Labour Day Special : The labour has been pushed to the margins after liberalisation. This crisis should be an opportunity for trade unions to revive themselves
Jasleen Kaur | May 2, 2015 | New Delhi
Twenty-three-year old Amit Sundriyal had been running for almost an hour when he heard the police siren. He ducked behind a shack, while turning sharply into a bylane in the opposite direction from the sound. He looked cautiously over his shoulders and increased pace. He did not know where he was headed, he knew only that he was to go as far away from the Maruti Suzuki India Limited car plant in Manesar. There were 10 others with him. They did not know either where to go. Their shopfloor uniforms made them conspicuous. The uniforms were their main cause of worry too. Police, they had been told, was rounding up anyone found wearing it.
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Three hours after they ran out of the plant, they hailed an autorickshaw on the highway. Sundriyal doesn’t remember where they boarded the autorickshaw, or how long it had been running, for it seemed an eternity. But it mustn’t have gone more than a few kilometres as it was stopped at Hayatpur, a village in Gurgaon mandal. Three PCR vans had screeched to a stop besides the auto.
“The policemen had lathis in their hands. We did not even get a chance to tell them that we were innocent. They just asked us our department and arrested us,” he says.
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Now 25, Sundriyal is among the 79 former workers of Maruti Suzuki India Limited who were released on bail on March 20. While four others were released earlier, 65 are still lodged in the Bhondsi jail.
The 148 workers were jailed after the workers’ attempts to form a trade union and the management’s efforts to thwart their plans took a violent turn on July 18, 2012.
The violence left human resource department head Ashwin Kumar Dev dead and many others injured. Yet others – all workers – were arrested on charges of murder, attempt to murder and criminal conspiracy. Sundriyal and others have been released on a surety of '25,000.
After completing a vocational training course from the Industrial Training Institute (ITI), Pusa, in Delhi, Sundriyal got his first job at Maruti’s Gurgaon plant in September 2008. After working for a year at '4,200 a month as an apprentice, he was promoted to a daily wager with a salary of '6,500 per month. In March 2011, he was shifted to the Manesar plant and was put on training. By this time his salary rose to '7,200 a month. While he could avail Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) services, he was still not eligible to join the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) scheme.
Is there no one to stand up for the working class?
Sundriyal recalls the day of the incident. “I was in the morning shift, which got over by 3 pm. But that day I had stayed back to talk to my shift in-charge regarding the diploma course in mechanical engineering being supported by the company. If we were to enrol in the course, we had to sign a three-year bond to continue with Maruti. Additionally, we had to declare that we will not join the workers’ union.”
Having made up his mind about joining the course, Sundriyal prepared to leave when a colleague told him about the trouble. An employee, from another department, had been suspended, following which there had been trouble at the plant.
“When we were about to leave, one of my friends told me that there is some problem and we should leave the plant as soon as possible. At the exit gate, we saw many unknown faces. They did not let us punch our identity cards before the exit.”
While he was still inside the premises he heard people shouting “fire”. Sundriyal, who worked in the vehicle inspection section, says his work place was far from the HR department where the incident had taken place.
Soon after, he, along with his friends and other workers, ran outside. “When we came out, a fellow worker called up to tell us that the police was arresting men in the Maruti uniform. There was no way we could escape.” Sundriyal says most of the workers were locals and they knew places to hide. But he, and the 10 others, ran for their lives.
A day later, on July 19, 2012, a magistrate and a doctor visited the jail to verify the workers, as their numbers made it difficult for them to be produced in court. “I had never seen a police station and I was behind bars for not doing anything. For more than two months I was in depression,” says Sundriyal.
He says the problem was on both sides (workers and the management), but in the end might is right.
His father Lalit Prasad, who is working as an accountant in the ministry of finance, talks little of the tough times the family went through. “We knocked on every door and held several public protests, but no one heard us. We suffered a lot,” he says.
While 148 workers were arrested and jailed, the rest – all – were sacked. Soon after the incident, services of over 2,300 workers, including 546 permanent workers, were terminated by the company without any notice. Those who were not arrested, faced social harassment, says Satish Kumar, 27, a permanent employee. “People called us goons and said we had burned the manager. We have struggled a lot to put across our points.” He says the workers’ association demanded a judicial enquiry, but no action was taken.
Kumar, who worked at Maruti for six years, says the management-worker tussle started with the workers’ efforts to establish the union and get it registered. The company was earning huge profits, but the gross salary of workers had been reduced after 2000 and there were other problems for workers, he says.
“At the Manesar plant, latest technology was used and a car was made in just 44 seconds. It [the working conditions] was so difficult that a worker could not even leave the workstation to have water,” says Satish. He says the situation further deteriorated after contractual workers entered production in 2010. “The company had increased the production and they needed manpower for the same. Regular workers would have cost more, so they appointed contractual workers.
While regular workers were getting around '15,000 after three years of work, a contractual worker was paid '6,000 for the same work,” he says.
It was the first time when regular workers raised their voices for contractual workers as well. The company, meanwhile, kept pressuring workers to not form a union.
In June 2011, the Manesar workers tried to register their union in Chandigarh and they faced harassment. He says at the Gurgaon plant, the union was completely under the control of the management and thus it was not raising the issues of workers. “By this time, we had a good majority. Soon after the registration was filed for, the company issued termination letters to all the union leaders.”
Workers had already been frustrated with the working environment, he adds. In the same month, the plant faced its first strike which continued for 13 days. The workers sought reinstatement of their union leaders. The strike was then called off and around a month later, the company got the registration of the union cancelled midway.
The union again applied for the registration and it resulted in a lockout at the plant for over a month. Workers from the Gurgaon plant were called in to handle production work. This was followed by two more strikes at the plant.
Finally, in February 2012, the union was registered and March 1 was celebrated as its foundation day. The union formed a charter of demands and handed it to the management, which included demands like confirmation of contractual workers and medical facility for them. But the management refused to agree to these demands.
On July 18, a supervisor allegedly slapped a worker, which became the immediate trigger for violence.
“Even those who were on leave that day or were hospitalised were arrested. Those who were not even part of the union faced the consequences. There was no judicial enquiry and workers were just not heard,” says Rajpal Gaur, 27. Gaur and Kumar, who lost their permanent jobs, have failed to find another one, because of their association with the infamous Maruti incident. Along with seven others, they continue their fight against Maruti.
The men, mostly between 21 and 28 years of age, are facing charges under as many as 18 sections of the Indian Penal Code, including murder, attempt to murder, rioting and criminal conspiracy.
Trade unions and their decline
The rioting at Maruti led to one of the worst industrial unrests in the recent years. This incident sent a strong message among million of workers and their unions to desist from any trade union activity. The workers’ fight to form a trade union would result in such a big incident was unimaginable till a few decades ago.
In 2005, Honda Motorcycle & Scooters India (HMSI) witnessed similar unrest which left lasting images of police ruthlessly lathicharging workers. The Maruti incident too echoed at the Honda plant in Manesar, in September 2012.
There was a time when unions had a significant role in the determination of wages and working conditions of the workforce. The changing nature of economy and introduction of technology has affected the state of unionisation in the country.
While the trade unions were very powerful in the first four decades after independence, they have seen considerable decline in their powers over the years. Today, they are close to being completely wiped out.
The demand for market and employment flexibility increased post-liberalisation. And it saw a huge shift in job opportunities from the formal to informal sector, says Baij Nath Rai, president of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS).
He says while recent clashes between workers and management at Maruti and Honda had been highly publicised there were many others which have gone unreported. “It has become difficult for workers to even get their unions registered. They are asked to pay heavy bribes for the same.”
Rai says after economic reforms, the basic rules of employment, which are job, wages and social security, have been compromised. Now, people are ready to work at really low wages because if they do not, someone else will.
“Every industry, and the product manufactured by it, has a life. Over the years, products and the technology used became outdated. Workers were left with no jobs. The new industries that were set up used latest technology and it required less number of people to work. With less opportunity of work, workers were left with no choice but to get work on any condition, even if it meant working on contract with low wages and no social security at all. It was any day better than remaining jobless,” adds Rai.
Arjun Dev Nagpal, secretary at Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), concurs. Liberalisation and globalisation changed the scenario of workers in the country and changes in government policies in the early 1990s helped the informal sector grow significantly, he says. This led to an increase in the number of contractual labourers and the decline in the strength of trade unions representing the organised sector, he adds.
“What happened in the case of Maruti and Honda was unimaginable. In Honda, if there are 1,100 permanent employees, there are 6,000 workers on contract. There are two sets of wages within an organisation for the same kind of work. The management suppresses the contractual labour. Whatever settlement of wages is done is for permanent employees. Even if permanent workers go on strike, it does not affect the production. And thus the bargaining power of a union is reduced.” He says less availability of jobs has also contributed to the situation.
Rai blames trade unions equally for their downfall over the years.
“Earlier, the government worked for workers and trade unions, and employers were scared of them. But over the years, we saw some trade union leaders misusing their powers. This brought employers and the government on one platform, leaving workers alone.”
He says ideological differences [read political affiliations] between trade unions resulted in multiplicity and their decline over the years. “It [the situation] could have been improved. Instead, the trade unions lost their power as a whole. We forgot that trade unions have played a constructive role as well.”
Reforms at a snail’s pace
India’s labour laws have always been at loggerheads with industrial development and the ease of doing business. Over the past year, the government has been attempted to reconcile this by amending various laws including the Apprentices Act, 1961. It is trying to simplify the complex inspection regime with the help of technology.
In the name of reforms, the government is misusing labour laws, says DL Sachdeva, national secretary of the CPI-backed All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). The government, in the name of bringing employment flexibility, is encouraging a hire-and-fire policy, he adds.
“The NDA government, while giving so much concession to corporate houses, is decreasing the allocation meant for schemes like MGNREGA for construction workers,” he says.
Sachdeva adds, “Trade unions have realised the attack – first by Manmohan Singh-led UPA and now by the NDA government – on workers through various economic policies. All the 11 central trade unions have joined hands to fight this together and strengthen ourselves. We have held demonstrations in 2014. And we are holding a convention on May 26 to decide further course of action.”
Nagpal says reforms must be linked to worker benefits, while simultaneously ensuring ease of doing business. He adds the labour reforms being brought by the government are actually anti-worker. He says the reforms introduced in states like Rajasthan encourages a hire-and-fire policy and this will further reduce the bargaining power of the trade union. “The government should build consensus before bringing such reforms. Otherwise, the rights of workers will end completely.”
Rai says this is the reason that various trade unions have joined hands and are now working to revive their power. He adds that the labour law must be rationalised and minimum wages ought to be revised annually. “Various trade unions have submitted a charter of demands to the central government demanding minimum wages of '15,000, registration of union within 45 days and social security,” he adds.
Meanwhile, the challenges ahead...
The biggest challenge, which the former workers of Maruti are facing, is finding a new source of livelihood. “I had no option but to move on. I couldn’t sit with what happened with me,” says Sundriyal.
He says he was aware that it would be difficult for him to lead a normal life and find a job after this phase and that is why he decided to utilise it constructively.
“The neighbours taunted my parents. I was accused of murdering someone,” he adds. Nevertheless, he utilised his time in jail by enrolling for a course in Japanese as well as for his diploma in mechanical engineering.
He will complete his studies in July and will then look for a job. “It would not be easy, I know. But it would have been more difficult had I not used these two years constructively,” says Sundriyal, with a smile.
(The article appears in the May 1-15, 2015, issue)
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