Print edition : November 15, 2013

Family members of the workers of Maruti Suzuki's Manesar plant participate in a public hearing organised by the Maruti Suzuki Workers' Union at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on August 30. Photo: Monica Tiwari

Ten leaders of Maruti Suzuki Workers' Union after they were produced in a court in Gurgaon on August 2, 2012. Photo: PTI

For the Maruti Suzuki workers who have been languishing in jail for over a year now and their families, it is going to be another black Deepavali.

SHE sits straight and poised in her office chair, taking calls. “We can talk now. My employer is not here. We have shifted our office to Basai. It will be difficult for me to meet you on a working day,” she says. Sushma, in her mid-twenties, works as a data entry operator for a trader in Gurgaon. Married and childless, she is yet to come to terms with the fact that her husband, Sohan Lal, may have to spend more time behind bars in Bhondsi Jail in Sohna, Gurgaon district.

Arrested along with 146 others following the unrest and the unfortunate death of a managerial level employee at the Manesar plant of the auto major Maruti Suzuki, Sohan Lal now meets his wife twice a week, as per the mandated rules of the jail. The couple had been married for four years when tragedy struck. A simple agitation in July last year by the workers over the issue of forming their own union spiralled into orchestrated reprisal and violence, with both the State government and the company being complicit in the manner in which events finally unfolded. The agitation received considerable support from the industrial belt and fraternal trade unions.

Sushma’s parents were happy that she was married to a person who was employed in a reputed company. But all that changed. It was as if her life had come to a standstill. As she had an education of sorts, she managed to land a job that fetched her some money with which she paid rent, met Sohan Lal’s expenses in jail, and, supported her in-laws who are landless agricultural workers. “I get some support from my parents too but I do not like taking help from them as they are not well off either,” she said. She waits for her husband to get released. “I don’t know why it is taking so long. How is it possible that 147 workers are responsible for the death of one single person? To punish so many of them is cruel,” she said.

Like Sushma, Gomti Devi too waits for her son Narender to come home. And Poonam waits for her brother Kamal to return from jail. Victims all, these women are in regular touch with each other. They are from different castes but that is irrelevant as the situation that confronts them is the same. They sometimes go together visiting their jailed relatives and seek courage and draw solace from each other.

Gomti Devi told Frontline that her daughter-in-law went into deep depression following Narender’s arrest and was under treatment. “She stays with her parents and her brother pays for her treatment. My husband works as a security guard in Delhi. I have a younger school-going son too. He has his expenses. I could not afford the medical treatment for my daughter-in-law. I have a three-year-old granddaughter too who keeps on asking about her father. This is going to be another black Deepavali for us,” she said.

“This is injustice. They are not even giving them bail. What is the future for these young men when they get released? How can the government be so cruel and uncaring to keep so many in jail when it should know that this has affected hundreds of families. The company is doing well. They have recruited fresh employees,” said Poonam.

Course of law

All the 147 workers incarcerated in Bhondsi Jail have been charged with murder, attempted murder, criminal conspiracy, destruction of property and several other offences in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). While it is alleged that a section of the previous union leadership was “bought off”, the new leadership of the fledging union is now behind bars. “The charge of criminal conspiracy gives sweeping powers to the state to book almost anyone arbitrarily, and often fake witnesses are produced. There are no safeguards and the police need not even give any explanation,” Rajender Pathak, co-counsel for the jailed workers, told Frontline.

A case under Section 120 B of the IPC was made out against 215 workers of the company, charging them with criminal conspiracy. Only one person managed to secure bail as he suffered from tuberculosis. And the curious part is that whenever anyone from the government is asked about the Maruti workers, they are told, as this correspondent was, that the “law will take its own course”. Union leaders and workers observe bitterly that the law never took its own course as far as the strict application and implementation of labour laws was concerned.

The average age of the workers in the plant ranges from 25 to 30 years. The demand for an independent union at the Manesar plant of the company, distinct from the pro-management union in another plant located in Gurgaon, began in 2011. An agitation began, following which 30 union leaders were targeted and were allegedly paid off. But matters did not rest there as there was continued unhappiness among the employees, especially over the repressive working conditions. “I am a former HR person; one is taught how to treat workers as assets. In the case of this company, workers were routinely humiliated,” said Pathak.

There were conditions like restricting the number of times a worker could go to the restroom, fixed timings for lunch irrespective of the fact that there would be a long queue in the canteen, conditional incentives and, most importantly, insulting behaviour by supervisors, and so on. In fact, the trigger for the events on July 18 that led to the death of a manager was the insulting behaviour of a supervisor towards a worker. One of the demands of the union was that during the tea break of seven minutes, no production-related work or worker assessment should be conducted. “This was their time. Seven minutes in all. But the line supervisor would use this time to point out various flaws,” Pathak explained.

On July 18, one of the workers, Jiya Lal, requested the line supervisor to let him have his tea in peace. The supervisor resorted to casteist abuse in front of other workers and told Jiya Lal that he would recommend his suspension to the higher officers. The matter took a curious turn from this point as it was allowed to escalate.

Jitender Kumar, a sacked worker, told Frontline that there was always the pressure of too much work. “There was a lot of mental torture apart from deductions from our salaries whenever we went on leave. Even deductions used to be made against our earned leave, privilege leave or casual leave. Nearly 50 per cent of our salary was tied to a production performance reward scheme,” said Jitender, who was a permanent employee on the company rolls.

About the death of the supervisor, he said, “I had never met Awanish Dev, GM, HR, who was killed in the fire. I was told he was a good person. A pro-labour man, so there was no reason why the workers would target him. I learnt that the union leadership had gone to meet him when he was ill. In fact, Awanish Dev was the one who persuaded the workers to give up their agitation and even accompanied them to Chandigarh to get the union registered. He had also apparently urged the management to issue an advisory to the supervisors to not use abusive language with the workers. This was not looked upon kindly, it was learnt.

The circumstances leading to Awanish Dev’s death are shrouded in mystery. The police maintained that some thinner was flung at him and that he was set on fire before being beaten up. The post-mortem report showed no head injuries and indicated some bruises on the ankles and the knee, but no evidence of any inflammable substance being used to set the place alight or the presence of thinner or thinner-like substances on the body of the deceased. The causes of death were asphyxiation by the fumes and burn injuries.

“If the intention of the workers was to kill, they would have hit him on the head. There were no head injuries. And, besides, what motive would they have to get rid of a person who was on their side?” asked Pathak, who plans to file criminal charges against the management of the company on this incident. Further, Jiya Lal, the worker who was abused, was suspended without a show-cause notice. In fact, the management used this incident as a pretext to suspend as many as 3,200 permanent, temporary and apprentice workers. The company recruited fresh employees, many of whom were from outside the State. “No, I have not gone near the company gates. They might get me arrested,” said Jitender, who now assists Pathak in the labour cases. “This experience has taught me a lot. I have no job but I know that there are so many others like me who are made victims and the government does little about it,” he said.

Jitender is from Rewari district and his family is dependent solely on him. “We manage with much difficulty. There is some land but if it had been enough I would not have felt the need to work with the company,” he added. Many of the families of the casual workers who are in jail are so poor that they cannot afford visiting them. Some of the families had written to the National Human Rights Commission, requesting its intervention.

Brutal treatment

“On August 1, 2012, the police arrested 10 workers including the union activists when they came to surrender. They were beaten. Jiya Lal was arrested on August 16 and kicked around by the police. He was not a leader; but after the incident he became one. The doctor’s report says that the workers had injuries that were the result of beating. It is funny that Rahul Gandhi does not make any statement for these workers who are languishing in jail,” said Pathak. There are non-bailable warrants against 64 workers.

The incident is very much alive in the mind of everyone affected, including other workers in the industrial belt of Gurgaon and Manesar. Needless to add, there is tremendous resentment against the Congress government led by Bhupinder Singh Hooda. The cases against those involved in the July 2005 agitations at Honda Motorcycle and Scooters India Private Limited were withdrawn because of sustained pressure by the Left parties which were in a position to influence the previous United Progressive Alliance government.

On August 30, in a show of solidarity, the families of the incarcerated workers converged at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, where several trade unions, including the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, the All India Trade Union Congress, the Hind Mazdoor Sabha and the New Trade Union Initiative, backed them and pledged their support to get the workers released. Basudev Acharia and Sitaram Yechury, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Gurudas Dasgupta, Lok Sabha member from the Communist Party of India, assured the families that they would see the matter through to its logical conclusion. A delegation met Union Labour Minister Sis Ram Ola too. But no concrete assurances were given by the Minister. Meanwhile, it is going to be another black Deepavali for the 2,500 workers who were thrown out and their families. “The government is not doing anything. My husband is in jail. I have a five-year-old son and a small baby. I am unable to pay even the rent. I have withdrawn my son from a private school and put him in a government school,” said Hemlata, with her baby in her arms.

Mukesh, the wife of the union president, Ram Mehar, could not manage to get a word out. She is looking after her two minor children and her aged father-in-law in her husband’s absence. “I cannot speak on this. Please let me be,” she said, her voice choking. Another union office-bearer’s father said that the jail authorities would not let his son, Sarabjit, meet his ailing mother.

Jitender said the union flag lies in tatters, and it needed to be changed. With all the union members inside jail, it was a difficult task but it needed to be done, he said. The Congress leadership never tires of talking about the Haryana model of development, but looking at the treatment of labour issues and industrial relations, it appears that much of this still approximates the characteristics of an industrial environment of the pre-Industrial Revolution phase of development.

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