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Challenging "Make in India"

Industrial Strikes in Gurgaon and Manesar

Akash Bhattacharya (akash.sr.87@gmail.com) is at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. 

The workers’ agitation in the Gurgaon Manesar belt demanding better wages and working conditions questions the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s “Make in India” promises. 

“If we give up today, contract workers everywhere will only get treated worse than this,” said Pushpa, a 28-year-old worker, fiery as ever, even as the protest outside the gate of ASTI Electronics at Manesar, Haryana, stretched into its third month (Yadav 2014). She and her fellow contract workers had refused to leave meekly, when the management fired them citing lack of work. Standing at the gates, the 310 odd workers had demanded an end to the illegal practice of contract labour which props up the hire and fire regime that allows factories to keep wages low, deny workers social security and bully them into submission. 
 
Pushpa and her comrades are hardly the only ones on strike. In the industrial hubs of Gurgaon, Manesar, Dharuhera and Bawal that dot the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), factory after factory has erupted in revolt against low wages, disgraceful working conditions, lack of social security and the employment of contract labour for core manufacturing roles. Although forbidden by law, contract labour for such roles is widespread and is winked at by officials and the state, for it is central to the labour market flexibility that is supposed to transform India into a global manufacturing hub. 
 
In recent months, there have been signs that such practices are soon to be given the cloak of legality as Narendra Modi’s government trips over itself to invite foreign investors to “Make in India”. A wholesale rewriting of labour and environmental laws has been pencilled in to make way for export-oriented growth. While this economic strategy is being promoted in the name of the common people, including labourers, through slogans like shramev jayate (to the glory of labour), workers like Pushpa have refused to be mute rashtra nirmata (nation-builders). The five dozen strikes they have waged over the last couple of years signal their resolve to fight for a society more equal and just than what the neoliberal development model is destined to deliver. 
 
The workers’ demands are modest: salaries in line with the firm’s profits, job security, pensions and healthcare, an end to the discrimination between permanent and contract employees and the right to collective bargaining. These demands are radical too, for they seem impossible to obtain under the present dispensation. The heavy-handed suppression of the struggle for these demands is equally demonstrative of their radical nature as of the complicity of the structures of politics, law and governance with corporate capital. These strikes fracture the seamless, all-encompassing power of the development discourse and ask vital questions of those enamoured by it. 
 
Workers’ Unionise
 
Munjal Kiriu, a producer of automobile parts at the Industrial Model Town (IMT) in Manesar, has been the site of a workers’ movement since 2012. The agitation began for better wages.  Permanent workers earned Rs 8,000 per month while contract workers Rs 6,000, excluding the deductions for food and tea and transport to and from the factory. After paying between Rs 1,500 and 3,000 for rent and food, workers were left with little over subsistence wages. This was also a time when production was increased without new workers being hired, increasing the pressure on the employees. 
 
Most of the workers in the region are recent migrants from agriculture. This is due to a combination of lack of jobs in villages and the promise of a better quality of life in the city. The promise of a better life is exemplified by such advertisements on walls: the Himalaya Mediplus Company promises Rs 10,500 to 15,000 in addition to remuneration for overtime work, free food and accommodation for “men…illiterate to BA”. Compared with the 2014 average monthly income in agricultural households of Rs 6,426, calculated by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) (Rukmini S 2014), such factory wages, though low in real terms, are a marked improvement. 
 
For the workers at Munjal Kiriu, as the squeeze became unbearable and the promises of a better life distant and uncertain, the political space for collective bargaining appeared conspicuous by its absence. Shortly after the workers applied for registration of a union, the company fired five of the seven permanent employees who had signed the registration papers. Despite this, both permanent and contract workers persisted and the Munjal Kiriu Employees’ Union was registered on 12 June 2013. The union submitted a 41-point demand notice, which included higher salaries, permanent appointment of contract workers and social security for all, effectively equalising the salary and other benefits of all workers; ordinary demands given the extraordinary circumstances of work. Autofit at Dharuhera in Haryana and Daikin Air-conditioning India at Neemrana in Rajasthan mirror the working conditions at Munjal Kiriu and have witnessed similar contemporaneous workers’ movements.
 
The workers at Munjal Kiriu remain standing throughout a shift lasting for eight hours with a 30-minute lunch break and a 10-minute tea break. The canteen is too far for the workers of the machine shop section to travel, stand in queue and have lunch within the stipulated time. Overtime work is often extracted illegally at the single rate instead of twice the normal rate of wages as prescribed by law. The high temperatures at the foundry plant render the work unsafe. Yet worn out safety shoes are often not replaced for months and workers are compelled to pay for their repair. The peril is greater for contract workers, who in addition to the sufferings listed, which they share with the permanent workers, are denied social security, leave sans the risk of losing their jobs, the legally mandated double payment for overtime work and most importantly, a political voice sans the certainty of dismissal. 
 
The Struggles Go On
 
Successful unionisation in the region is almost invariably followed by heightened oppression from a threatened management. The objective: restoration of the balance of power in the management’s favour. In Munjal Kiriu, following negotiations with the union, the salary of both permanent and contract workers was increased by a meagre Rs 1,000 to be doled out over four years – a miniscule part of the 41-point demand – while the retrenchment of workers continued. Tensions rose, and the permanent and contract workers together resorted to a 12-hour wildcat strike in October 2013. The factory occupation ended two months later, when the police forced the workers out. Sitting outside in the winter chill, they braved an armed attack by bouncers on the night of 12 January 2014. Hundreds of demonstrating workers arrived from across the industrial belt to compel an arrogant and apathetic police to accept a First Investigation Report (FIR).  
 
On 16 January 2014, the Munjal Kiriu management accepted a settlement with the union through the mediation of the deputy labour commissioner (DLC). It agreed to revoke the suspension of all workers and dubiously promised that none would be “dismissed” from their job. Within a few months, seven leaders of the union including the president and the general secretary were “discharged”—a clever play of words to adhere to the promise made earlier. Nearly all permanent and contract workers, 250 and 300 respectively, struck work and occupied the factory before being evicted by the police as usual. 
 
This time the management, in collusion with the labour welfare department, extended the process of negotiation and settlement for as long as possible in order to exhaust the financial and emotional resources of the workers. By December 2014, the factory was run by nearly 500 freshly recruited contract workers and less than 40 permanent workers. In general, the support of contract workers for the strike had dwindled by then, and the striking permanent workers now await a legal resolution of their complaints. 
 
In Daikin, 42 workers were terminated the very day the Daikin Air-conditioning Kaamgaar Union was registered (31 July 2013). The union demanded a 75% salary hike, dearness allowance, residential allowances, medical facilities, conveyance facilities and better canteen facilities for all workers. In addition, like the protesting workers at ASTI Electronics, the Daikin union boldly asked for the abolition of the contract system. Their demands remain unanswered. 
 
The fight put up by the dismissed workers at ASTI stands out for its continuation over three months despite the indifference of permanent workers.  As many as 250 female workers have participated in the strike notwithstanding family opposition. While the police and the labour welfare department often collude with the factory management, the so-called left-wing central trade-unions – the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) [affiliated to the Communist Party of India (CPI)], Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) [affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM)] and the socialist Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) – complement them by indifference bordering on sabotage. The striking workers at ASTI, for instance, have got no assistance from HMS, despite the union being affiliated to them. The local HMS leader came to the dharna site almost a month after it had started, following a telephonic threat issued by Pushpa: “We will all commit suicide here, and put your name on the note, as the person answerable for our deaths” (Anshita & Arya 2014). The struggles are sustained by new solidarities in the form of unity between all categories of workers, extension of support between geographically proximate factories and repeated factory occupations. Workers have fought on knowing fully well that any gallant display of radicalism would taint their careers and harm their chances of future employment in the region. 
 
Notwithstanding the eventual waning in the short run, the prolonged fight in the face of brutal repression and sly counter tactics are producing new possibilities of radical politics. These recede temporarily in the absence of wider alliances. Nevertheless, the strikes unmistakably expose the political economy of development and call for rethinking of the same. 
 
Towards Absent Futures?
 
Development today masquerades as “Make in India” and politics, law, governance and the media follow its logic. They work to ensure maximum labour market flexibility, that is to silence workers’ voices and render their social presence invisible. Unsurprisingly, the workers’ marginalities are multiple and interconnected. Most of them cannot vote in local elections, as they are first generation migrant workers from different states in the country. Social and cultural alienation from their surroundings further weakens their political agency. On top of that, the lack of stable unions further prevents them from asserting a voice proportionate to their numerical strength and qualitative significance in the economy. 
 
Workers’ concerns featured in the recent Haryana Legislative Assembly elections in the form of an independent candidate, Suresh Gaur, who contested from Gurgaon and won an insignificant 770 (0.41%) votes. Of AITUC lineage, he has had negligible presence in the recent struggles in the region.  Nevertheless, he voiced some important concerns, for instance, the marginalisation of workers in discourses of urban planning and governance, pathetic housing, inadequate supply of water and electricity in their colonies and widespread bribery and corruption in the provision of these services. Indeed, by virtue of their low purchasing power, the workers are marginal consumers and therefore denied transparent and accountable governance. 
 
Taking recourse to the law often costs the workers dearly. The length and cost of the legal process are particularly severe in the case of striking workers. In addition, the financial and political might of business houses drastically reduces the chances of a favourable outcome for the workers, effectively excluding them from courts of law. In May 2013, the Haryana and Punjab High Court refused to grant bail to the 147 imprisoned workers of the Maruti Suzuki plant, since “foreign investors are likely not to invest money in India out of fear of labour unrest” (Dixit 2014). All the arrested workers had been accused of murder after an incident of violence at Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant on 18 July 2012 that left a human resource manager dead. They have been assumed to be guilty, while the illegalities committed by employers are routinely overlooked. 
 
The recent changes in labour laws appear set to legalise some of such practices, taking the workers further away from the domain of law. The amendment to the Apprentices Act, 1961, for instance, allows employers to start training in a new trade without waiting for a government notification. It is feared that the provision will be used to maintain workers as trainees for long periods, so that they can be paid less than the minimum wages – a practice that is already rampant. 
 
The emphasis on “Make in India” at the policy level is the result of a deeper conceptual and ideological crisis. This would benefit the minority – the burgeoning urban middle class and the rural and semi-urban rich. A macroeconomic logic in which market determines life and not the other way round, has sidelined questions of political and economic democracy. Its success lies in getting its critics from the right to left of the political spectrum to speak its language. Does Raghuram Rajan’s hesitant plea for “Make for India”, with a focus on the domestic market, leaves room to ask which India things should be made for or what needs to be made? In the face of such an overpowering economic “rationality”, the voices of the struggling workers make little sense. They appear to demand an impossible future.  
 
References 
 
Anshita and Arya (2014): “Days and Nights in Manesar – Reflecting on the ASTI Workers’ Struggle”, Kafila, 3 December, http://kafila.org/2014/12/03/days-and-nights-in-manesar-reflecting-on-th..., accessed on 11 February 2015.
 
Dixit, Neha (2014): “A visit to Bhondsi jail, where 147 Maruti workers are in jail without conviction for two years”, Scroll.in, 24 July, http://scroll.in/article/671524/A-visit-to-Bhondsi-jail,-where-147-Marut..., accessed on 11 February 2015.
 
S, Rukmini (2014): “Does it pay to be a Farmer in India?”, Hindu, 22 December, http://www.thehindu.com/data/does-it-pay-to-be-a-farmer-in-india/article..., accessed on 11 February 2015.
 
Workers’ Solidarity Centre (2013): “Report on Workers’ Strikes at Munjal Kiriu, Autofit factories in Gurgaon-Manesar”, Sanhati, 27 December, http://sanhati.com/articles/8781/, accessed on 11 February 2015.
 
Workers’ Solidarity Centre (2013): “Stand in solidarity with the workers who are on strike for 41 days at the Daikin plant in Neemrana”, Sanhati, 3 December, http://sanhati.com/excerpted/8659/, accessed on 11 February 2015.
 
Yadav, Anumeha (2014): “Contract Workers Refuse to Take Pink Slip and Move Away”, Hindu, 5 December, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/contract-workers-refuse-to-pick-th..., accessed on 11 February 2015.
 

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