A fire broke out at around 7 pm on July 18, 2012, at Maruti Suzuki India’s manufacturing plant in Manesar. It claimed the life of a manager. Within days, over 2,000 temporary workers and 546 permanent workers were dismissed by the company, and 13 of them—including the entire leadership of the workers’ union—were later charged for murder, thus ending yet another independent body for collective bargaining.
Unions are the last, and often only, line of defence workers have in modern industries, especially when the management is not averse to undermining their rights, dignity, and health in pursuit of higher profits. This was true of Maruti Suzuki. The often misrepresented events of July 2012 were far from an isolated incident but few today, as then, are willing to see the matter from the workers’ point of view.
In Japanese Management, Indian Resistance: The Struggles of the Maruti Suzuki Workers, Anjali Deshpande and Nandita Haksar tell the story of the biggest car manufacturer in India through the voices of the workers.
Suzuki is a Japanese family name; much as Tata or Birla are Indian family names. So, who is this Mr Suzuki?
Osamu Matsuda was born on 30 January 1930. Osamu started his career as a loan officer in a local bank. His life took a turn when he married Shoko Suzuki, the granddaughter of the patriarch of Suzuki Motor Corporation, Michio Suzuki. As the Suzuki family did not have a male heir, Osamu was married into the family, and following Japanese custom, Osamu took up the family name of Suzuki to become Osamu Suzuki.
An avid golfer, Suzuki said he golfed forty-seven times in 2020 when he was ninety years old.
Suzuki has made a name for himself and achieved celebrity status among middle-class Indians; they have been seduced by the myths of Japanese work culture and Japanese success. But what this means for the workers employed by Japanese corporations is rarely talked about—even after the events of 18 July 2012.
Suzuki never behaved as a minor partner in the company from the beginning of the joint venture. He imported the Japanese style of work and management and made many far reaching decisions. Suzuki was obsessed with keeping production costs low.
V. Krishnamurthy and R.C. Bhargava, the first chiefs of MUL had visited the Hamamatsu plant in Japan. It was hot and humid but they were shocked to find that the factory did not have an air conditioner and even top officials worked in sweltering heat.
At the initial stage when the Maruti factory was under construction, this attitude of Suzuki led to serious arguments that almost endangered the Indo-Japanese partnership.
In the Gurgaon factory Suzuki was not prepared to even invest in a conveyor belt to move parts from one place to another and Krishnamurthy, the then founder vice president of the company, had to tell Suzuki that if he was going to use trolleys to move material inside the factory, India could do without their help. Only after being ticked off like this did Suzuki install a conveyor belt.
Krishnamurthy writes in his book that he found Suzuki avoiding the introduction of some automated processes that were in use in Japan, in order to keep costs low, even if it meant exposing the workers to poisonous paint fumes.
Suzuki seemed to give priority to cutting costs over welfare of the workers. And he was reluctant to make investments or transfer technology to his Indian partners.
Some managers, executives and supervisors were sent to Japan and later some workers were too. Suzuki also deputed Japanese employees to train Maruti workers at the factory in the operation and maintenance of machines as well as shop floor culture. Such on-the-job training by experts ensured productivity levels were high and there was 100 per cent capacity utilization.
But what does 100 per cent capacity utilization mean when you’re talking about a worker, a human being?
Between 1999 and 2000 production had crossed 4,00,000 units. In other words, every worker was producing on an average 107 cars each year, which means he was actually working 2.5 times as fast as agreed upon in 1988.
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Bhargava describes Suzuki’s first visit to India in his book. The first time he came he was shocked by the work culture. Suzuki wanted every worker to enhance quality and productivity and reduce costs. In order to achieve this, he wanted to ensure that the eight-hour shift meant that not a second was wasted.
In India, a worker was deemed to have arrived on time for his shift if he entered the factory gate. Suzuki changed this practice; he wanted the worker to be at his work station, ready to work, when the shift started and leave only when the shift ended. He wanted the duration of the lunch break (which was not included in the eight-hour shift) to be controlled so no working time was lost due to workers returning late from lunch.
During those early days the factories had ten- to fifteen-minute breaks but Suzuki introduced two seven-and-a-half-minute tea breaks during a shift, something unheard of in Indian manufacturing at that time.
Khushi Ram, a dismissed worker who was active in the Maruti Suzuki Worker’s Union, listed all the things that a worker has to do within the seven-and-a-half-minute tea break:
The hooter sounds. Countdown begins.
Finish whatever you are doing. Ten to twenty seconds gone.
Put the tools down in their places. All tools have specified places at the work station.
Take off your helmet. Take off your gloves. Take off your apron. Put them away at a specified place.
Go to the rest area which is ten or fifteen steps away.
Go to your locker, open it, take out your glass for tea.
Get into the queue in the rest area with around twenty-five to thirty-five people.
The trolley is already there. Get your tea. Pick up a samosa or bread pakora or jam-and-butter sandwich in your hands. You can have a second samosa if you gobble the first very quickly.
Walk to the loo holding your glass of tea and samosa.
Washrooms are not too far because every rest area has a large bathroom with some ten to twenty cubicles for peeing and about five cubicles with toilets.
After peeing, wash hands and wash the glass. Get back.
Open the locker.
Place glass in locker. Lock it. Go back to the work station.
Put on the apron. Put on the gloves and helmet. Pick up your tools.
If you are delayed and the line has started then the line will stop for you and HR will know at which point the line stopped and who was late.
Khushi Ram added: ‘I should tell you that from 2008 they started to give us disposable glasses but we were not given plates.’ This meant that workers could not take two samosas or whatever snack was on offer, since they did not have a plate.
Excerpted with permission from Speaking Tiger.