The main reason is that employment in more seasonal agriculture, where many women were employed before, is decreasing faster than jobs are created in the urban industrial sphere. An urban wage is not a household wage, meaning it hardly sustains the urban reproduction of a partner and children. [15] Women and children therefore tend to stay in the village, women might work the household field (which is too small to farm for a living, but too big to be left alone), are transferred into rural employment schemes, or find seasonal employment. [16]

Urban ‘industrial’ female employment in Delhi area was therefore largely confined to either small-scale household industries, helper jobs in the garment or construction industry and more recently, though from a different class background, call centres. [17] However, this is changing. There are an increasing number of young, single women coming to work in the modern industrial areas. In all these workplaces though, there are attempts to enforce a ‘moral code’ and certain gender relations e.g. within the electronics and pharmaceutical plants where women now form a significant share of the workforce, management imposes separate seating arrangements in the canteen or company buses or transfers young men and women from their workplace if they talk too much to each other. The clash between the moral code and the larger number of women being in positions of industrial waged work opens up a space of contestation. A number of things can be called into question on a larger scale e.g. the share of the responsibility of reproductive work. These ‘private’ conflicts also have a dynamic relationship to the more public social movements that have rocked India in recent years, focusing as they have on sexual violence and women’s wider role as oppressed subjects within society. These movements may have had an impact on how these working class women see their ‘role’ as potential subjects of protest.

Many of the women workers are single, often migrants from other states in North India (Uttranchal, Himanchal Pradesh, but also Nepal), but some are married, in particular women from the local area (Haryana) who are pushed into work because of low wages for the men. They find that in many cases the ‘crèche arrangement’ in the factory is just for show or that shift-times make it hard to arrange childcare. In that regard it is interesting to note that the current government labour law amendments, which are criticised as an ‘attack on workers’ rights’ from the left and trade unions, contain an increase in paid maternity leave from three to six months. Although we know that most legal rights are equally just for show, it nevertheless hints at the fact that the state has to address the problem of ‘fully proletarianised shrinking households’ and the social significance of female employment.

Their employment in modern industry is fairly new, but we can already see qualitative changes in the way women workers participate in struggles and in the gender relations. For example, while in 2010 during the first occupation at Napino Auto women left the factory overnight, in 2014 they stayed inside with their male workmates for the whole duration of ten days and nights. During the Jai Ushin / JNS dispute it was the women workers who started the wildcat gatherings, the male workers only joined them on the second day. Also during the struggle at Asti [18], women workers stayed at the protest camp in the industrial area overnight, which they had to fight over – not only with the female riot cops but also with their families. In that sense the participation of ‘local’ women is of particular importance, also given the general level of gender violence in the Haryana hinterland. [19]

*** The new composition of temporary and permanent workers forces them to take an initial step together, while management’s strategies to deal with unrest forces workers to occupy or take other ‘spontaneous’ actions.

In most factories we can assume a similar material pre-condition for struggles. We can see that:

a) Permanent workers account for only 30 to 40 per cent of the total workforce. This means that it would not be easy to take steps alone – either for the permanents or for the temporary workers. The fact that wage differences are less severe and work on the shop-floor similarly hard is more conducive to workers’ taking an initial action together – which is the case in most of the respective thirteen factories where the ratio of permanents and temps is around 1:3;

b) Over the last decade, in particular after 2010, workers have learned to deal with management’s usual strategy for industrial dispute: management builds up their stock reserves by ordering stock from other companies (either locally, sometimes from ‘mother companies’ abroad) and/or let workers work overtime; management starts hiring new people, either from regional technical colleges or contractors; management provokes a situation which allows them to suspend a few ‘leading’ workers (if they have their names e.g. through a union register, the easier it is to get the names); the bosses force the rest of the workers to stay outside through ‘good conduct’ undertaking [20] and/or through a police presence; in many cases management has already got hold of a court order which forces workers to stay a certain distance away from the factory gate; in some cases management has prepared food and accommodation for new workers which allows them to stay in the factory for 24 hours; this managerial strategy can hardly be challenged legally, which forces workers to take swift action through occupation to circumvent it: usually the A-shift refuses to leave once the B-shift is inside, while the C-shift workers support from outside.

The struggles themselves transform these material pre-conditions for collectivity and necessities for occupation into something more: in particular after the Maruti Manesar struggle it became a kind of moral duty of all workers, and also their official representatives, to emphasise the need for a unity between temp workers and permanents. Similarly, the occupations became more than a functional counter-strategy, but workers involved said that for the first time they were able to breath freely inside the factory and that for the first time they really recognised the other people they had been working side-by-side with.

What kind of ‘direct actions’ by both temp and permanent workers did we see? At Napino Auto workers occupied the plant at first for four, then for ten days; at Munjal workers occupied for several hours, were kicked out and continued the protest outside for 25 days, while production was down; at Shriram Piston workers occupied the plant twice and were only evicted through a massive police attack; at Jai Ushin/JNS over 2,000 female workers refused to enter the factory, gathered outside and demanded more money; at Asti workers reacted with joint wildcat strikes to dismissals and forced management to take them back; workers at Baxter went on an unannounced slow-down strike; at Track Components two wildcat strikes enforced bonus payments; wildcat strikes stopped both Wearwell factories and workers increased bonus payments; at Orient Electric hundreds of temp workers gathered in a park and demanded bonus payments; similarly Premium Moulding workers stopped work collectively for higher annual bonuses.

It is not easy for management to deal with such a scenario. The financial clout for major monetary concessions to the permanent workers to ‘buy them off’ has been increasingly restricted because of the general economic downturn and increased competition. The use of brute police force for evictions contains major material risks to plant and machinery and risks of political repercussions. Management prevention strategies seem helpless, e.g. since the series of occupations in many companies management will only let the B-shift enter the factory once the A-shift has left. This causes significant loss of production, but is a political price they have to pay. Therefore management’s major challenge is to undermine the developed organic unity of workers, to make it easier to prepare for and pre-empt workers’ actions and to keep them isolated and harmless once (parts of) the workforce ends up outside the factory. In this situation workers’ trust in the law and legal procedures, in representation, in the strength of trade unions as institutions and the union’s ability to organise wider solidarity actually play into the management’s hands. Workers know how to organise on the shop floor level, but their experiences of organising coordinated efforts beyond their company are still limited. As soon as workers leave the factory, bourgeois society comes down on them heavily in the forms of legal authorities and regulations.
*** The role of trade unions in the disputes: Where permanent workers and temp workers are divided, management will fight against the establishment of a trade union inside the plant. Where management faces collective actions of both permanents and temp workers, trade union formation either becomes a stumbling block for workers or a tool for management to undermine their collectivity.

The dynamic between workers’ unrest inside the plant, the formation of a company union and the trade union federations is complex. Even a close look at the respective chronologies doesn’t always reveal the concrete relations easily. First of all we can state that in ten out of our thirteen examples (some) workers formed a company union during the process of struggle, nearly all of them affiliated themselves either to HMS [21] or AITUC [22] trade union federations. These two unions have established around 60 company unions in Gurgaon/Manesar area, in total around 20 to 30,000 members – out of a total workforce of around 400 to 500,000 industrial workers. Most of the wildcat actions took place before the union was officially recognised, a few of them in order to protest against potential union representatives who had been sacked; some actions took place after the union recognition, e.g. in the case of Napino the union itself instructed the ten-day wildcat occupations, while at Asti the union ordered an unofficial slow-down strike under the pressure of impatient workers – who had expected that with the registration of the union concessions by management would follow automatically.

Below we summarise the general dynamic between workers’ aspirations, divisions between workers, the initial process of union formation and management’s reactions. We state the legal or formal reasons why forming a company union in most cases will hinder the development of collectivity between permanents and temps and makes it easier for management to foresee and counteract workers’ activities.

* Even before the question of union formation emerges, there is general discontent amongst workers and smaller collective steps are daily occurrences. So are repressive counter-measures by management. Workers know that they have to be organised together – and they can.
For example: In three of the thirteen examples (Wearwell, Jai Ushin, Orient Electrics) no union formation was taking place, but workers’ took wildcat actions, which all ended with management giving material concessions.

* In this situation (some) permanent workers compare their wages and conditions to those working at the central assembly plants, where a union has previously been established (and has been able to sharply increase the wage gap between permanents and temps), e.g. Honda or Maruti Gurgaon. So some permanents take steps to set up a union, but because the numbers of permanent workers has come down over the years, they need to incorporate the temporary workers.
For example: In most cases temps and permanents struggle together during the initial process, so at Asti, the union collected union dues from the temps up to the time when it was officially recognized even though they knew that they could not represent them in future – and betrayed them in the end.

* For most workers, in particular temp workers, ‘the union’ is still a symbol of workers’ strength and unity, but also contains a certain power-fetish: the union leaders are educated, workers are not; they have political links, which workers need; once a union is established there will be automatic improvements of wages in future; only improvements negotiated and settled on paper count, management won’t give anything without official agreement etc. These (mis-)conceptions are still widespread – and workers literally pay for it: The myth of the trade union as a guarantor for improvement also helps people to make money. Although the costs of registering a union is no more than Rs 500, workers often collect between Rs 200,000 to Rs 900,000, which ends up either in the coffers of the trade union federations, the lawyers or in some cases the permanent workers who started the registration process.
For example: In the cases of Subros and Track Components money disappeared without workers seeing results. In the case of Subros it seems that the union president embezzled the union funds.

* Though permanent workers depend on the temps, the union form itself questions their collectivity: only permanent employees can become members of the company union, temporary workers can only form a separate union, which rarely happens.
For example: In most cases the permanent workers appealed to the temporary workers to support formation of the union and to pay union dues, promising to take temp workers issues on board, but as in the case of Napino Auto and Asti, they were left in the lurch.

* Another reason temporary workers don’t often actively support union formations is the fact that the usual three-year wage agreements are less attractive for temporary workers, because they might not stay in the plant for that long.
For example: At Munjal Kiriu the permanent and older temporary workers did not manage to integrate the newly hired temporary workers, partly because their demands were mainly focused on seniority issues.

* For the application of union registration the names of members and representatives have to be given, which usually end up in the hands of the bosses; the representatives become pawns, who are either crushed or instrumentalised.
For example: At Shriram Piston the union president was suspended while union registration was pending; at Baxter management transferred the workers who had applied for union registration; at Napino Auto management was able to use the twelve representatives after they were first fired and then re-hired to broker a divisive wage agreement. The prime example in the area is the ‘sell-out’ of the early union body during the 2011 Maruti Manesar struggle.

* During this process wildcat actions and union formation can go hand in hand. Workers’ actions often lead to concessions and wage increases, even without written settlements.
For example: Of those ten companies that witnessed union registration/recognition processes at least eight saw initial wildcat actions of all workers (with concessions) before the union was formed.

* At this point it depends on the general situation and composition of the workforce: if permanent workers are isolated from the temporary workers and if management does not face wider trouble, the bosses will oppose the union formation. If management cannot break the collective dynamic and control the situation they might help setting up the union, as happened in the case of Asti or Maruti Manesar plant.

* Once the union is registered, officially strikes or other actions have to be announced, which allows the employers to prepare themselves, e.g. through hiring new people. Even when actions are not announced, the negotiation process around the demand notice makes it easier for management to control the pace of events.
For example: In particular at Asti it became clear during the slow-down strike that the union was not able or willing to counteract management’s strategy to undermine workers’ action, e.g. by hiring new people or by subcontracting work. The main argument was that it was the legal right of the company to do so.

* The certain formalization of dispute makes it easier for management to calculate certain risks and to prepare steps. The chance to divide workers and/or remove them from the factory increases:
For example: In seven of the cases either permanents (Baxter), temps who took part in the struggle (Asti) or both (Munjal, Shriram, Bajaj, Autoliv, Premium) ended up being ‘locked-out’ and in some cases dismissed. Only in the case of Shriram and Premium we can say that it was mainly police repression that caused both temps and permanents to end up outside, though ‘trust in the law(yer)’ was a more significant reason in the Premium case. And in the other cases, the existing division between temps and permanents and/or management’s ‘good-conduct’ strategy and the unions’ response to it forced workers outside. In the case of Subros the company dismissed nearly all temps and permanent workers in small groups and the union president disappeared with the union dues.

* In order to maintain their influence, trade unions propose steps to workers which makes them dependent on the apparatus, e.g. when management asks workers to sign a ‘good conduct’ undertaking as a precondition to go back to work, the union would advise workers not to sign it, even if their position is weak, e.g. production is running.
For example: In the case of Autoliv and Bajaj this led to a slow degeneration of workers’ strength. While Autoliv management used skilled workers and products from other plants and companies (Maruti workers, skilled workers from France etc.) to get production going, workers remained isolated.

* In this situation where workers are outside the factory and visible, the form of the company union tends to emphasise the company-specific conditions and steps and does not relate to the more general proletarian conditions. The division between (legally qualified, eloquent etc.) union leaders and workers generally results in workers becoming more passive and waiting for instructions and leaving it to the representatives to contact other ‘workers’ (usually only other union representatives). Once workers are protesting outside, the main course of actions that unions propose are legal procedures (labour court meetings), which take a long time, or symbolic actions, often away from the actual industrial areas or other workers; in most cases workers who don’t break this dynamic through self-activity end up getting tired and isolated.
For example: At Baxter, Subros, Bajaj and Autoliv workers sat outside in protest for several weeks in struggle for ‘their union’, but only on few occasions addressed workers in the wider industrial area directly.

* Union federations generally help little to create solidarity amongst workers. This is true locally, but even more so on a nation-wide level.
For example: HMS discouraged the Munjal workers to engage in common actions with the dismissed Asti temp workers who were protesting nearby. There are only a few examples where the union federation actually called for ‘solidarity strikes’. During the Rico ‘lock-out’ in 2009 [23] AITUC called for a one-day ‘general strike’ in Gurgaon, but this only led to workers thinking that ‘something was happening’ on their behalf. In the end they remained outside and the majority of them took their final dues.

* The links between the union federation and their respective political parties (less formal in the case of HMS) results in fostering illusions amongst workers about possible support from the political class.
For example: At Asti various political leaders turned up such as the president of the BJP’s women’s wing, but instead, this contributed to workers’ feeling even more let-down after politicians either siding with management or merely dishing out empty promises.

* Where the final outcome leads to material concessions the agreement tends to increase the wage gap. The three-year agreements make it easier for management to plan ahead and the wage gap undermines workers’ collectivity in future:
For example: Both permanent and temporary workers at Napino got a wage increase as the result of union-management negotiations. But permanents got a raise nearly three times higher than the temps, which led to major discontent. The prime example regarding this issue is Honda HMSI, where the union was established in 2005 through joint struggle. Management accepted the union, but refused to let temporary workers re-enter the factory. Since then the share of permanent workers to the total workforce has come down from 50 to 20 per cent through expansion of the temp workforce, while permanent workers’ wages increased from one and a half the temporary workers pay to five times their pay. The wage increases are also based on productivity bonuses, which only permanent workers are entitled to: the permanent workers have largely supervisory positions and have a material interest to make the temporary workers work harder.

To sum up, we hope to have been able to demonstrate the following:

– Collective direct actions exist before and during union formation processes and they deliver results without the necessity of formal settlements;
– The union as a from mainly appeals to permanent workers, and though they depend on temporary workers support, the legal union framework undermines workers’ collectivity;
– Workers still have many legal and formal illusions regarding the necessity of legal expertise and the potential to use the law against the bosses; the union apparatus still seems the main way to connect to both resources and (organised) workers in other companies;
– Management rejects the unions if they don’t face collective trouble; in case of joint-actions they try to make use of unions and formal procedures to control the workforce; this mainly depends on the ‘integration’ of the permanent workers;
– Although able to organise collective steps on the shop floor, workers haven’t found alternative organisational forms to coordinate beyond the company boundary – a necessity to fight back against the inevitable counter-attacks by management; this lack explains the persistence of trade union influence despite their obviously undermined material basis and despite often having interests that contradict those of the workers.

This brings us back to the initial question of whether ‘independent trade unions’ and ‘collective bargaining’ are the way out to overcome the ‘cellular character’ of workers’ struggles, e.g. in China. We think that the examples from Delhi demonstrate that workers’ direct actions are able to force bosses to pay up and that a formalisation of this process does not improve workers’ position. In actual fact, there are many examples to show it makes things worse. We can see that once workers are forced into a defensive position – for whatever reason – being affiliated to a trade union federation does not increase their strength, but rather contributes to the winding down of the disputes through legal channels. The examples from Delhi make it clear that so far, an independent workers’ coordination beyond the shop floor boundary has only existed as temporary and limited efforts – see below.

*** The factory struggles ‘communicate’ with each other, but they don’t yet coordinate amongst themselves. Workers still leave it largely to the unions to organise beyond the company level, which in most cases means that struggles remain isolated.

What kind of indicators or examples do we have of workers’ struggles overcoming company boundaries?

* The most obvious question will be: have the struggles at the suppliers impacted on production at Maruti Suzuki? And here we are at a certain loss, because we lack information from Maruti workers themselves. While the dispute at Maruti caused many of the suppliers to close down or reduce production, it seems that at least when it comes to smaller parts like AC components etc. the supply-chain is fairly flexible and necessary parts can be sourced from other local companies.

* The fact that struggles concentrated in time and space in IMT Manesar during early 2014 means that although there is no formal link between them, the fact that workers live and work closely together influences their struggles. To a certain extent, experiences are passed on informally, e.g. workers at Asti could tell the AITUC leader about how his union had treated workers at other factories nearby. News about struggles tends to spread quickly e.g. through mobile phone messaging.

* Certain struggles change the atmosphere in companies around them, e.g. after the Maruti Manesar riot in 2012 many company managements in the area gave concessions to their workers, similarly the riots in Noida and Okhla led to companies sending their workers home the following day.

* During the Maruti Manesar struggle a former Maruti worker managed to mobilise 200 Maruti workers to protest in front of a supplier company to force management to give treatment and a job guarantee to a worker injured after a work accident. On a different occasion Maruti workers supported locked-out Senior Flextronics workers in 2012 [24] by turning up and shouting slogans in front of their factory – which scared both management and police. There are several examples of such type of ‘solidarity actions’, but they rely largely on personal contacts.

* The high point in terms of coordination of struggles happened during the second occupation of the Maruti Manesar plant in 2011, when workers of eleven factories occupied at the same time. We assume the coordination was established through the rank-and-file contacts between different HMS shop floor workers, given the fact that most of the factories had HMS representation and, more decisively, after HMS regional and national hierarchy intervened and reduced the occupations to the four factories of the Suzuki group.

* During the Asti and Jai Ushin protests outside the factories the workers camp temporarily turned into a wider proletarian public sphere, e.g. struggling workers talked to other workers who were going to or coming back from work. Students came to support the workers. The idea to have a ‘mobile’ protest camp and to circulate within the industrial areas came up, but was not executed. Similarly, Premium Moulding workers started to address other workers through self-made placards, but their focus of activity remained on the developments at the labour court.

* After the Asti dispute, dismissed workers aimed at setting up an independent committee to ‘coordinate’ between colleagues who had started working in other factories in the area. They planned to meet regularly and to support each other in the new jobs. As far as we know though, the committee still tends to focus on the court cases of a minority of workers.

* We heard of an ‘independent struggle coordination’ between different factories in the Bawal area, closer to the Rajasthan border area, where mainly local factory workers linked up with local small peasants in struggle. We know about a series of factory struggles in that area, but little about the influence or role of the struggle coordination.

* The coordination of dismissed permanent Maruti workers unfortunately focused largely on the legal case and attempts to mobilise local ‘political’ support in the dismissed workers’ villages, as well as to influence the trade union elections in the Manesar plant. As far as we know there were little efforts to use the time and collective energy to set up a wider general workers’ coordination beyond the rather minoritarian union representatives.

We can see that coordination’ takes place on a rather random and informal level. Efforts to build more consistent structures are often sucked up into the power games of the existing trade union federations – which leads us to the question of the role of working class activists.


*** We witness tragic misconceptions on the far-left: at times where management and trade union apparatuses have difficulties keeping class struggle under control, (rioting) workers are portrayed as victims, while trade unions and the labour law are defended against ‘Modi’s fascism’.

The left and ‘far-left’ reacts with a certain ‘anti-fascist’ reflex to the Modi government’s proposed labour law amendments: “the political right attacks the ‘labour movement’, we have to defend it”. The changes basically propose to narrow down the conditions for the registration of a trade union and redefine the strike laws. [25] The leftist response tragically ends up re-focusing workers attention back to the framework of the law, just at the moment where ‘wildcat occupations’ as an unlawful, but the only effective practice of workers’ struggle, have started to proliferate. Similarly, instead of supporting workers’ agency in their discontent as they attack ‘their own’ factories during riots, most leftists declare angry workers to be the sad victims of ‘management conspiracies’.

First of all we have to state that the labour law does not play a role for most of the workers, be it in the so-called informal or in the organised sector: they are not paid the minimum wage; they don’t appear on company books, as they are hired through contractors; they can’t become members of the company unions. Even though the ‘registration of a trade union’ under current law is supposed to be just a minor formal act, in reality it depends not on the law, but the will of the administration, political class and management if a union is registered, and more importantly, recognised. The proposed changes in the labour law won’t change this dynamic. The only way to curb the disrespect for the law emerging amongst the casualised mass of workers is through linking the permanent workers to the labour law and the companies’ future. Under the conditions of crisis the latter becomes increasingly difficult.

Trade unions themselves, similar to the unions in the UK or in Germany where currently governments are also launching rather symbolic ‘attacks’ on the unions, present themselves as the guarantors of law and order: “Trade unions across India see a grave threat in these changes. Tapan Sen, a Rajya Sabha member and vice president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, said that by enforcing a law that restricts workers’ participation in unions, the government is taking away all their outlets for grievances, pushing them towards more militancy. “If you push someone against the wall, what will they do?” asked Sen. “They will hit back at you.”” [26]

Here we have to ask what the political motivation behind the reaction of the (far-) left is. It might be a mere naïve reflex to defend whatever a right-wing government seem to attack. Or it might be a tactical decision to defend the union bureaucracy as the main organised form, which could guarantee a small, mainly middle-class left access to, and political influence over, the working class. From a similar perspective we can question the motivation of the political left, leftist academics and NGOs of establishing independent trade unions in China: is it actually ‘in the interests of the working class’ or in the interests of their own political trajectories?

The challenge for us lies in taking account of all the experiences of independent shop floor actions and their relation to efforts in building wider co-ordinations. This requires a daily engagement with workers’ reality in a concrete form, e.g. in the form of newspapers like Faridabad Majdoor Samachar. But it also requires proposing bold initiatives at the various isolated protest camps in order to transform them into permanent workers’ bodies, open for other workers’ in struggle – and an organised national and international debate of workers’ experiences.




Global strike wave:

‘De-coupling’ was the term economists used to describe their hope that the national economy in India and China will not be affected too harshly by the global financial crisis due to a bigger internal market.

Class relations in 1970/80s

Maruti strike, 2000/01:

Honda, 2005:

Hero, 2007:

Maruti Manesar, 2011:

Car crisis:


Construction riots:



China 2010:

Women workers:


Call centres:

Asti dispute:

Gender violence:

Good conduct undertaking:
Employers ask workers to sign individual agreements as a precondition to be allowed back to work, stating, e.g. that workers won’t engage in indiscipline, such as slow-downs, or raise further demands

Independent trade union federation, 3.3 million members in India

Trade union federation of the Communist Party, around 2.2 million members


Senior Flextronics:

Labour law amendments:

Trade unions on law changes: