Setting an Example
Maruti Suzuki workers have bravely faced a repressive management and a complicit state.
The court case over the confrontation between the workers of Maruti Suzuki India Ltd (MSIL) and a supervisor over the employment of contract labour, in which the human resources general manager died in 2012, has deflected attention from the pathetic working conditions the workers were protesting against and their fight for the very basic right of forming a union of their choice. On 10 March, the Gurugram district court acquitted 117 workers of India’s largest car maker, the MSIL and convicted 31 others on different charges, including that of murder, attempt to murder, rioting and causing damage to private property. The quantum of sentence is expected to be handed down on 18 March at the time of writing. The convicted group includes the entire committee of the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union (MSWU) which led the workers through a turbulent period during which they were pitted against a powerful multinational ably aided by a state that made no bones about its complicity.
The conflict between the two sides goes back to 2011 when the workers attempted to form a union and met with relentless repression and dismissals. They were treated not as workersexercising an inalienable right but as enemies out to wreck the company. The workers went on three strikes that year itself in protest against the horrific working conditions. The management demanded that the union first form welfare and grievances committees (seen by the workers as trying to dilute the role of the union proper) before any discussion or negotiation could be held. The leaders also found themselves involved in false cases filed by the management at the local police station. The factory rolled out a new car every 50 seconds; contractlabour was badly paid for the same work as permanent workers (one of the MSWU’s demands was regularisation of such labour); and all the workers were at the end of their physical and mental tether meeting production targets. The state of course abandoned even the pretence of impartiality as a third party, especially the local police, which was on the side of the management.
Throughout the trial in the district court, the workers’ defence lawyers demonstrated that the identification procedure by witnesses to the 18 July 2012 skirmish was faulty and riddled with blunders, that “weapons” were planted, evidence fabricated by the police, and the investigating officer relied on oral rather than corroborative evidence. What is telling is that while dismissing the bail pleas of the jailed workers in 2013, the Punjab and Haryana High Court had observed that foreign investors were not likely to invest in this country out of fear of labour unrest. Even more remarkable was the company chairman’s statements, inresponse to the attempts to form a union, that the workers had no “significant demand” and that there would be no “compromise.” The MSWU-led struggle stands out in a period when the trade union movement in India is perhaps at its lowest ebb. It is also significant because more than previous governments, the present National Democratic Alliance dispensation is focused on “labour reforms” which it hopes will encourage more foreign anddomestic investment. The Indian business elite insists that the country’s labour laws are to blame for obstructing “growth” even as it ignores the fact that these laws are breached moreoften than implemented and that contract employment has become the order of the day. The MSIL workers’ demands and agitation need to be taken seriously in the context of this attitude of industry and the state. Workers demanding fair working hours and commensurate wages cannot be blamed for frightening offinvestment. Yet, the “reforms”-based amendments to labour laws are almost all one-sided in curtailing worker rights and welfare measures. This is not to imply that there should be no changes at all to deal with evolving trends and processes but that unorganised, overworked and badly paid workers should not be expected to bear the brunt of ensuring “smooth” production. Incidentally, Bloomberg reported that according to MSIL’s company records 10,626 temporary workers were employed in 2016 as compared to 6,578 in 2013–14. These are issues that the trade union movement in India, battered as it is at present from all sides, must address.
Adding to the history of injustice that workers face is the gross violation of the rights of the 117 acquitted workers, who were incarcerated for four years. Clearly, the fact that none of the charges made against them could be proved showed the truth of the union’s allegation that false criminal cases were filed against its members purely to harass them. Remarkably, since 2011 and especially in the last four years except for some ups and downs, all the workers led by the MSWU have shown exceptional solidarity and an uncanny ability to reach out not only to other workers in the Okhla–Faridabad–Noida–Gurgaon–Manesar industrial belt but also to the larger village communities around, civil society groups and sections of the media who have been part of their support network.
The MSWU’s spirited struggle and ability to reach out to other sections sets an example of what worker unity and clear sightedness can do. Given a future where the state and business are likely to collude to suppress workers’ rights, the MSWU has provided a striking model for the future.
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