Written by Gaurav Jain

Why They Strike. Why You Should Care

Why They Strike. Why You Should Care by Gaurav Jain

SONU GUJJAR is unprepossessing. Small, slender, boyish. No fire and brimstone union leader, this. In our age of email and anger, a 24-year-old Indian worker leader prefers to find his advantages in wit and paradox.

zindabadSonu Gujjar (standing far left) and Sonu Nehar (far right) rallying the workers

It is already Day 14 of the Maruti Suzuki workers’ agitation for their right to unionise. Under the pink tent across the street from the company’s plant in Manesar, Haryana, when Sonu begins speaking to the group of around 1,000 permanent and 2,000 contract workers, he is soft spoken. It takes a while before you realise the challenge his rhetoric poses. Going over the blandishments and threats that have come their way since the young workers first began their fight for representation, he has a way of making them sound ridiculous. When told that the workers can come back to work if they agree that several others stay terminated, he suggests “Haan theek hai”, perhaps the management can arbitrarily fire some executives as well. Just to level the playing ground. Whenever a politician or Maruti Suzuki executive tries to claim to be ‘like his grandfather’, he smilingly welcomes the epithet. He says when it was suggested that good conduct means workers should not talk to each other, he replied “Bhai theek hai” — he’s game if his superiors agree not to talk to each other too. Just to keep things on par.

A subsidiary of Japan’s Suzuki Motor Corporation, Maruti Suzuki India Limited is India’s largest automobile company with a major share of the country’s car market. Since trouble began in June, most media reports have only discussed labour militancy, the ‘unfortunate’ delays in the production of the new Maruti Swift, and the happy but slim resumptions of production. Meanwhile, the workers talk of their urban cattle life, a livelihood most of us would find unacceptable if applied to us.

Here is what a Maruti Suzuki worker says his average day at the Manesar plant is like. You catch a bus at 5 am for the factory. Arriving a second late to punch in your card means a pay cut, but you can’t leave the premises once you’ve entered. At 6.30 am, you exercise and supervisors give you feedback on your previous output. Start work at 7 sharp. Everyone does his one task — assembling, welding, fixing — for a minimum of 8 continuous hours. A car rolls off the line every 38 seconds, which means you can’t budge from your position, ever. You get two breathless breaks during the day. At 9 am, a 7-minute break to drink tea or go to the loo, or both. After a while you might, like many of your friends here, end up taking your hot tea and kachori to the bathroom with you. Then a lunch break of 30 minutes, in which you walk about a half kilometre to the canteen, wait in line with everyone, eat and walk back. Returning even a minute late from any break, or leaving the assembly line for any reason even for a minute, means half a day’s pay cut. Older systems used to include an overseer for every small group of workers who could step in if someone needed to take a breather. But, the cost logic of production is perennially at odds with workers’ rights.

Sonu’s rhetoric pierces our mute acceptance that the world can function as it does only if some unfortunates are treated like this. If we don’t blink at seeing a man climbing down to unblock a sewer for a few hundred a month, it’s likely we think of a Rs 16,000 factory job with a uniform as clean and comfortable. But even the salary is an illusion, as the workers’ salary slips show. A baseline of Rs 8,000 is all most are guaranteed. Take a day from your legally granted casual leave or sick leave, for any reason, and lose Rs 1,500. Take two and lose Rs 3,000, and so on up till half your salary disappears. When TEHELKA emailed Maruti Suzuki asking about conditions like break durations and pay cuts, their official spokesperson responded: “If attendance is below a certain level, performance incentive is less to that extent. The terms and conditions of all workers, including duration of breaks, are uniform for employees in Gurgaon and Manesar.”

IN DECEMBER 2010, the Manesar workers began discussing how to field their own candidates for a new union instead of being folded into the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU), the only recognised company union. MUKU is viewed as a management- controlled union mainly for the Gurgaon plant workers, whose spirits were crushed during their own agitations in 2000. MUKU has traditionally not held elections. Workers know that the time-honoured management tactic is to fire their leaders. Since December, the Manesar workers and management have played a game of hide and seek.

Sonu Gujjar was deliberately an unlikely choice. He has pride in his work ethic and has won the best operator award and the MD’s award for best employee. Over five years, his attendance has averaged at 98- 99 percent. No trouble was expected from him. He is a manifestation of what the workers say their MBA-toting seniors are unable to conceive: a unionised workforce that has rights and is also interested in raising outputs in the hope of prosperity. After word leaked that Sonu was going to stand for elections for a new union, he says he spent entire days in the company’s HR office being counselled and cajoled. Bribes, threats, dire predictions, a conversation with the MD — the company only managed to convince its workers that it is not on their side and they’d better watch out.

On 3 June, the Manesar workers formally applied to form a separate union called Maruti Suzuki Employees Union (MSEU). They say the company responded by suspending 11 workers and sending bouncers to force them to sign blank pieces of paper. The workers struck work on 4 June and held a sit-in inside the plant for 13 days till their 11 colleagues were reinstated, though the main issue of unionisation remained unresolved. They allege the management next resorted to things like putting cockroaches and dead flies in their canteen food — fact or angry rhetoric, there’s little way of verifying.

Meanwhile, the file to register MSEU in the labour office was cancelled. Reasons: the employees resorted to an illegal strike; among those who’d signed for a new union, many still retained MUKU membership; some signatures didn’t match with the registered ones. The revolting workers say they’d all resigned from the old union and these technical reasons merely indicate how hand-in-glove the Haryana government is with Maruti Suzuki.

The Trade Union Act says the union should be of the workers’ choice and should have annual elections, else the labour commissioner can disband it. After the June agitations, MUKU perhaps felt compelled to hold its first elections in almost a decade in July 2011. The Manesar workers say they’d have abstained anyway from voting for this “pocket union” but the elections were designed to happen without their participation. Maruti Suzuki’s official spokesperson told TEHELKA that since MUKU is a company-recognised “representative body of the workers”, “all workers can channelise their suggestions and grievances through this body”. In a conversation with TEHELKA, the recently elected MUKU General Secretary Kuldeep, who works at the Gurgaon plant, remained vague about previous MUKU elections, saying that they happened by a show of hands, while the spokesperson said, “We cannot comment on internal matters of the union.”

The dirty agendas and chequered record of many unions may create suspicion but shouldn’t negate workers’ right to organise. The spokesperson told TEHELKA that “outside control of unions by nonemployees is an unhealthy practice and the company does not permit it”, and that it wants only “one single union with no political affiliation”. When pressed on how the new union would have political affiliation, outside control or non-employee participation, the spokesperson only said, “We have stated the principle. We have not commented on any specific outfit.”

There’s a darker back story of Maruti Suzuki unions. Before MUKU there was the Maruti Udyog Employees Union (MUEA). In 2001, Suzuki took over the company and won a case to appoint its own MD, and the Gurgaon workforce protested subsequent salary cuts and work intensification. There was a grim three-month battle with water cannons, mounted police and hunger strikes ending in MUEA leaders’ arrests. The management recognised a new union called MUKU and insisted — as it is doing now — that all workers sign a good conduct bond. Many MUEA sympathisers were terminated. MUEA was derecognised by the government on charges that still lie in court. Over the next year, around 1,000 workers were offered a Hobson’s choice of voluntary retirement or termination.

The MBAs can’t conceive unionised workers who also want to raise production outputs tweet

Throughout the current crisis, the company has had on its side the police, the labour commissioner, the politicians, its bouncers as well as most of the media. On 28 August, Maruti Suzuki called a large police backup inside its Manesar plant and suspended 21 workers on charges of “sabotaging production and deliberately causing quality problems”, and terminated or suspended some others too. The alleged sabotage is of “vehicle door not properly clamped leading to doors falling during production, cutting wiring harnesses, dents on the body and critical components not fitted on vehicles”, but the spokesperson presented no evidence to TEHELKA of these charges except pointing to declining production and ‘Quality OK’ numbers on 23, 24 and 25 August. The spokesperson wouldn’t confirm if there’s any video evidence from the numerous surveillance cameras but did claim to have photographs.

In the following days, there was a plant lockout with the company saying only those who signed a ‘Good Conduct Bond’ could work, so that it gets the legal right to fire anyone who indulges in “go-slow, intermittent stoppage of work, stay-instrike, work-to-rule, sabotage or any other activity having the effect of hampering normal production”. Plus a double whammy — if they didn’t sign, they’d be considered on strike. The workers have refused, demanded their 49 colleagues’ reinstatement and held regular demonstrations.

WORKERS RECOUNT how strikes have hit the Haryana automobile belt over the years. There was a police action on a Honda workers’ demonstration in 2005. Hero Honda saw 3,000 workers doing a five-day occupation the next year. Rico Auto faced a 43-day strike in 2009 that also hit General Motors’ production in the US.

Most observers say that the conditions in Maruti Suzuki are not that different from other companies. But the Manesar workforce is an anomaly. The plant started in 2006, so most of the labour is still new in its servitude. Almost all the men are under 25, unmarried and recent graduates from an Industrial Training Institute (ITI) in their part of India. Facts they hold up frequently with the line: “We can’t be pushed to go back to work because we’re not worried about children or house loans.”

As importantly, the wedge between permanent and contract workers hasn’t solidified here as it has in older plants, where both groups work together for massively disparate pay for the same work. Hence the unique scene in Manesar where both groups are agitating in solidarity. Says J John, a Delhi-based expert on labour issues, “What is of concern is that 60-70 percent of this sector’s workers are labelled contract workers, trainees and apprentices. Companies use the freedom of contract labour to continuously replace workers through the system. They are bringing in a new culture where negotiations are with individual workers, not collectives.”

Most of the workers are like Bittu, still a bit astonished that this is his youth. Bittu grew up in a farming family in Narwana, Haryana. He and his two friends wanted to be teachers but he couldn’t afford the training course and opted for the one-year ITI course. At ITI, everyone dreamt of companies like Honda and Maruti Suzuki. “If only someone had told me what it’s really like,” he now rues. “I persuaded two cousins recently against following me. I made them go into other courses.” Or take Sonu Nehar, an assured rebel who’s worked here for five years and says, “My wife is the principal of a private school in Gurgaon. We can fight for a better future.”

Why are these Sonus and Bittus standing so determinedly against the mighty Maruti Suzuki’s record of dealing with worker unrest? Sonu Gujjar shrugs. “I grew up 20 km from here,” he says. “My parents are small farmers. My uncle is a major in the army. Another is fairly high-up in Delhi airport security. I talked it over with all of them. They said: ‘If thousands are willing to trust you, don’t let them down.’” You get a better hint from Joginder Singh, a 28-year-old and one of the few workers with children, who says, “My wife and I talked it over. We decided we’re young enough to fight this. What do we have to lose? If we win, we don’t have to be slaves any anymore. If we lose, I’ll find work somewhere else.” This is the nub that nobody outside the protestors’ tent seems to see. The workers will find other work, perhaps even change industries. Many secretly welcome the prospect. But even if Maruti Suzuki replaces its Manesar workforce with a new one, as it is threatening to do, how will it ensure that its new workers — also young, educated, unmarried and with nothing much to lose — will not also eventually agitate for a separate union? The fight will be determined by who caves in first. For now, the workers say they are ready for the long haul. They invoke Gandhi frequently, of how young Bhagat Singh was when he died. And suddenly you get a glimpse of India’s famed demographic dividend. Young people who have enough selfworth to decide that the Maruti Suzuki ‘Way of Life’ is subhuman.

Why is the company refusing to even acknowledge the need for a structural solution — improving worker conditions and admitting their right to organise? Maruti Suzuki Chairman RC Bhargava reassured the company’s AGM this month: “The Manesar labour problem is essentially a political issue and not a problem which involves any significant demand from the workers.” Similarly, Suzuki Motor Corporation Chairman Osamu Suzuki, on an India trip this month, told MUKU representatives: “Indiscipline is not tolerated… not in Japan, not in India. It is never in the interest of any company and its people.” From top down, the entire corporation is now parroting its emperor’s brush-off about ‘indisciplined’ workers.

As this goes to press, the Suzuki Powertrain plant and the motorcycle plant have also struck work in solidarity for their assembly line comrades in Manesar. The company’s core crisis team is scrambling to manage these unanticipated eruptions. J John comments, “We should ask if the person producing a product is denied living wages and human rights. Who is producing this car that I’m buying, and at what cost?” This is the structural corruption of companies that squeeze heavy margins by keeping their workers unorganised and unempowered, by keeping them informal hostages. It makes us all who work in and consume these companies’ products complicit with their decay.

First published here.