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Maruti Workers Speak about Their Strike

Even as the strike by the workers of Maruti Suzuki's Manesar plant has been successful in meeting some of their demands, the government has backtracked on its promise of having the union registered. Nevertheless, the strike has highlighted the pathetic work conditions in the factories and set an important precedent for workers in the Gurgaon-Manesar industrial belt of Haryana.

FROM THE STATES

Maruti Workers Speak about Their Strike

Jyotsna Singh, Nakul Sawhney

its puppet union of Plant 1, the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU). It was a forced signature campaign – seniors from the management approached the workers and illicitly threatened them of dire consequences. “The seniors asked the workers to sign on blank papers. They said that the

Even as the strike by the workers of Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant has been successful in meeting some of their demands, the government has backtracked on its promise of having the union registered. Nevertheless, the strike has highlighted the pathetic work conditions in the factories and set an important precedent for workers in the Gurgaon-Manesar industrial belt of Haryana.

Jyotsna Singh (jyotsna.jnu@gmail.com) is features editor and Nakul Sawhney is a filmmaker with Newsclick.in, an alternative media web portal.

T
he labour department of Haryana has rejected the application by the workers of Maruti Suzuki India’s Manesar plant to form the Maruti Suzuki Employees Union (MSEU). The order mainly gives three reasons for the rejection. One, the employees resorted to an illegal strike to meet the demand. Two, some of the signatories had a dual membership. Three, some of the signatures did not match with the registered workers’ signatures. While the second and third reasons are technical in nature, the first, namely, the “illegal” strike, is a political one. It poses a serious threat to the workers’ movement in the country, and shows a complete sell-out of the state and its machinery in the hands of big capital.

The Developments So Far

The workers carried out a 13-day-long tool down strike from 4-17 June because the management of Maruti Suzuki resorted to corrupt means to challenge the formation of the MSEU. The government declared the strike illegal before coming to an agreement with the workers. During the final meeting, the workers reported, the labour department assured the leaders of the workers that the union will be registered. The latest developments thus suggest backtracking by the government, which visibly has no issues with losing the workers’ confidence. However, the strike by the 2,000-odd workers at the Manesar plant (Plant 2) has indicated a wind of change in the Gurgaon-Manesar industrial belt of Haryana. The strike has resulted in major concessions being achieved.

The workers were demanding a union of their own, independent of the co-opted union of the management in Maruti’s Plant 1 in Gurgaon. The MSEU applied to the Haryana labour department for registration of the union on 3 June. The trouble began when Maruti’s officials at Plant 2 started to collect signatures of workers in favour of

august 13, 2011

refusal to do so would lead to termination”, said Vasant Kumar, one of the employees managing logistics for the strike outside the company premises.

The workers started a tool down opposing these efforts of the management. On 6 June, the management sacked 11 officebearers of the MSEU. Four days later, the Haryana government issued prohibitory orders to ban the strike, making it illegal.

The Trade Unions Act, 1926 provides for registration of trade unions (TU) and the workers were within their legal right to form a union. In any case, the management had nothing to do with it as the registration process is under the labour department of the concerned state. However, in the context of unequal power relations between the management of multinational companies supported by the State, and the workers, this right is consciously denied. Past experience shows that as soon as registration for a TU is filed, services of the leaders are terminated, jeopardising the very possibility of the formation of an independent union. As articulated by Dipankar Mukherjee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), foreign capital comes to India on two main conditions – “no tax, no union”. In the present case too, the government imposed a ban on the strike and referred the case to court under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.

The salient provisions of the final settlement among the workers, the government and the management were:

  • (1) The 11 workers who had been fired were reinstated with on-job enquiry pending. Being leaders of the movement, their termination would have meant a major suppression of the movement.
  • (2) Permanent workers on strike were to lose salary for the days of strike multiplied by two, amounting to a salary loss of 26 days. Contract workers and apprentices lost 13 days of pay. This would be kept on review for the next two months, to be revised in the event of any indiscipline. Earlier, the Maruti
  • vol xlvI no 33

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    Economic & Political Weekly

    FROM THE STATES

    management had announced a pay cut equivalent to a multiple of eight of the striking days, a whopping 104 days of salary.

  • (3) The agreement was signed by the labour commissioner and the leaders of the movement, who had been initially threatened with termination of services.
  • (4) The company assured that no vindictive action will be taken against the striking workers.
  • Battling Harsh Work Conditions

    The demand for a union should not be seen in isolation from other demands of the working class in the country – the context for such demands is indeed the pathetic working conditions in industries and an aspiration to have representatives who can carry forward workers’ struggle. A leader of the MSEU complained that the union of the management was indifferent to their concerns.

    Conditions inside the plant are far from tolerable, let alone decent. Workers are not allowed to drink water or urinate during work, and asked to postpone it till the tea and lunch breaks of seven and 30 minutes respectively. A long queue during breaks means less time for eating, drinking, and urinating.

    As punishment for minor mistakes, workers are also asked to work overtime without compensation. “I am supposed to produce one unit of work in 40 seconds. If this target is not met even by a low margin, I have to work two to three hours extra”, rued a worker.

    Apprentices are made to work in three shifts at a stretch. In some cases, interns from industrial training institutes are called for advanced training, but made to do the job of a regular worker. Workers do not get proper healthcare even though their contracts mention that the company will provide compensation for ill-health. Most of them are migrant labourers from far-off villages in Haryana, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, and they are often not given leave even to meet their families. They are allowed a particular number of days of leave, exceeding which would cost them the permanent workers of Maruti Suzuki and contract workers cannot officially join it because their employer is different. Contract workers joined them in solidarity knowing that an independent union would benefit the workers as a whole, and not just a particular section.

    “From the time the settlement has been reached, we are being treated better by the management. Our seniors do not penalise us for minor mistakes anymore”, said a contract worker five days after the strike was over.

    The strike itself was a tough ordeal. During those 13 days, the company made conditions inside the premises as tough as possible for the workers, forcing them to discontinue the strike. Only one toilet was kept open for more than 2,000 workers. There would always be a long queue and workers waited hours for using it. The water coolers were made non-functional during the peak of summer in June, and health facilities were withdrawn.

    Managing the Media

    Seeing the workers not relenting, the management started to play dirty games. Calls were made to workers’ families misinforming them about their health. Frantic family members would ask their dear ones to come back home, creating extra pressure on already hassled workers. Violating all democratic rights available to an average citizen of India, the workers were barred from speaking to the media. This was organised very efficiently. Any worker who left the company premises in those 13 days was not allowed to enter again, preventing him from joining the strike. Reporters and camera persons were not allowed to enter. Permission of the management was needed even to speak to a worker at the gate, and all contact numbers were removed from the website. No telephone service provider could help in this regard. The mammoth presence of private security guards and state police was in any case enough to scare the media away.

    Barring a few, media reports clearly took a pro-Maruti management line. Instead of

    Major Disputes in the Region (2005-09)

    talking about the dismal work conditions and the right to dissent, leading media groups focused on the losses that Maruti incurred, and even that was overestimated thanks to inappropriate calculations. Most appalling was the coverage of the settlement. Except for one newspaper, no one covered it in its entirety. In addition, they either projected a feeling of a lost battle for the workers, or showed anger at Maruti’s losses. However, alternate media and a few blog posts did document the workers’ part of the story during the two weeks.

    Spillover Effects

    The success of the strike has given a new life to the resistance in the entire industrial belt, known for its brutal suppression by the Statecapitalist-police nexus. More than 8,000 workers gathered on 25 July to mark the anniversary of the horrific crackdown on the workers of Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India (HMSI) in 2005. Last year, only 3,000 workers gathered on this day (observed as the Workers’ Solidarity Day since 2006).

    Plant 1 of Maruti in Gurgaon also felt the heat. A section of workers there started the Jan Jagran Abhiyan (People’s Awareness Movement) in October 2010 against the functioning of existing officebearers of MUKU. In the elections held on 16 July, a rebel group, part of the movement, took charge of the union for the first time in 11 years, defeating the candidates fielded by the management.

    The partial success of the strike at Manesar has to be celebrated, though cautiously. The state has played its card by rejecting the application for the registration of the MSEU. The on-job enquiry is still pending which can be misused against the leadership to repress the movement further. The question of the management’s consent for recognition of the proposed union does not even arise anymore. However, the determination shown by the workers has sent across the message that their demands are no longer to be trivialised and suppressed. Meanwhile, the struggle continues.

    Rs 1,500/day, while five days would mean a Organisation Year Striking Days No of Workers Demand

    loss of Rs 9,000. This penalty is against the Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India 2005 One month 2,000 odd Termination of a number of employees over a period of six months for efforts of forming a union

    salary of Rs 18,000 for a permanent worker.

    Rico Automotive Industries 2009 45 3,000 Wage increase, compensation for family of an

    The support of the contract workers and

    employee murdered by company thugs

    the apprentices was an important part of

    Sunbeam Auto (a unit of Hero Group of Industries) 2009 52 2,500 Recognition of a new union

    the struggle. The union is technically of The strike in Rico Auto resulted in the shutdown of factories of General Motors and Ford in the United States for lack of parts.

    Economic & Political Weekly

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    august 13, 2011 vol xlvI no 33

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