All the leaders and many of the active members of the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union (MSWU) — arbitrarily held responsible for the violent 18 July 2012 incident in the Manesar works of Maruti Suzuki India Ltd in the province of Haryana — 148 of them, repeatedly denied bail, are in jail since August of that year. Some 2,346 workers — contract,1 temporary and regular — have been thrown out of their jobs without a proper inquiry. The MSWU has been forcibly removed from the Manesar factory. The province’s labour department has overlooked the company’s imposition of its “good conduct undertaking”, which is an unfair labour practice, and the deployment of contract labour for regular work. The Congress Party-led Haryana government has been extending full support to the management of Maruti Suzuki India in its drive to crush the MSWU. The laid-off workers and their families have faced severe police harassment. The Punjab and Haryana High Court has refused the jailed workers bail saying that “foreign investors are not likely to invest . . . in India out of fear of labour unrest”. And yet, the Maruti Suzuki workers, alongside their comrades whose services have been illegally terminated, have fought on, with a provisional working committee (PWC) now leading the union.
In the latter half of January this year, PWC members Ramnivas, Mahabir, Rajpal, Katar, Yogesh and their associates brought together the terminated workers and their families alongside those of the jailed workers to participate in a jan jagaran yatra (public vigil journey) against the injustices of the Maruti Suzuki management, the Haryana government, the state’s labour department, the police and the courts. This march against injustice covered some 300 km in Haryana, from Kaithal to Jind and onward to Rohtak, then to Jhajjar and Gurgaon, and onward to Delhi, forging solidarity all along the route. It raised my spirits when I was told that a number of women participated in the march, this because a number of them were beaten up for participating in the dharnas (peaceful demonstration at the offender’s door until the victims’ demands are granted) earlier. It’s not hard to unravel what keeps these women going!
The PWC has been reiterating three demands, one, release of the 148 jailed workers, two, reinstatement of all the terminated workers, and three, an impartial judicial inquiry into the violent incident of 18 July 2012 in which the Manesar factory’s ‘human resource manager’ Awanish Dev, who had helped the workers in the official registration of the union, died of asphyxiation.
The jan jagaran yatris (public vigil fellow-travellers) organised nukkad sabhas (street-corner meetings) all along the route from Kaithal to Delhi, spreading the message of their struggle against exploitation, drawing the attention of not only other workers, employed or unemployed, but also peasants and students. People all along the way came out in support, even arranging for food and accommodation for all the padyatris (marchers), even as CID (Criminal Investigation Department) and police personnel constantly followed the marchers, at times threatening some sarpanchs (heads of the village councils) who offered support. Worker solidarity came not only from manufacturing-sector workers and their unions but also from those of the Haryana Roadways and the electricity board and school teachers and anganwadi & ASHA workers (women workers of the Integrated Child Development Services [ICDS] programme and the “accredited social health activists” [ASHA] of the National Rural Health Mission [NRHM]).
It is a shame, a disgrace, that the government, instead of being a model employer, refuses to treat a large section of those who are at the forefront of delivering certain social services — a large proportion of whom are women — as regular workers. Indeed, there are hundreds of thousands of anganwadi workers and their assistants providing pre-school education and nutrition to children below the age of six, who are paid honorariums of Rs 3,000 and Rs 1,500 per month (around $50 and $25 per month, at Rs 60 per $). Those workers who cook and serve the mid-day meal in the schools are paid honorariums of Rs 1,000 per month ($16 to $17 per month). ‘Para’ teachers in the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (the “education for all” programme), graduates with a B.Ed. degree, are paid between Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 per month ($50 to $83 per month), which is roughly one-tenth of a regular teacher’s salary. And, even the ASHA in the NRHM, who have helped bring down the country’s pathetic maternal mortality rate, are paid a pittance.2 Taken together, more than a million government service-delivery jobs have been created over the last two decades, but all these workers have been denied employee rights by the government, and hence it’s so comforting that the Maruti Suzuki workers have reached out to this disregarded section of the working class.
There are two features of struggle of the Manesar workers of Maruti Suzuki that need to be emphasised. One, despite the insistence of the multinational corporations in the auto sector that their investment plans will materialise only on condition that independent unions are eradicated, and the Haryana government’s full support on this score, the MSWU has persisted against all odds in keeping alive the workers’ struggle to win their rights, the very ones that are inscribed in the labour laws and the Constitution of the country. Two, there has been an unprecedented unity of the regular workers with the temporary and contract workers; indeed, all along, among the principal demands of the MSWU has been the regularisation of the temporary and contract workers.
Wretched of the Indian Earth
This solidarity march of the Maruti Suzuki workers through the villages, towns and cities of their province has, in many ways, been such a wonderful happening in bring together working people from so many different sectors of economic activity. Nevertheless, in rural India, some forms of exploitation and oppression are not even spoken of when one meets members of the panchayats (village council) and the sarpanchs. The mainly Jat big landowners, both the “traditional” and the “modern”, who control these village councils, besides being able to summon the state’s repressive apparatus at the district and bloc levels, unduly benefit from access to not an insignificant part of the state’s expenditure allocated in the name of “development”, from cheap public-institutional credit to various state contracts. They have also gained political legitimacy through the panchayati raj (village council governance) institutions.
The reality of dalit and most-backward caste wage labourers in districts such as Jind, Rohtak and Jhajjar (which the padyatris passed through), as well as the actuality of migrant wage labourers from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, needs to be comprehended. In the context of endemic underemployment together with seasonal unemployment, forms of labour attachment are still prevalent, besides, of course, the intertwining of such relations with caste oppression, dependence stemming from essential consumption-related debt, etc, which together lay the ground for (a sort of) involuntary servitude of the labourers. A small section of the Maruti Suzuki workers of the Manesar factory do come from such dalit and most-backward caste social backgrounds, and a significant section are from poor and middle-peasant social upbringings. With some of their comrades having lived in such social circumstances, the padyatris could connect with the oppressed and the exploited in the villages.
Unregulated, Predatory Labour Relations
More pressing though for the Maruti Suzuki workers of Manesar is unity with the workers of the company’s Gurgaon factory, and beyond this, an alliance with workers in the hundreds of auto-component supplier factories — the first- and second-tier subcontracting auto-component suppliers — and also those in the small-supplier workshops that form the third tier in the auto-components supply chain. All of these workers have been/are organising and fighting against “unregulated, predatory labour relations” and, indeed, the “industrial terrorism unleashed under neo-liberalism”, as Annavajhula J C B and Surendra Pratap put it in their two-part essay “Worker Voices in an Auto Production Chain: Notes from the Pits of the Low Road” (Economic & Political Weekly, 18 and 25 August 2012).
Maruti Suzuki’s “lean manufacturing” — the production of the number of sellable cars demanded at the lowest operational cost — involves measures to extract the maximum effort from the workers. In July 2012, contract and temporary workers comprised more than 75% of the total number of workers at the Manesar factory, this in order to render the workers vulnerable and therefore pliable to the management’s dictates. Chapter 2 (“Dehumanisation of Workforce”) of a recent People’s Union for Democratic Rights’ report entitled “Driving Force: Labour Struggles and Violation of Rights in Maruti Suzuki India Limited” provides a vivid account of the work schedule, the intensity of work, the conditions of employment, including wages and promotion, the plight of contract workers, mechanisation, supervision and management at the Manesar factory. To resist such a highly exploitative labour regime what was required was an independent — not a stooge — labour union, but the management actively prevented the workers from organising themselves, resorting to suspensions, terminations and registration of false cases, and worse, once such a union got registered.
The workers of Honda Motorcycles and Scooters India Ltd too faced a similar management onslaught in 2005 when they formed an independent union. One recalls the brutal manner in which the Haryana Police subjugated their protests on 25 July of that year, and in the aftermath of such repression, the so-called captains of Indian industry blamed the workers and warned of a “negative effect on ‘investor confidence’ and the flow of foreign direct investment”. But worst of all are the conditions of workers in the third tier of the auto production chain where, as Annavajhula and Pratap write:
Everybody is a temp . . . there is no appointment letter, and there is no pay slip either . . . work is for two shifts of 12 hours each and workers are paid only for eight hours a pittance . . . wages are cut against rejects apart from workers being humiliated and beaten up . . . overtime is mostly unpaid, if paid, it is single . . . there is no holiday . . . this is the bottom of the production chain.
And, taking stock of the entire auto production chain they write:
. . . Tier 2 is a lot like Tier 3; Tier 1 is a lot like Tier 2; and the main units are a lot like Tier 1 . . . the labouring conditions in the entire chain are drifting towards homogenous, unregulated and predatory labour relations.
One should nevertheless keep in mind that Tier 3 workers are not even unionised, besides, of course, the fact that they face a greater threat of being replaced by workers in the ‘reserve army of labour’. But Tier 1 and main-unit workers face the threat of replacement, too, as well as the possibility that capital will move to provinces (e.g. Gujarat) where a more exploitative labour regime can be instituted. Main units like Maruti Suzuki India and Honda Motorcycles and Scooters India, and Tier 1 subcontractors like Gabriel India and Delphi, can be considered among the most efficient capitals in their industries in India and even across borders, and therefore it is imperative that their workers are protected by powerful, independent unions. Noteworthy in this context are the expressions of solidarity from the Thai Suzuki Workers’ Union to the MSWU. In cases like this particularly, workers need to show solidarity across borders. Above all, however, it is heartening that the padyatra organised by the MSWU did bring a number of unions of the Tier 1 subcontracting units in touch with those of the main units in an expression of solidarity and support, and this now needs to be extended to the workers of the Tier 2 and Tier 3 subcontracting units too.
Besides the auto and auto-components cluster, the Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera industrial belt also has an apparel/garment manufacturing hub and a call centre cluster. The January 2007 newsletter of Gurgaon Workers News tells its readers of the call centres located just across a motorcycle factory, where call centre employees — the “new proletarianised middle class” — work next to auto, auto-parts or apparel manufacturing workers.
In April 2006 some 4,000 Hero Honda workers occupied the factory where they worked for five days. They were protesting against the discrimination of contract and temporary workers, paid one-sixth to one-tenth of the wages that the regular workers got for doing the same job. Obviously, the Hero Honda management and their contractors were hand in league. Right opposite the factory, the Gurgaon Workers News reported, there was a call centre that had hired around 1,000 young ‘proletarianised’ middle class employees working ten-hour night shifts, earning Rs 12,000 to Rs 14,000 a month, a fraction of what their counterparts in the US and Western Europe got; their office work was subject to Taylorised principles, i.e., being subjected to a continuous “assembly line” of calls; they were closely monitored by sophisticated “management information systems”; and just like their counterparts in Hero Honda, they were being subjected to ruthless exploitation.
These young ‘proletarianised’ middle-class employees were naturally curious about those Hero Honda temps occupying the factory and challenging the police, but they just watched like they would any other spectacle — the occupation, the mass gatherings of the workers on the factory premises, the arrival of the police in large numbers. . . . This leaves one guessing. One wonders whether it occurred to them that they could/should come together, organise, stop work and occupy the place where they worked, like the Hero Honda workers, protesting against the injustices they were being made to suffer. After all, objectively they are part of the new “cybertariat” (see Ursula Huws, The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003/Kharagpur: Cornerstone Publications, 2004), but it’s doubtful if even a fraction of these workers ever perceive themselves in such terms. Perhaps the cultural and educational chasm that separates industrial workers from their call-centre counterparts can be bridged by the students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who extended a rousing welcome to the padyatris, and in this duty, we place our hope in such student/youth organisations as the Krantikari Naujawan Sabha, All India Students’ Association and the Democratic Students’ Union.
‘Satanic Mills’ of the 21st Century
But before the padyatris marched through JNU, they came to the garment/apparel manufacturing cluster in Kapashera on the Delhi-Gurgaon border. Organised as buyer-driven global commodity chains, the ‘oligopsonistic’ (few large buyers with significant market power) firms like Gap and Marks & Spencer — among the big names on high street — have been at the centre of sweatshop scandals involving violations of Indian labour laws and their own “ethical trading initiative” at their subcontractors factories in the Kapashera garment cluster, which is home to many a garment manufacturing sweatshop. The term “sweatshop” conjures up images of the conditions under which industrial labourers toiled against their will (they had little choice) in 19th century England. William Blake’s “satanic mills” were horrifying — the workday was long, the pay was abysmally low, and the conditions of work were unhealthy and unsafe, but tragically, the existential condition of the Indian garment manufacturing workers in Kapashera and Gurgaon in 21st century India are not very different.
State Turns a Blind Eye to Violations of Labour Law
The central trade union federations of the left parties have come out in solidarity with the MSWU on this jan jagaran yatra, promising to support the Maruti Suzuki workers of Manesar until their demands are met. But considering the fact that the proportion of regular workers in the total workforces of units in the factory sector has been on a downward trend over the last decade or more, shouldn’t these trade union federations give a call for some concrete, joint forms of struggle at the level of the auto industry and its ancillaries by all their member unions to demand the fulfilment of the three main ultimatums of the MSWU outlined above?
It is high time an impartial judicial probe into the violent incident of 18 July 2012 at the Manesar factory of Maruti Suzuki India is instituted. The discrepancies in the management’s version, the fact that the management employed bouncers on that day, the reality that a number of workers were injured, the piece of information that the workers considered Awanish Dev to be sympathetic to them, as well as the detail that in the aftermath of Dev’s death his wife “told the NDTV that she didn’t believe that the workers were involved in the death of her husband” (Interview with Mahabir Dhimn of the MSWU, published on World Socialist Web Site, 21 January 2014, who also said that Dev’s wife’s interview “has disappeared from the NDTV archives”), all these elements need to be taken into account and investigated further in any unbiased inquiry.
The Maruti Suzuki workers need mass solidarity and support in these times when capital and the state seem to have an unwritten pact that the latter will turn a blind eye to violations of labour law concerning the terms of employment, wages, conditions of work, including occupational health & safety and the labour process, as well as retrenchment and retirement. After all, haven’t the Maruti Suzuki workers of Manesar been in the forefront of the fight against one of the world’s most exploitative labour regimes, this in Suzuki Motors’ most profitable subsidiary worldwide?
1 Workers supplied by a labour contractor to a firm who work at the site of the firm. The contractor is paid by the firm an amount that includes the wages and other labour-related costs plus a profit margin for the labour supply services. Here the firm is deemed to be the “principal employer” as per the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, but these workers are usually subject to a much higher rate of exploitation than the temporary and regular workers employed directly by the firm.
2 Sitaram Yechury, Politburo member of the CPI (M) and Rajya Sabha member, in his column ‘Left Hand Drive’ in the Hindustan Times, 19 November 2013.
Bernard D’Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai.