Print edition : August 26, 2005

The police action on workers in Gurgaon was condemned by most trade unions in the country. Tapan Sen, secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), spoke to T.K. Rajalakshmi on some of the concerns that have emerged in the context of the incident. Excerpts from the interview:

Almost the entire nation was witness to the police repression in Gurgaon. However, there does not seem to be a genuine sympathy for the workers' plight or an understanding that they have a legitimate right to association. As a trade unionist, how do you view these issues?

The incident at Gurgaon was not a sudden development. It was a manifestation of accumulated discontent among the workers in the entire area. On July 25, it was not only the Honda workers who were on the streets, but workers of other industries as well. There were trade union activists from the CITU and AITUC [All India Trade Union Congress]. They too were beaten up along with the rest of the workers. Honda was the immediate issue, but on the whole, the protest was an action by the trade union movement in that region. It was an expression of their anger and determination. It also generated popular support among the people. On July 26 and 27, everyone saw the common people of Gurgaon and the relatives of workers express support for the HMSI workers.

In fact, the Honda workers did not demand a wage hike. Their main grouse was the management's reluctance to recognise their union. Secondly, they wanted the overall working conditions to improve. They did not have a charter of demands. The union got registered only recently. They had been trying to form a union since December 2004. The point is that the workers were being treated like animals by the management. We learnt that the number of times the workers go to the toilet would be monitored. The toilets did not have doors and women workers found this extremely humiliating. There were instances where workers had been physically humiliated. It was the Honda management's attitude that forced the workers to form a union.

As soon as the union got registered, four leaders were dismissed and 50 workers suspended. The workers began to voice their protest only after their leaders were victimised by the management. But, despite whatever the Honda management might say, production was not allowed to suffer. The workers never held demonstrations during working hours. Even as all this was going on, the Labour Department did not take up the issue of the illegal dismissal of the workers. Nobody in this country can be penalised for forming a trade union. It was the duty of the government to prosecute the management for unfair labour practice, as provided in the Industrial Disputes Act. If for forming a union, one is punished, then it constitutes an unfair labour practice. But the Labour Department and the government allowed the problem to linger. In fact, workers acted to uphold the law of the land and for that they were beaten up.

If the State administration had been neutral, the matter could have been sorted out between the management and the union. But the administration acted as a domestic employee of the Honda management. This applies not only to Honda but to other industrial units also. If you look at the history of the Gurgaon-Dharuhera industrial belt, there are several incidents where as soon as a union gets registered or applies for registration, the original signatories are thrown out [of their jobs]. They go to the Labour Court and the entire labour conciliation machinery keeps postponing the date [to arrive at a final settlement].

The Labour Industrial Tribunal is ill-equipped and understaffed in Gurgaon. It is deliberate. On the other hand, the police machinery is well equipped to attack the workers. Our experience of the Gurgaon-Dharuhera belt is that initially we did not get support from the local people. The situation is changing now. People are also realising that peace cannot be maintained [in these circumstances]. If somebody is pushed to the wall, he is bound to react. The basic rights of people involved in production have to be recognised. If the rights are suppressed by force, it is bound to result in a flare-up as it happened on July 25.

Industry expressed a lot of concern about the impact of trade unionism on the inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI), especially in the context of the Gurgaon incident. As a trade unionist, you cannot be opposed to employment resulting from FDI, but at the same time there is the question of the right of workers to associate and form unions. How do you approach this paradox?

A section of the press reported that there was a lot of anxiety, not about the injured workers but about the prospects of FDI inflow. It is a peculiar kind of servility. FDI will come where there is an assurance of profit. It will not stop because of these incidents. In the past 15 years, we have seen a net outflow of resources and not a net inflow of resources in developing countries. The role of FDI in generating employment is also doubtful.

Our experience shows that employment has gone down. When Hindustan Lever took over Lakme, 3,500 employees lost their jobs. So in FDI mergers and takeover, people have lost their jobs. The other issue is that when capital comes to a sovereign country, it must be subordinate to the laws of that country. The government, in the name of wooing foreign investors, is allowing them to violate all the laws of the land and allowing them to make their fortunes at the cost of the actual producers [workers]. It does not hold good only for the multinationals but for the major monopoly corporate houses in the country. The situation now is that both the state and capital have ganged up against the people. The irony is that they are doing this in the name of the people, claiming it will generate employment.

There have been some misgivings about the manner in which the settlement was brokered, especially as the Haryana Chief Minister appeared to "hijack" the movement from the leadership of the trade unions leading the agitation...

Yes it has not been a wholly satisfactory settlement. But it definitely marks a retreat by the State government. On July 25, the Chief Minister's statement conveyed the impression that the workers were at fault. But a week later, he changed his position as he had to preside over a settlement which stipulated, at least, that all the workers had to be taken back. Hooda's change of stance did not come because the ruling Congress had had a change of heart in favour of the workers. It was because of the pressure exerted in Parliament by the Left parties, the pressure of coalition politics and the action on the ground that Hooda had to prevail on HMSI to take back the workers. If they claim any credit, we do not mind. The workers understand everything.

But the manner in which the settlement was reached was not satisfactory. Why should the workers be required to give individual undertakings [of good conduct]? If any good conduct undertaking is required, it is Honda who should be giving it. Secondly, people are in jail. Referring to them, the Chief Minister said that the "law should take its own course". If that is so, then it is the Honda management that should be behind bars. Not only were Honda workers arrested, the CITU district president and several AITUC leaders are in jail. There are cases against them. No action is being taken against the police and district administration officials for the attack on workers. Everyone saw what had happened. The incident warranted immediate suspension of the Deputy Commissioner and police officials. But one positive outcome was that this incident united all trade unions.

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