For a `New Deal' for labour

Print edition : August 26, 2005

The shocking episode of anti-worker violence at the Honda motorcycle factory in Gurgaon should spur serious reflection on the sordid state of industrial relations in India and the need for a new charter of labour rights.

THE workers' struggle at the Honda Motorcycles and Scooters India Ltd (HMSI) in Gurgaon, capped by an extraordinarily brutal attack on them by the Haryana police, constitutes the first labour landmark of the 21st century in India. The police action of July 25 has brought labour issues - absent from the media's radar-screen for a decade or more - back into the national limelight in ways not seen for a long time. Perhaps the only comparable events are the Mumbai textile workers' strike of 1982-83, one of the longest strikes in the world, and the 1995 self-immolation in Delhi by a textile mill worker driven to despair by prolonged unemployment and near-starvation.

However, there are two major differences. First, the earlier episodes ended in both personal tragedies and setbacks to the labour movement. But the Gurgaon event spurred corrective action on the part of the State government, itself goaded by an acutely embarrassed United Progressive Alliance (UPA) leadership, as well as public opinion. HMSI was forced to take back all the workers, including those dismissed and suspended. True, the workers had to give an undertaking that they would raise no fresh demands for a year. But the management implicitly conceded the illegitimacy of its own anti-worker actions during May and June, by agreeing to pay the full salary for that period.

HMSI's retreat on the issue of "disciplinary action" against workers who were trying to form a union is no mean thing. It is only rarely that companies in the Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera belt, or for that matter, anywhere else, yield on the issue of "discipline", which they consider absolutely central to their authority over workers and the power to deploy labour as they wish.

Secondly, there was a qualitatively greater, focussed public response to the Gurgaon episode. It was impossible to miss the expression of anger against the police and management, and of sympathy for workers, in the hundreds of SMS messages displayed on television channels. These spontaneous responses clearly showed that the public, including middle-class people from small towns not known for union activity or progressive ideas, was deeply moved.

People were horrified not just by the police violence against the workers, itself sadistic, but also by the police's attempt to rationalise the bloody lathicharge of July 25 as "retaliation" for an earlier attack. But the second act was not a spontaneous or "natural" reaction to the first, conducted in the heat of the moment. The two events happened five kilometres and five hours apart. The lathicharge was an act of planned revenge to brutalise further the already injured, bleeding workers. It violated the police manual as well as numerous guidelines from courts, which prohibit retaliation and chasing retreating crowds.

Public outrage at the violence resulted in at least five different inquiries by political parties, trade unions and citizens' groups. The latest is a report by the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), which too strongly indicts the authorities. The SCBA, a mainstream organisation not known for radical views, has demanded remedial measures including an impartial inquiry into the incident under the directions of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC); payment of interim compensation to the injured workers; suspension of senior officials; and withdrawal of criminal cases foisted on the workers.

All these inquiries, and personal discussions with workers from the Gurgaon belt, suggest that what happened at HMSI was not an aberration, except in the degree of violence, but part of the rule. The root causes of the trouble lie in unhealthy working conditions, including low wages (for example, Rs. 4,200 a month or less after deductions), harsh shop-floor practices with inadequate breaks, extreme job insecurity, employment of casual and contract labour for permanent functions, and cavalier resort to lockouts and closures. The discontent this produces is compounded by managements' hostility to trade unionism and attempts to break unions by victimising workers.

The industrial relations (IR) situation in the area is inflamed and unpleasant despite the high profitability of many of the successful automobile ancillary factories there. While the primary culpability for this is the managements', the police and the district administration too are blameworthy. They play a largely collusive and partisan role vis-a-vis managements. Particularly stark is the failure of the labour dispute conciliation machinery, which intervenes between workers and managements (because workers cannot directly approach the courts). Even worse is the role of the Haryana police, which has become an agency for the imposition of despotic practices upon workers and perpetration of egregious IR practices.

THE culture of the Haryana police, to which anti-labour violence comes naturally, must be seen in perspective. The bulk of the force is drawn from certain communities that take pride in macho forms of aggressive behaviour. It is part of a larger social milieu in Haryana marked by appallingly low human development indices, including India's lowest sex-ratios, growing incidence of casteism and importance of khap or clan panchayats, reliance on bonded labour (especially Bihari workers in agriculture), and growing incidence of sex slavery. Social servitude and economic bondage of various kinds have long been part of Haryana's life. They have shaped the culture of the local bureaucracy, including the police.

However, even more important is the blooding of the police 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. Such incidents were documented in small journals like Mazdoor Samachar and Fil-haal, including the police charging from time to time into workers' homes and thrashing them and their relatives. 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 1996, the State's sanitation workers had to go on strike not for better working conditions, but just so that they would be paid wages on time. The government sacked a third of them and applied the draconian Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA), under which 700 women were arrested. Such was the IR culture of Haryana that the strike lasted for 80 days.

THE HMSI episode has put the issue of workers' rights back on the national agenda. This must be pursued in right earnest in the interests of workers and trade unions, and indeed of democracy and the rule of law. If growth and industrial prosperity exclude and marginalise workers, they have little meaning and cannot contribute to social progress.

It won't do to treat HMSI as a passing or minor event, or to preach restraint and responsibility in equal measure to managements and workers - as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reportedly did on August 3 when AITUC leaders Gurudas Dasgupta and D.L. Sachdeva met him. He apparently told them that industrial peace is extremely important and that "foreign investors should not be made captive to labour demands as this could make them feel India is an uncertain place to invest in" (The Telegraph and The Economic Times, August 4). HMSI is only one reflection of the present climate marked by an employers' offensive against workers' rights. The cure lies in national-level change and reform.

What we need is a new Charter of Labour Rights which will correct the terrible imbalances and pathologies that have entered our IR practices, especially since the early 1990s, when job security and union rights as well as wages and fringe benefits started eroding rapidly. Many large multinational and Indian companies, which earlier used to practise what the Mumbai-based Unit Research Group's Jairus Banaji calls "neo-paternalism" (with extension of union rights and job security) began to farm out production to smaller firms, or reorganise/restructure their operations such that there would be huge job-losses.

Already, by the 1980s, says Banaji, "there was a great deal [of] more resistance to collective bargaining, the frequency and duration of lockouts increased sharply throughout this decade, managements began to present their own demands to the union before agreeing to talk, etc. What changed decisively in the 1990s was the whole "model" of IR. Basically, the earlier system was in tatters, which means collective bargaining more or less disintegrated (in the private sector anyway). Unions were increasingly decimated by voluntary retirement schemes and plant closures, and employers collaborated with the government more openly and brazenly. Liberalisation was used as the ideological platform for this offensive".

The employers' offensive is clearly reflected in the pattern of strikes and lockouts. Throughout the past decade, for instance, lockouts have accounted for a much higher proportion of person-days lost than strikes. In the three-year period of 1994-96, lockouts on average claimed 85 per cent more person-days than did strikes. That disproportion further increased in the past three years (2002-04) to 218 per cent. The average annual number of strikes decreased by two-thirds from 768 to 267 between the same three-year periods. The average number of lockouts fell much less steeply - from 377 to 270 a year.

Industrial strife was particularly high around 1999 and 2000, when strikes claimed 10.6 and 12 million person-days, and lockouts 16.2 and 16.8. Since then, strikes have become subdued, claiming just 3.2 million person-days in 2003 and 4.2 million in 2004. Lockouts caused a record 27 million person-days in 2003. The number fell to 10.5 last year, but it is still two and a half times higher than that for strikes.

Today, the entire structure of collective bargaining has collapsed as employers resort to illegal lockouts or simply stop paying water and power charges, so their plants are closed - and vanish. It is imperative to restore collective bargaining and punish union-breaking. What India needs is adoption of the Industrial Labour Standards recommended by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), with emphasis on a living minimum wage, job security, abolition of contract labour and humane shop floor practices. As Banaji puts it, the charter must include a "strong collective bargaining system that has explicit backing from the State, widespread extension of union rights (extending into the unorganised sector as well), higher union densities and political campaigning around a proper social security system".

Formulation and promotion of such a charter is the task of not just of workers and unions, but all those who believe in the dignity of labour, decency in public life, and in industrial democracy.

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