Print edition : October 21, 2011

The gate of the Maruti Suzuki plant at Manesar barricaded with metal sheets, on September 20. - S. SUBRAMANIUM

There is trouble at Maruti's Manesar plant as the company insists that workers sign a good-conduct bond before entering the premises.

THE industrial area of Gurgaon, tucked away at Manesar, on the outskirts of the city, is on the boil once again. For the second time in three months, industrial relations in the Maruti Suzuki plant here have been brought to the brink of collapse. The fragile agreement reached between the management and the workers of the car factory in June has apparently been stretched to its limit. Three months ago, the agitation was over the right of workers to form their own union, a right guaranteed by law. This time, the insistence by the management that workers sign a good-conduct bond is the reason for the face-off. The lack of constructive intervention by the Labour Department and the State administration has compounded the problem. The conflict has not received much media attention even after a fortnight. Barring reports in business and financial papers, which have been concerned more about the loss to the auto major, there have been few attempts to go into what led to this situation.

On August 29, the management refused to let any worker enter the factory without signing the bond. A nearly 500-metre-long aluminium wall was put up covering the service lane, blocking the view from both inside and outside, and preventing entry to the premises. The gates where aluminium barricading was not possible were blocked by huge delivery vehicles. Workers lounged around in the shade of bushes and shrubs: some played cards, others were deep in discussion, hoping to get back to work with dignity.

Meanwhile, at the main gate, a recorded female voice reminded workers of Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) that they were required to sign a good-conduct bond before entering the premises. Workers employed through contractors were exhorted to contact the contractor concerned and sign their bonds.

Government apathy

The embers of the June agitation had not yet fully settled. A fresh round of confrontation had triggered fears of another prolonged stand-off. Like last time, the agitating workers enjoyed the full support of several unions in the region. The fortnight-long impasse in June got partly resolved through a tripartite agreement, even though it was felt that the government could have resolved the matter by intervening early on. And surprisingly, even in the latest conflict, the government seemed least bothered to broker an early settlement. As part of the agreement worked out in June, workers agreed to a pay cut and MSIL gave an assurance that it would not act vindictively. All the 11 suspended workers were taken back. Work and production had resumed. The company, meanwhile, launched its new model of Swift.

On July 26, the workers' application to register a new, independent union by the name Maruti Suzuki Employees' Union (MSEU) was rejected by the government. It was back to square one. As far as the Manesar unit was concerned, the workers were still in no mood to be part of the older union, the Maruti Udyog Kamgaar Union (MUKU), which they felt was a pocket union of the management. The MUKU elections, held on July 16 after a gap of 11 years, were boycotted by the workers affiliated to the yet-to-be-recognised MSEU. Only eight votes were polled. The workers gave a democratic reply to these elections, thus vindicating their demand for an independent union, said Satbir, an office-bearer of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). It is not known what vitiated the atmosphere subsequently, but the management clearly felt it had the upper hand. On July 28, four workers were suspended at the Manesar plant, thus setting the stage for the second confrontation. In protest, workers went on a one-day tool down strike. The management refused to take back the suspended workers. This continued for almost a month as industrial and labour relations soured. Between August 23 and August 30, as many as 57 employees were targeted 26 were sacked and 31 suspended.

By and large, it appears to be an illegal lockout. The workers have not gone on strike but are denied entry. Frontline could not get a response from the management despite repeated attempts, but its explanation for the move was reportedly that workers had slowed down work, which affected production. By imposing a precondition, the management has resorted to a labour practice classified as unfair under Section 2 (a) of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. The company did not formally disclose the reason for its unilateral action as required under the Companies Act.

Labour Commission stance

Interestingly, the Labour Commissioner's office maintained that the company was well within its rights to ask the workers to sign the bond. The government also provided police personnel to the company though there was no violence. Neither did it show any interest in initiating reconciliation proceedings, as governments are empowered to do under the IDA. Several unions, such as CITU, the All India Trade Union Congress and the New Trade Union Initiative, condemned the move. They have also been critical of the government for shutting its eyes to what was a blatant violation of workers' rights.

Labour officials told Frontline in Gurgaon that the company was well within its rights to get the bond signed but the language and timing of the move were suspect. There has been a breakdown of understanding between the workers and the management. Our responsibility is that no worker should lose his job and that production should also not be hampered, said a senior labour official on the condition of anonymity. He said that his office could intervene if there was a breach of settlement between the two parties concerned. As no party, not even the company, had complained to the Labour office, the government could not intervene. He added that the workers had given a demand notice to the Labour office. We will sign the good-conduct bond once they agree to take us back, said Sonu Gujjar, the president of MSEU.

MARUTI SUZUKI EMPLOYESS, barred from entering the Manesar plant, wait outside the factory gates on September 20.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

There are around 2,500 workers at the Manesar unit, which is spread over 700 acres (200 hectares). Among them, only 950 are permanent workers. The rest are apprentices, casual workers or technical trainees. It was not only the right to form a union that was disputed. The working conditions, workers said, requesting anonymity, were oppressive. Our families think that we are working in such a big company, India's largest car manufacturer, but they do not know our situation. They are happy that we are able to send money and fend for ourselves, said Vikas (name changed). He said that he was one among the 18-odd technical trainees whose services had been terminated after being found unsatisfactory. I got married recently. How am I supposed to feed my family? he asked.

Most of the workers are local residents, which is one reason why they have been able to hold out for so long. The workforce is very young between 23 and 28 years and the majority are from neighbouring districts of Haryana, mainly from poor and lower middle class families. There are a few from Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh also. Many of the workers live in nearby villages. In one of them, Khoh, Frontline met young workers living in rented accommodations. The conditions were appalling, with the monsoons making it worse.

How the workers live

Located on the sparse foothills of the Aravalli range, the village lacks proper drainage, drinking water or power supply. While the roads at Manesar are wide and metalled, there is not a single tarred road in Khoh. Living here has its benefits. We share a room, cook, and learn how to keep house. We'll probably get good brides, but we cannot let our families see our living conditions, said Puneet, a technical trainee. They said that the company had got workers from other regions like Jammu and Himachal Pradesh. A casual worker doesn't even get a proper termination letter. They just snatch our gate passes and tell us to get lost, said another worker.

They all appeared determined to get back to work but with dignity. No one can force us to do what we will not agree to. We work hard for the company and we get two breaks a day of seven and a half minutes each. We have to gulp down hot tea, eat a snack and also visit the washroom in a brief span. It is inhuman. It is such a big company. We assemble one car in 45 seconds, said a technical trainee who had worked for almost three years with the company. There are salary, canteen and leave issues, too, but the employees are not raising them now.

Sonu Nehra, an executive member of the MSEU, said that the management was friendly following the settlement arrived at in June, but its attitude changed soon after when the government rejected the union's application for registration. He said that while workers had taken permission to put up a tent in front of the company beyond hundred metres, the government had turned a blind eye to the encroachment of the service lane by the company. How can they barricade the common service lane with metal? I wonder if the government has a role to play in this, Nehra said. The service rules, he said, already had clauses that enforced discipline on the worker, so there was no need for a separate good-conduct bond. There are companies at IMT that pay their workers well, treat them decently and yet have never insisted on a good-conduct bond, he said.

Production affected

Production has definitely got affected at the plant, which produced around 1,200 units a day in two shifts. The factory produced the hatchbacks Swift and A Star as well as the sedans DZire and SX4. Production is now down to less than 100 a day though the company has reportedly brought in workers from ancillary units supplying components. At the company's annual 30th general body meeting, chairman R.C. Bhargava said that the Manesar labour problem was a political one and not an issue that involved a significant demand from the workers. The chairman's understanding of political was that certain political parties were backing the demand for an independent union.

The demand for a union is definitely a political one as it is about the guaranteed right of workers to associate and form unions, a right that is sanctioned not only by the Constitution but by Parliament. It is mutual trust that runs a company, not a piece of paper, said Inderjit Singh, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

It is an irony that the workers are ready to work but have to wait outside. They come to work every day in their uniform, expecting to be let in without any unjustified preconditions. Given the high levels of unemployment, it will not be difficult for the company to get other workers. But in the eventuality of prolonged industrial unrest, vignettes of which were seen not long ago, the responsibility for the consequences will have to be shared by the government as well.

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