'Manesar Workers are the Villains': Truth or Prejudice?
The events of 18 July in the Manesar plant of Maruti Suzuki which ended with the murder of a manager were not a sudden conflagration. Anger at the plant had been building up for months over the management’s refusal to recognise an elected union; workers were increasingly frustrated over their inability to exercise their constitutional rights and the demand of equal pay for equal work was falling on deaf years. Rather than portray the workers as villains, managements in this industrial belt of Haryana have to ask themselves why they have not been able to develop a democratic industrial relations framework that can address the concerns of workers.
On Tuesday, 23 July, a Maruti Suzuki worker, VK from Sonepat said that though he had done nothing on 18 July – the day the Manesar plant witnessed large-scale violence ending in the death of an executive of the company – he was coming to surrender to the Gurgaon police because the police were threatening his family with arrest of his father if they could not find VK. He says he was working in the B-shift in the Manesar plant in the paint shop when violence broke out on 18 July but his first name matched the name of one of the 51 workers listed in the first information report (FIR) filed by Deepak Anand, general manager at Maruti Suzuki. Some of us tried to meet him and talk to him before he presented himself to the police, but he was picked up by the Gurgaon police and his family was told he would be taken to the Manesar police station where the FIR was registered. However, until the time of writing (24 July), VK could not be traced either at the Gurgaon police station of Sector 17-C which picked him up or at the Manesar police station where he was to be presented since the FIR was lodged at this station.
According to an unconfirmed report, Haryana police has detained the uncle of RV, an executive committee member of the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union (MSWU), because they are unable to locate RV himself. Another worker is afraid to seek medical help for fear of arrest and torture by the police. He is a B-shift worker who injured himself while fleeing the factory premises on the evening of 18 July and is afraid to meet or talk to anyone or seek medical help.
Workers’ colonies near the Manesar plant are deserted. Police swept through the area and went up to Jhajjar and Rohtak on the night of 18 July to pick up any worker wearing a Maruti Suzuki uniform or carrying a company identity card. The Haryana police, administration and the Maruti Suzuki management have managed to terrorise Maruti Suzuki workers into silence and forced them underground. This strategy has worked well for Maruti Suzuki management as it has had all the freedom to present only its version of what is purported to have transpired on the evening of 18 July.
A handful of workers we managed to speak to were unanimous in the view that the death of the Maruti Suzuki executive Awanish Kumar Dev “should not have happened”. According to a worker, Awanish Dev had agreed to take back Jiya Lal, the suspended worker, who had protested caste abuse by a supervisor during A-shift on 18 July, but then Awanish Dev got a call from a senior, instructing him otherwise. Naresh Narwal, additional labour commissioner, and Gurgaon district administration officials told a joint trade union delegation that they too had received word that Maruti Suzuki management had agreed to take back the suspended worker the next day on 19 July and that the matter was almost resolved. Some B-shift workers we spoke to, report hearing the same.
What happened in the matter of a couple minutes that changed the course of events that evening? Was it the phone call from a senior manager, reversing the understanding and agreement with the union? Were the union leaders who protested the alleged reversal of the decision threatened inside that negotiating room? Did union members rush into the negotiating room to protect their leaders who they feared were being threatened or attacked? Or was it the case that some people dressed in workers uniforms carrying “weapons” entered the room and started thrashing managers, exhorting workers who were milling outside the room to follow their lead, and these instigators refused to listen to union leaders who pleaded with them to stop and drop their weapons? Was the fire deliberately started or was it an accident, a short-circuit? Was Awanish Kumar Dev’s death an accident or a brutal murder?
Perhaps We Will Never Know
Perhaps by the time workers and union leaders who were present in that negotiating room are able to present their story (if at all they are able to do so), no one would be willing to listen, because Maruti Suzuki management would have drowned out all reasonable voices and the relentless baying for the blood of workers would have reached such a crescendo that the guilt of all workers would be a foregone conclusion and no one would want to hear otherwise.
Build-up on 18 July
What we do know is that on 18 July the workers and their union were protesting the unilateral decision of Maruti Suzuki management to suspend Jiya Lal. The previous day, workers of both shifts had decided to skip their pre-shift meeting with supervisors to protest against management intransigence vis-à-vis their union in negotiations on the charter of demands submitted by MSWU. On 18 July morning, the supervisor, Ramkishore Majhi, stopped some workers, including Jiya Lal, when they were returning from their tea break and instructed them to stop boycotting the pre-shift meeting. In the exchange of heated words between the supervisor and group of workers, Ramkishore Majhi, reportedly hurled a caste abuse at Jiya Lal, who protested along with others in the group. Thereafter, Majhi reported this incident to his senior managers and Jiya Lal reported it to his union leaders. Without giving Jiya Lal an opportunity to present his version of the incident, or discussing the matter with the union leaders, or showing any intent to resolve the dispute, the Maruti Suzuki management took the unilateral decision of suspending Jiya Lal with immediate effect.
Union leaders and workers protested this high-handedness and called upon the Maruti Suzuki management to either discipline both Ramkishore Majhi and Jiya Lal, or revoke Jiya Lal’s suspension and talk to the union and both parties before taking any action. Disciplinary action against just the worker and not the supervisor when the supervisor was equally, if not more at fault, was not acceptable to the workers. Maruti Suzuki management refused and the situation escalated with every passing hour. Workers were angry with what they perceived to be yet another instance of a worker being punished in a jiffy without establishing his guilt and without talking to their democratically elected union, while supervisors and managers are presumed innocent and protected even when they are at fault. B-shift workers continued production while A-shift workers decided to stay back in the plant at the end of their shift until the dispute was satisfactorily resolved.
Workers had not reacted like that earlier in the month when Ram Mehar, president of the union had been suspended and then taken back a day later. Workers already had an enviable history of conducting a long non-violent struggle during the summer months of 2011. So what was different on 18 July? Had they had enough of management high-handedness and arrogance and decided that they must stand up against it? Were their actions fuelled by another alleged incident earlier in the week when supervisors and workers seem to have had a heated exchange and a supervisor allegedly told the workers they could do what they wanted, their story was going to end in the next two to three days (kar lo jo karna hai, agle do-deen din mein tum logon ka yahan se safaya ho jayega)?
Fighting for Recognition
What is clear is that workers and the union leaders had been increasingly frustrated by Maruti Suzuki management’s disrespect towards their elected union, to establish which they had sacrificed much and had also adhered to all pre-conditions laid down by the management so that it would “allow” the Haryana Labour Department to register the union!
Chairman of Maruti Suzuki India R C Bhargava claimed on 20 July in a press conference that it was the Government of Haryana which had reservations about the registration of a union and not the management. Does this claim have any credence in light of the fact that last year Maruti Suzuki withstood a five-month long agitation, massive production losses, loss of market share and gave a huge payout to the union leaders to abandon their struggle for the registration of their union? If Maruti Suzuki did not have reservations about the registration of a union, then how do we interpret Managing Executive Officer (Administration) S Y Siddiqui’s statement in June 2011 that Maruti Suzuki will neither permit the formation of a union nor “tolerate any external affiliation of the union”.
It has been repeatedly made clear to the workers that they were up against the collective might of a huge corporate like Maruti Suzuki with its clout, influence and money power, and a collusive labour department of the state government who were determined to thwart the exercise of the workers’ constitutional right to freedom of association.
Unfortunately, the formation and registration of a union does not automatically lead to its recognition by managements, many of which refuse to negotiate in good faith, if at all, with registered unions – a cause of much frustration among workers.
Workers of Maruti Suzuki were also pressurising their union not to give in to management demands to form a grievance committee and welfare committee, as agreed to by the previous union (the Maruti Suzuki Employees Union) in the October 2011 settlement. Workers feared that the management would use these committees to build a parallel system of governance and subvert the functioning of their democratically elected union and deny it legitimacy and recognition. Workers did not believe that the labour department of the state government could have issued challans to managers (for non-compliance with terms of the tripartite settlement of October 2011) independently, without the implicit “permission” of Maruti Suzuki management and they saw it as a pressure tactic to force the MSWU’s hand.
Managers and labour officers, who regularly visited the shop floor in Manesar, were fully aware of the mounting concerns, anger and frustration of the workers and yet did nothing to address and defuse the situation. Instead the Maruti Suzuki management escalated tensions by trying to intimidate the union leaders to agree to its terms – no collective bargaining and no serious discussion on the charter of demands until the union agreed to form the grievance and welfare committees! It refused to yield to the union’s conciliatory gesture that the formation of these committees could be a part of the negotiations and not a precondition. Maruti Suzuki management went so far as to lodge false cases against key union leaders at the Manesar police station last month when talks broke down on this issue. Union leaders were repeatedly harassed by the SHO of Manesar police station but they refused to yield to the threats and intimidation.
And yet R C Bhargava claims in the press conference that there were no issues between management and workers and “no one saw this coming”! If that is the case then the entire management team of Maruti Suzuki should be sacked and more competent managers should be hired.
The workers and the union leaders were also united in their demand – that the long-term settlement that was under negotiation should be implemented for all casual and contract workers employed at the Manesar plant, who worked alongside them on the shop floor. The management was adamant that it would not agree to do so. It used the same argument proffered time and again in this industrial belt by managements and labour department – that permanent workers do not have the legal right to espouse the cause of casual and contract workers! And that casual and contract workers do not have the legal right to raise an industrial dispute with the principal employer! That these so-called casual and contract workers are working in core production processes in violation of the Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, 1970 is known to all and yet no company has been prosecuted for this violation in Haryana. And the Haryana government does not deem it necessary to comply with its statutory duty of constituting a State Contract Labour Advisory Board before which complaints can be raised, investigated and redressed. Maruti Suzuki management’s recent announcement, that by 2013 it will ensure no contract worker is employed in its core production processes, is an admission that this is the existing practice. Will the Haryana Government prosecute Maruti Suzuki (and all other companies) for violating the Contract Labour Act over several years?
The determination of the permanent workers of Maruti Suzuki to redress the injustice being meted out to their fellow workers in the name of business exigency and need for flexibility is evident from their stand taken during negotiations as reported by them. The MSWU offered to give up one year’s worth of arrears and economic benefits if the Maruti Suzuki management ensured implementation of the long-term agreement (LTA) on all casual and contract workers employed at the Manesar plant. The union had submitted that the LTA be made applicable from April 2011 and the management had countered that the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU) LTA was under implementation for the period 2009-11 and applied to the Manesar plant permanent workers as well. Therefore the MSWU settlement, when finalised, could not be implemented retrospectively from 2011. The MSWU countered that if the MUKU settlement was applicable to them from 2009 onwards when many of them were casual workers and trainees, then by the same logic, the MSWU settlement could be implemented for existing trainees, casual and contract workers. If the management agreed to do so, they would drop their demand for implementation of the settlement from April 2011 onwards, agree to its implementation from April 2012, and give up one year’s worth of economic benefits.
Failing Industrial Relations Systems
There is a danger that the events of 18 July will impede a thorough examination of the reasons for the simmering discontentment among workers of Maruti Suzuki (and it would not be stretching it to say of all workers in the industrial belt of Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera-Rewari).
We must recognise and find the collective will to address issues at the centre of the ongoing dispute between workers and management of Maruti Suzuki – the right to form a union (along with the right to affiliate with any central trade union if they choose to) and the right to equal wages and benefits for equal work and an end to discriminatory wage systems and wage theft. These workers have shown the courage to stand up to a powerful corporation and the might of the State. They are not willing to give up their right to form an autonomous union that the management cannot control or dictate to and they are unwilling to sell out their casual and contract workers by accepting a settlement that does not apply equally to all workers doing the same work. This is the biggest threat to the extant production system. And management wonders why the backlash is so severe.
There are many voices commenting on the lack of maturity among these workers, the expression of their demands and their discontentment, their youth, their lack of experience as many are first-generation industrial workers, their supposed hotheadeness and impatience, their aspiration to be upwardly mobile and to have the capacity to indulge in consumerism, and their demands for better wages (why not?). Getting caught up with these issues would be akin to missing the wood for the trees in the immediate circumstances. And yet with an eye towards the long term, one could ask of the Maruti Suzuki management and industrial relations and human resource management experts – if this is the profile of educated workers recruited from ITIs, working in some of the most sophisticated production processes in our country – then why have managements and experts not been able to evolve an appropriate and democratic industrial relations framework and a human resource management system that can address the concerns and aspirations of these workers?
To ignore the problems arising from a defunct industrial relations system and claim as S Y Siddiqui did that “the problem at Manesar, is not one of industrial relations. It is an issue of ‘crime and militancy’” is a gross dereliction on one’s responsibilities and blatant criminalisation of labour.
Trade unions must also introspect on how they are failing the new generation of workers and new formations of labour. We need to collectively reflect on the New Trade Union Initiative’s assessment of last October that “trade union movements have shown a lack of shared understanding and effective strategy to make the workers’ struggle at Maruti Suzuki a decisive trade union battle to change the orientation of the labour policies of companies and government. In order to move forward and build support for the Maruti Suzuki workers the trade union movement needs to build coordination in both the Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera belt and at the national level.”
The Maruti Suzuki management, the labour department of the state, the Gurgaon district administration and the Haryana government must introspect and take responsibility for turning a blind eye to the neon flashing signs and failing to act to defuse or contain the situation before it spiralled so horribly out of control and resulted in the tragic death of Awanish Kumar Dev.
Equally tragic was the brutal murder on 18 October 2009 of 26-year-old Ajit Yadav, a worker at Rico Auto Industries, Gurgaon who was allegedly tossed into the company’s furnace by company officials and company-hired goons during a struggle by the workers to form a union to demand a wage hike and redress of onerous working conditions. Three years later the family of Ajit Yadav and workers of the Gurgaon industrial belt are still awaiting justice!
 On that evening, two buses taking workers of Honda Motorcycles and Scooters India. (HMSI) back home from Manesar after their shift ended were detained all night even though both the buses had been checked thoroughly twice already by Haryana police and no Maruti Suzuki workers were found in the buses. Calls by the HMSI Employees Union on behalf of their members trapped all night in the buses, fell on deaf ears. The buses were allowed to proceed to their destination only at 8 am the next morning
EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.