Truce for now

Published : Nov 18, 2011 00:00 IST

The Maruti Suzuki crisis ends following an agreement involving the workers, the management and the Haryana government.

in Gurgaon & Manesar

A FEW days before Deepavali, on October 21, the two-week-long industrial crisis brought about by a stand-off between the workers and the management of Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) in Gurgaon district of Haryana was resolved following a tripartite agreement that also involved the State government. The stand-off that began in June this year and stretched to almost four months was characterised by sporadic protests by the employees. The agreement was apparently to the mutual satisfaction of all the disputing parties. The bulk of the workers suspended or terminated from service in all plants of the company will be taken back and casual workers will be put back on the rolls. In addition, the management has decided to constitute work committees and grievance redress committees in all its establishments to improve employer-employee relations.

In a statement, MSIL said that it had individually considered the cases of all employees against whom disciplinary action had been taken, evaluated the severity of indiscipline in each case, and wherever the charges were not serious, the management has decided to take back the employees. The agreement provides that 64 employees will be taken back. In the case of 30 workers, including office-bearers of trade unions, the charges were found to be of a serious nature, it said. These employees would remain suspended during the process of inquiry and disciplinary proceedings, which would be completed in 10 days, the statement said.

The agitation at Maruti was no ordinary one. First, it involved the country's leading car manufacturer. Second, the manner in which the peaceful agitation took shape and got support from a large section of workers in the region was quite unprecedented.

Thirdly, the resolution of the dispute through negotiations has given some encouragement to the trade union movement. And lastly, that there was no mass retrenchment and replacement of the workforce, as had been feared, was encouraging. Even the casual workers were taken back. In an era where trade unionism is frowned upon, this is seen as a positive development. The State government and the Labour Department also played a constructive role in resolving the crisis.

This was the third time in four months that the workers took the route of peaceful agitation following a breakdown of talks and apparent violation of previous agreements. The initial rumblings began in June-July when workers employed at Maruti's Manesar plant asserted their right to form their own union and pressed for its recognition by the management. The union, they said, would be independent of the existing one at the Gurgaon plant. There were work-related issues as well, which the workers felt could be taken up by their own independent union. The management did not relent, and the stage was set for a confrontation.

The issue gained much media attention. It was a much-televised protest initially, and the 2,700-odd workers of the car plant were hopeful of some outcome from their strike. The stand-off ended two weeks later, on June 17, after the management agreed to reinstate 11 workers who had been suspended. For almost a month and a half, the situation was normal.

But on July 28, five workers were suspended for assaulting a supervisor. A fresh round of dismissals and suspensions followed. In protest, the workers observed a one-day tool-down strike. In the same period, the Haryana government rejected the union's application for registration, sparking off a fresh crisis.

The management insisted that it would take back most of the suspended and terminated employees provided they signed a good conduct bond. The employees, who were willing to return to work, refused the precondition as they felt that the clauses of the bond could be used to harass them. The protest now shifted outside the gates of the plant. It continued for nearly 33 days from August 29 until September 30.

Support for MSIL workers began pouring in from fellow workers at Maruti Suzuki Powertrain India Limited, the casting plant, and Suzuki Motorcycle India Limited (SMIL). The government watched all these developments silently, maintaining that the company was well within its rights to make the workers sign such bonds. It was argued that the bond was in line with the standing orders of the company, which had been drafted under the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946. Finally, the workers relented and joined work after signing the bond. And the rule of no work, no pay was enforced.

The third phase of the stand-off began when, after joining work on October 1, the workers found that their responsibilities had been altered. The transport facility to them had also been withdrawn. The change in the line of work resulted in mistakes, for which the workers were rebuked. The management did not heed their request to restore the status quo as far as the line of work was concerned. Besides, it was found that the bulk of the 1,000-odd casual workers were kept out. It was back to square one. An agreement means total normalcy. Keeping the casual workers out was a breach of the agreement, said Satbir Singh, State president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

Attack on workers

Events took an ugly turn as labour contractors hired by the SMIL management physically attacked the workers. At the car plant, too, there were reports of workers being beaten up by goons. On October 7, after less than a week of returning to work, the workers of all four plants came out in protest. On October 12, the government compounded matters by declaring the protest illegal, a stand that was not upheld by the Punjab and Haryana High Court. It ordered that the workers could stage their protest at a distance of 100 metres from the company's premises. The stand-off continued.

Workers at the other three plants, including those at the motorcycle plant, located 15 kilometres away, joined in a stay-in strike. Significantly, all the central trade unions and some other labour rights organisations threw their weight behind the agitation. Meanwhile, all of Haryana and much of the nation watched as the automobile major kept getting in and out of the tangle that was as much its own creation as that of the Haryana government. On October 17, in a big show of support, anganwadi workers of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), midday meal workers, construction workers and others in the unorganised sector came out on the streets.

In New Delhi, there were two protests, one in front of the Haryana Bhavan and the other outside the MSIL headquarters at Vasant Vihar, by CITU workers, students, and activists of the All India Democratic Women's Association. In Kerala, Karnataka, West Bengal, and elsewhere peaceful protests were organised in several districts.

It is truce for the time being, though some fundamental matters relating to unionism and working conditions will persist in the industrial belt as a whole. The trend of keeping the majority of employees as casual workers for indefinite periods, reluctance to allow them to form unions on the grounds of outside participation and political influence, denial of overtime payments, making overtime compulsory, and making employees sign standing orders or codes of conduct that are contrary to their right to protest are some of the issues that are already being discussed by trade unions and industry representatives. The question is whether the government views these developments seriously or not.

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