Violence at the Maruti Suzuki plant in Manesar highlights Indias industrial relations malaise and demands radical remedies.
THE horrible violence and arson on July 18 at the Maruti Suzuki India Ltd (MSIL) automobile factory at Manesar near Gurgaon in Haryana has created a furore and provoked the captains of Indian industry to demand ruthless action against the culprits. Revulsion against the violence, in which general manager, human resource, Awanish Kumar Dev was killed and scores of employees were injured, is wholly justifiable. The violence must be condemned unconditionally and unequivocally.
However, most media reports on the incident have treated the MSIL management as some kind of neutral authority, the sole victim, and the last word on the issue, rather than as an interested party. Yet by many accounts, more workers were injured in the episode than managers. The managements response has been disproportionate. Besides imposing a lockout, it has decided to withhold the workers earned wages prima facie violating the Payment of Wages Act.
Even more vindictively, it has reportedly decided to sack more than 1,000 workers including about a third of the permanent workers. Given that there is no credible evidence that such large numbers indulged in violence, this amounts to collective punishment for the actions of a small minority. Collective punishment is illegal and morally impermissible. The management is also mounting enormous pressure on the police to arrest as many workers as possible with or without reason.
The precise sequence of the events of July 18 remains somewhat fuzzy not least because no eyewitnesses except those loyal to the management are willing to talk. What could have provoked the workers, who until then had conducted their agitations, including strikes, entirely peacefully, is unclear. The police have not been able to establish the veracity of the managements version despite arrests and inquiries.
What is clear, however, is that trouble erupted that morning when a supervisor hurled casteist abuse at a Dalit worker. The management-recognised Maruti Suzuki Workers Union (MSWU) rightly demanded disciplinary action against the supervisor. It held negotiations with the management, but these broke down. The supervisor was let off.
Instead, the abused worker was suspended. This understandably angered the workers. Protests broke out, but remained largely peaceful. A posse of 50 policemen was present at the gate. But it was not called in by the management for four hours.
At this point, says MSWU, the management sent in 200 bouncers. They started mercilessly beating up the workers, who retaliated in self-defence with whatever was at hand, including tools and car components. This account, reiterated on television channels by office-bearers of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) an organisation with a creditable record of solidarity with workers in new industrial belts, as well as unorganised workers has never been convincingly refuted.Intimidation
The account is not as far-fetched as might seem. It is a routine management practice in the Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera industrial corridor to employ large numbers of bouncers and musclemen to intimidate workers, break up their agitations, bludgeon them into submission and cripple the trade union of their choice from functioning. Creation and maintenance of an atmosphere of fear and insecurity on the shopfloor is integral to the way managements function here. Even MSIL managers used to complain of unbearable tension in the factory.
Blatant use of musclepower has been documented at length by mainstream Central union federations, including the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and even the Congress-led Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), in many plants in the area, including Honda Motorcycles and Scooters and Maruti Suzuki, and dozens of ancillary units.
Admittedly, it is not yet possible to establish the role of bouncers and agents provocateurs conclusively in the MSIL case. No MSIL worker or even white-collar employee is willing to talk to the media. The Haryana police has unleashed a reign of terror in some 60 villages nearby, where most MSIL workers live.
Almost the entire 3,000-strong workforce of MSIL has gone into hiding in legitimate apprehension of being arbitrarily detained and harassed as were some MSIL contract workers who innocently identified themselves as such.
The police has arrested more than 90 MSIL workers and charged each of them with murder or attempt to murder, which will make it virtually impossible for them to get bail even if the charges are dropped later. The police are busy harassing such relatives and acquaintances of MSIL workers as they can lay their hands on by intruding into their homes.
Collusion between the zealously pro-investor Haryana government and managements is a decades-old phenomenon, which is revealed periodically through attacks on workers agitating for their rights, such as the gruesome police violence against Honda Motorcycles workers in July 2005.
This Column ( Frontline, August 26, 2005) said the Haryana police was blooded in anti-labour violence more than 30 years ago as part of a policy of industrial promotion. Haryana's political leaders like Bansi Lal who deservedly acquired notoriety during the Emergency decided to promote Haryana as a State safe for industry because it would permit no unions and no labour unrest.
This was ruthlessly enforced by the police. I was witness to it in the Faridabad-Ballabgarh belt as part of a group of activists, many of whom were at Jawaharlal Nehru University, including Jairus Banaji, Neeladri Bhattacharya, Sumit Guha, Lajpat Jagga, Dilip Simeon, Rana Sen, R. Bhaskar, Vijay Singh, Chitra Joshi and others who have attained distinction as social scientists in India and abroad.
The police ensured that no stable union would be formed, by simple and brutal means: they would periodically pick up workers and budding union activists, and beat them mercilessly, or lock them up illegally for days. Trying to form a union in those days meant putting your well-being at grave risk from a bureaucracy that viscerally hated any kind of progressive activism or defiance of arbitrary authority.
Oppressive police practices were the key to Haryana's success in drawing in capital then fleeing and deindustrialising eastern India, especially West Bengal. That success further normalised and encouraged the oppressive practices. By the early 1990s, when Gurgaon began to develop as an industrial hub, a whole elaborate structure of anti-labour practices was in place. By the mid-1990s, Bansi Lal was back in power in Haryana.
In the current Gurgaon-Manesar situation, too, there is no rule of law, the citizen is insecure, and the State continues to bend over backwards to coddle managements. Therefore, the truth of what happened on July 18 can only be established by an independent high-level Central commission of inquiry, composed of labour studies scholars, sociologists, jurists and experienced administrators and policemen of impeccable integrity. This must be demanded by all political parties and civil society groups committed to defending civil liberties and workers rights.
Such a commission would do well to dwell into the deep-rooted causes of discontent among MSIL workers and their grievances, including back-breaking, recently intensified workloads, rampant employment of contract labour on ultra-low wages, refusal to negotiate better working conditions and reduce gaping wage disparities, and the imposition of company trade unions and non-recognition of the unions chosen by the workers.
The MSIL workers are subjected to despotically harsh shop-floor discipline and must produce a car every 50 seconds. The situation resembles the oppressive conditions of super-mechanised production immortalised in Charlie Chaplins film Modern Times. MSIL workers must labour hard for eight hours, with only two 7.5-minute toilet breaks and a 30-minute lunch break. Both the canteen and the toilets are half-a-kilometre away.
The Suzuki management has taken the cult of compulsory attendance, obsessive punctuality and a relentless search for ever-rising productivity to new extremes. Work has been speeded up to ultra-stressful levels, where the limits of mental alertness and physical endurance can be easily crossed. The management has imported its practices and mantras straight from Japan, and has imposed them on local managers in Japanese through formulas (such as the 3-K sutra for interpreting and obeying shop-floor orders strictly and exactly, with no room for difference, originality or creativity).
It has been said that some of Japans most successful corporations domestically practise samurai capitalism, under which their managers have undivided loyalty to the company: they must be available at all hours and for all the tasks specified by the chief executive officer (CEO). At MSIL, samurai capitalism has been extended to blue-collar workers.
The terrible intensity of work at the Manesar plant, now measured in actions per minute, would embarrass even Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of scientific management and industrial engineering, who conceptualised modern assembly-line production a century ago by analysing, breaking down, and then synthesising workflows to dictate to workers the mechanical, repetitive movements they must make to maximise productivity.
Both workers and managers at MSIL have long complained of high mental stress and rude behaviour by their superiors, who are tasked to extract as much work as possible from all employees. Fed up with this, apparently, slain HR manager Awanish Kumar Dev wanted to quit the company.
MSIL workers get just nine days leave in a year, besides the weekly off. For every day missed beyond the sanctioned days, Rs.1,500 is deducted from their wages. If they turn up even one minute after their shift begins, they lose half-a-days wages. Their grievances are usually ignored. Supervisors are routinely rude, and allegedly, often violent.
The consultancy Karvy Stock Broking holds that the real issues at dispute at the Manesar plant are more psychological than materialistic.
However, MSIL scores poorly on materialistic issues too. Two-thirds of its workers are contract employees who earn Rs. 6,000 -7,000 a month, of which one-half goes into rent. Their wage is less than one-half of what permanent workers earn although they do the same work and are needed around the year. This, as former Union Labour Secretary Sudha Pillai says, violates the principle of equal pay for equal work. Such contract employment is a pernicious practice and the root cause of a great deal of industrial unrest in India.
The MSIL management insists that the contract labour issue is non-negotiable. But unionists know that the key to their strength lies in the unity of the permanent and contract workers. Similarly, issues such as wages and union recognition have often proved intractable at MSIL. All this has turned the factory into a tinderbox.
Consider yet another gross anomaly. The MSIL factory is probably as neat, antiseptic, sleek, glossy and modern technology-intensive as any contemporary industrial plant anywhere in the world an iconic symbol of the 21st century. But it is surrounded by villages that have not yet fully emerged culturally from the Middle Ages, and have among Indias lowest child sex ratios and the greatest domination of khap panchayats.
MSIL workers live in these villages in appallingly unhygienic conditions, where human excreta mixes freely with uncleared garbage and highly contaminated water. (Hard News magazine (hardnewsmedia.com) carries a telling description of their living conditions.)
No less impressive for conforming to pre- or anti-modern motifs is the MSIL managements obscurantism. It has hired a Bangalore-based vedic astrologer to sort out vaastu issues at the Manesar plant ( The Times of India, July 31). The issues arise apparently because a section of the 600- acre plant site is said to have once served as a burial ground. Three temples, which existed at the site, were razed to set up the plant. The astrologer will purge the site of all negative energy through a series of rituals spread over two to three weeks.
Maruti Suzuki is an exemplar of some of Indias most profitable and fastest-growing industrial companies in a cutting-edge technology sector, which thrive on similar anomalies and contradictions and on squeezing their workers. Thus, real wages in industry have fallen since the mid-1990s by 15 per cent even while the net value added per worker has more than doubled.
Over the past three decades, the share of wages in the net value created by manufacturing firms has declined sharply from 30.3 per cent to 11.6 per cent, while the share of profits has increased by 140 per cent to 56.2 per cent.
These adverse trends are part of a severely non-inclusive, unwholesome and warped pattern of industrial growth at the heart of which lie multiple and rising iniquities. These are bound to lead to greater distortions in income distribution, wider inter-class and -group disparities, and greater social degradation and retrogression, besides more industrial unrest and intensified social strife.
All this will have extremely unhealthy, indeed sordid, consequences for our society, for our industrial and work culture, and for our politics. It should shame us all that the most ultra-modern sector of our economy is mired in the worst of squalor, inequality, obscurantism, despotic authoritarianism and injustice to be found in our society.
We need a different industrial growth and industrial relations paradigm, in which the workers basic right to what the International Labour Organisation (ILO) calls decent work and to a living wage is respected, and the right of association and collective bargaining is made inviolable without exception.
This means effectively outlawing and abolishing the demeaning practice of contract labour employment, tightening labour protection, promoting job security, upgrading wages and working conditions across the board, and lightening the burden of work to humane levels.
This will need amendments to many laws, which govern minimum wages, payment of wages, the physical environment in factories, working conditions, redress of workers grievances, conciliation and arbitration mechanisms, termination of services, and industrial relations. That would be best brought about through a new National Commission on Labour, which bases itself on ethical norms and the imperative of equitable development, besides international best practices.