The violence and fire that broke out at the Maruti Suzuki India Ltd (MSIL) car plant at Manesar in Haryana, in which a manager died and many others were seriously injured, must be strongly and unequivocally condemned.
It is especially shocking that the manager could not escape asphyxiation to death by smoke from the fire because both his legs had been broken. Also distressing is the July 24 Hindustan Times story which says a posse of 50 policemen stood by and did nothing to stop the violence for four hours.
The police have rounded up more than 90 workers and are looking to arrest many more. Three thousand workers have gone underground, fearing arrest and persecution. The MSIL management denies it is planning to shift the plant, but has declared an indefinite lockout and is reportedly proceeding to sack hundreds of permanent workers.
Meanwhile, the Intelligence Bureau has been asked to investigate if there is Maoist involvement in the MSIL workers’ union. Although this red herring speaks to deplorable paranoia, it reveals how vitiated the area’s industrial relations climate has become.
Condemnable as the violence is, it needs to be asked who or what provoked it, and what explains its ferocity. Most reports are agreed that the trouble started in the morning when a supervisor hurled casteist abuse at a Dalit worker. Strong protests broke out, but there were negotiations between the workers’ recognised union and management.
The workers got enraged when the abused worker was suspended, but contrary to normal practice, no action whatever was taken against the errant supervisor. At this point, to quell the so-far-fairly-peaceful protest, the management, claim union activists, sent in some 200 bouncers to thrash the workers, who then retaliated blindly with whatever they could find, including tools and car parts. Hence the extreme and indiscriminate violence.
This part of the story admittedly remains somewhat fuzzy. There has been no convincing denial of the allegation, endorsed by the New Trade Union Initiative, a remarkable organisation which links unorganised workers with the unions and larger social agendas, and which has run solidarity campaigns with workers in the Gurgaon-Manesar area. However, because thousands of workers are underground and mortally afraid of talking, it is hard to substantiate it. At any rate, it is a known fact that many factories in the area have made it a routine, standard practice to employ bouncers and goons to keep their workers “in check”. Why the management did not request the police present at the gate to intervene once the violence began or became imminent remains a mystery.
It is of course not necessary that a single major event must act as provocation in the charged situation of the MSIL factory, where tension and distrust have long prevailed. The factory recently witnessed many bitter struggles, including worker sit-ins for a total of 21 days and a 33-day lockout between June and October last, during which “plant managers tried to run the place with outside workers and prolonged negotiations between a cautious, middle-aged management team and a young and agile media-savvy workforce” (The New York Times). The management has still not established the Grievance Redressal Committee and the Welfare Committee that it agreed to set up as part of the October settlement. Nor has there been much progress in negotiating the union’s charter of demands, submitted this past April.
A critical issue at dispute, employment of contract labour, has festered for years. The union resents the fact that about two-thirds of the workforce is employed on contract, with wages that are less than one-half of those earned by the permanent workers—although the contract workers perform the same work and are needed around the year.
The management insists the issue is non-negotiable. But the unionists know that the key to their strength lies in the unity of the permanent and contract workers. Other issues like wages and union recognition have often proved intractable. Nothing could be a better recipe for bad faith and strife.
This situation must be seen in the light of the harsh discipline imposed on the MSIL workers. They must labour hard for eight hours at a stretch, with only two 7.5-minute toilet breaks and a 30-minute lunch break to produce a car every 50 seconds. Work has been speeded up to ultra-stressful levels. Workers are discouraged from taking leave. If they turn up one minute after the shift begins, they lose half-a-day’s wages. Their grievances are usually ignored. Supervisors are routinely rude, and often allegedly violent.
At the root of this undesirable situation in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt lies a two-fold pathology. First, the reluctance, even refusal, of many companies, including transnational corporations, to countenance trade unionism and collective bargaining—which is a normal, spontaneous, natural part of capitalism, and a fundamental right of workers.
And second, blatant pro-management partisanship of the state administration, especially the police. Haryana has practised such partisanship as a matter of policy since the 1970s when union activists would be wantonly rounded up and thrashed every few weeks as a way of ensuring industrial peace of an oppressive kind.
The Manesar violence has been dreadful. But optimistically, it should provoke serious rethinking about and reform of industrial relations in Haryana.
(The article was first published in The Financial Chronicle)