Resistance Against Neo-liberalism and the Waves of Strike at Manesar

The nature of industrial disputes and workers struggles has seen mammoth changes during the last decade. There have been considerable mutations in the patterns and frequency of resistance in the past years and its role and prominence in the political affairs of the country also became more vital. At the initial period of post-liberalisation the involvement of workers in union activities, in industries invigorated with the neo-liberal reforms were staidly burgeoning and the place of such movements were more in the periphery of general workers struggle in the country. But the second decade of the 21st century witnessed more militant, organised struggle from these workers for their basic workers’ rights. And such swift in the workers struggle in these industries brought them at the centre of debates and movements in the country. The workers struggles and the responses of the state and management towards these struggles provide deep insights regarding the basic character of these industries and the educing socio-political situation in which the industrial working class of post-reform India resides. The workers’ strikes at Manesar is one among many industrial struggles in contemporary India and incidents at Manesar can be seen as epitome.

Automobile manufacturing sector giant Maruti Suzuki has experienced severe industrial conflict at its Manesar and Gurgaon plants in Haryana. Mainstream media showed special interest in portraying the ‘criminalisation’ of Indian industrial working class by imposing the complete responsibility of the unrest and chaos on workers. Maruti Suzuki’s Managing Director and CEO Shinzo Nakanishi has said that the violence in the Maruti Suzuki plant put a ‘bad dot’ in the history of the company. After extreme violence and a lockout that lasted for 33 days, the company started the regularization process of permanent workers and fresh recruitments to regain the lost production and profit. The management appointed a combat trainer to teach ‘self defence' techniques to the managers, supposedly to make them feel safe. In order to provide ‘spiritual help’ to the shocked managers, the company also arranged healing sessions at Brahmakumari’s Om shanti Retreat Centre.

Historic Context

The violence that brought Manesar and Gurgaon plants to the brick of turmoil is not a sudden or unexpected one. The incidents in this major industrial hub, neighbouring the national capital occurred in a particular historic context, where the very basis of the labour and the organised working class movements of the country was undergoing tremendous changes. The powerful labour laws of the country, progressively refined several times in favour of the working class through their long struggles, began to lose its prominence when the Indian government initiated globalisation policies in the 1990’s. Experiences of more than two decades make it clear that, the physical and economic exploitation of the workers had intensified and the industrial conflict at Manesar is a clear message of workers’ discontent.

Maruti Suzuki, the pioneer of auto mobile revolution in India, was generally regarded as a company with highly satisfied workers right from its beginning in 1980’s. Maruti’s prominent role in Indian automobile industry also provided a comparatively better working and living conditions for its workers. Even though this India – Japan cooperative venture witnessed serious tool down strikes in 1988 and 2000, it maintained a comparatively clean history of worker– management relations to some extent. During this period there were serious attempts from the Government of India to sell off its capital share in the Maruti-Suzuki and let the private monopoly capital to control it.

Government policies allowed Suzuki Motor Corporation to increase its stake in the company from 26% to 40 % in 1987 and to 50% in 1992. This change in the nature of ownership of the capital allowed the Suzuki Motor Corporation to control the management and policies of the company.

Maruti-Suzuki was as a Joint venture of Government of India and Suzuki Motor Corporation on a capital share ratio of 74% and 26% respectively. Government policies allowed Suzuki Motor Corporation to increase its stake in the company from 26% to 40 % in 1987 and to 50% in 1992. This change in the nature of ownership of the capital allowed the Suzuki Motor Corporation to control the management and policies of the company. Even though the Left backed United Front Government redeemed the control over the company for a short period of 1997-98, the successive governments further privatised the company and in 2002 the company was sold off completely to multi-national investors1. The change in the nature of capital investment soon reflected in the policies of the companies towards workers and work and that has led to the present situation in the Manesar plant today.

Major strike moments in Maruti plants

It is the nature of neoliberal economies that, there will be minimal government and trade union interventions along with flexible labour markets. In India, neoliberal policies attacked domestic labour standards and strength of labour organisations in a considerable way. Maruti Suzuki under its Japanese work culture began to eliminate worker’s rights with the backup of these policies and the result was the eruption of severe workers unrest. Discontent intensified among the workers in 2000 when the company management at its Gurgaon plant issued a Good conduct certificate to enter the factory. It was a reaction to workers strike to meet demands like regularisation of contract workers, pension package implementations etc: Towards the end of 2001, majority union opposed company’s move to implement voluntary retirement scheme. Management derecognised the union and illegally retrenched the union leaders. The intentionally imposed voluntary retirement scheme drastically reduced the number of permanent workers and those who refused to take it, got unmanageable work load.

The Haryana labour department rejected the workers application to form a trade union called Maruti Suzuki Employees Union (MSEU), a blatant violation of the Trade Union Act of 1926 which allows workers right to form a union with the minimum number of seven - the basic democratic right of the workers, which had been achieved after relentless struggles.

The recent major strike at the Manesar plant is of course a continuation of these dissatisfactions. It peaked when the Haryana labour department rejected the workers application to form a trade union called Maruti Suzuki Employees Union (MSEU) citing technical reasons.2 Most of the workers had been compelled to take membership of the company’s puppet union when they joined. In this context, the Labour department raised the issue of dual membership. Another argument was that the workers signature does not match with those in company’s register. The rejection was on the basis of these petty issues and these objections are against the Trade Union Act of 1926 which allows workers right to form a union with the minimum number of seven. Thus, the decision of the Haryana state government, the labour department of Haryana and the management of the company was a blatant negation of the basic democratic right of the workers, which had been achieved after relentless struggles. Protest of 8000 workers includes both permanent and casual for respectable and precarious employment showed the powerful solidarity of the workers.

The tool down strike of the workers restarted more vibrantly and was declared as illegal by the government in the initial stage itself. Haryana government also issued a prohibitory order to ban the strike and company officials’ strengthened activities for the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU), a puppet co-opted union in the hands of the management. The company asked the workers to sign a ‘good conduct bond’ (GCB) which made a worker is liable to be punished as per provisions of the certified standing orders.3 GCB has been incorporated in the ‘Standing Orders’ of the company and has been accredited by the Haryana Labour Department before implementation. In the GCB, 103 actions such as singing, gossiping with other worker, lack of good appearance, spending more time in toilet etc: - were defined as misconduct and its violation may lead to fine, suspension without wage or dismissal. In this context the General Secretary of MSEU in an appeal stated:

“our struggle is not a struggle for a mere wage-hike of any one section of workers, but is a struggle for our dignity and right to organise. We struggle more importantly for the contract workers among us, whose insecurity and precarious condition of existence is a burning issue before the entire labouring people of the country today, which puts the very framing of the available labour laws into question”.

The strikes resulted in a huge decline in company’s production and that led to the shrinking of market share and volume of profit of Maruti. The difficult situation led the company to call for a negotiation. As a result of that, production restarted on 24th October. But the right-wing neo-liberal media portrayed it as if, those who were in the forefront of the movement received huge amount of money from the management and betrayed the struggle. This development at the movement level further led to the formation of a powerful union called Maruti Suzuki Workers Union (MSWU) and its activities resulted in a wage hike and removal of the signing of ‘good conduct bond’. The company put forward many conditions and recognised the Maruti Suzuki Workers' Union without outside political affiliation of the union. The dramatic incidents occurred at a time when the MSWU was making peaceful negotiation with the management for the total restructuring of the work atmosphere.

Events on 18th July 2012

The bitter relationship between the corporate management and workers took a violent turn on 18th July 2012 and reached an extreme when a senior manager was burnt alive inside the company. Hundreds of workers including the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union’s president Ram Meher and general secretary Sarabjit Singh were arrested without any sufficient proof and their homes and colonies were attacked by the police in the name of enquiry. 4

The incident5 begins when an abusive and casteist remark against a Dalit worker by a supervisor led to a dispute. The company without any enquiry suspended the worker (the complainer) on that day itself instead of initiating action against the supervisor. Hundreds of outsiders in workers uniform attacked the workers with weapons and a massive fire occurred in the company. This led to the death of Human Recourses Manager Awanish Kumar Dev and Manesar plant went for a lockout on that day. It is difficult to believe that, the workers are solely responsible for the chaos, as they were leading a very peaceful struggle throughout the movement. Rajendra Pathak, the lawyer of Honda and Maruti workers, argued that the police and company management were randomly victimising innocent workers. In order to ensure the security the Haryana state government stationed rapid action force of 500 police and hundreds of hired security guards in the Manesar industrial area. Maruti Suzuki India’s managing director termed it as barbaric, unprovoked violence and threatened that the company would de-recognise Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union.

Shrinking Labour Rights and inhumane treatment of workers

Worker unrest erupted at Maruti is an instance of the worsened industrial relations in the Indian manufacturing sector. The inhuman and pathetic working conditions, lack of proper collective bargaining and minimum wages created a kind of uneasiness among both the permanent and contract the workers in the plant. More than 65% of the people at Manesar are non-permanent labourers, working without any job or social securities. There is a drastic difference between the average monthly incomes of both categories. A permanent worker is gets rupees 17000- 21000 per month but paradoxically contract workers get only 7000 for the same work.

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Besides the open violations of Labour laws, the work conditions created by the management in the workplace are quite inhuman. Workers at the plant get two leisure times of 7.2 minutes each per day, which is not even sufficient to go to the canteen and toilet, half kilometres away from the workplace. They get only 9 leaves per year and the management can deduct Rs 1500 for extra leave and half day salary for even one minute late coming. Image Credit: Kheel Center, Cornell University

The Maruti Suzuki management openly negated the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, and Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Central Rules, 1971, which does not allow contract labour where work is perennial and happens on a day to day basis. Above all these open violations of Labour laws, the work conditions created by the management in the workplace are quite inhuman. Workers at the plant get two leisure times of 7.2 minutes each per day, which is not even sufficient to go to the canteen and toilet, half kilometres away from the workplace. They get only 9 leaves per year and the management can deduct Rs 1500 for extra leave and half day salary for even one minute late coming. Even during the negotiation, workers began to recognise suspicious demands of the management with pressure. Workers are still skeptical that the company may use the October 2011 settlement agreement against them to prevent union activities. In order to form union and represent themselves, the workers had to accept many preconditions from the management. The agitation intensified in such a context, where management continued to treat workers as a mere element in the production process in the race of corporate profit accumulation.

PUDR, in a press statement accused that the company- police unholy nexus is continuing the humiliating and brutal torture of the trade union activists and other workers in the custody6. Gurgaon Criminal investigation Agency’s third degree torture methods and biased investigation is leading the case into a wrong side. Maruti management’s attempt to militarise the work place to maintain workers discipline by intimidating them is intolerable in a country with powerful labour laws.

Maruti, not an isolated case

Maruti is not a single incident of this kind. A series of such agitations happened in different companies at different parts of the country like Hyderabad and Chennai and companies like Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India in 2005 for the right to form unions, Sunbeam Auto in 2009 for the recognition of a new union, Rico Automotive Industries in 2009 for wage increase and a series of other companies like Volvo, Toyota- Kirloskar and MRF to protect the hard won rights of the labourers. These incidents should be read along with the statement of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about Indian industrial relations. He said: ‘the government is committed to ensure good industry- labour relations striking a balance between the needs of a growing economy and the interest of the workers”.7 But the central government as well as most of the state governments failed to prove their efficiency in protecting the basic democratic rights of the workers. At the same time they are showing much interest in preparing more and more independent zones without trade unions and taxes in favour of corporate demands.

Different kinds of workers movement at many parts of the country is on upward spiral and those who still dream of a neo-liberal spring should definitely listen to what organised workers are saying at Manesar or face the workers when they uprise.

Insecurities spread over India are the clear reflections of financial jeopardy of the neoliberal policies and the resistant movement made them realise the fact that freedom and leisure is a universal human right. In this scenario, as the direct victims of neoliberal policies, the workers attained a sense that, only a well organised collective movement can make a progressive change in the society. The strike at Manaser has sent a strong message across the board that, workers will not sit idle when the neo-liberal onslaught unleashes on them. Violent turns of the workers movement had been witnessed many times in the past across the globe and in some occasions it had [violently] overthrown those who leashed terror on them. Different kinds of workers movement at many parts of the country is on upward spiral and those who still dream of a neo-liberal spring should definitely listen to what organised workers are saying at Manesar or face the workers when they uprise.

  • 1. Maruti formally handed over to Suzuki http://www.tribuneindia.com/2002/20020531/biz.htm#1
  • 2. Clouds yet to clear over new union at Maruti http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/companies/article2615401.ece
  • 3. Maruti defends stand on Good Conduct Bond http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/companies/article2678145.ece
  • 4. 99 Maruti workers held for murder, rioting http://www.thehindu.com/news/states/other-states/99-maruti-workers-held-for-murder-rioting/article3656667.ece
  • 5. http://kafila.org/2012/07/19/maruti-suzuki-manesar-workers-casteist-attack-and-repression/ ; http://profit.ndtv.com/news/corporates/article-press-statement-from-maruti-suzuki-workers-union-308080
  • 6. Arbitrary arrests and third degree torture of Maruti workers in the name of investigation in to alleged murder of its HR Manager http://www.pudr.org/content/arbitrary-arrests-and-third-degree-torture-maruti-workers-name-investigation-alleged-murder-
  • 7. Plan to introduce labour reforms with consensus: Manmohan http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/plan-to-introduce-labour-reforms-with-consensus-manmohan/article2535326.ece