Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar Factory Violence – A Reality Check

maruti_suzuki_manesar_factory_violence
Charred Maruti Suzuki's Manesar factory's office

The much talked Maruti’s Manesar factory violence of July 2012, that left a senior HR executive dead and nearly 100 other officials injured, culminated with the conviction of 31 workers and acquittal of 117 of their colleagues by the Gurgaon Sessions court on 10 March 2017. Among the 31 convicted workers, 13 were sentenced to life imprisonment, 4 were given 5 years imprisonment and the remaining 14 were let off with what they had already served.

With the trial coming to an end after nearly 5 years, this is perhaps the most perfect time to do a reality check on one of the most unprecedented event of post-independent India, when the working class took law and order in their own hand and find out whether it was worker’s struggle or vandalism.

Prelude

The events of 18 July 2012, in the Manesar plant of Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) in which Awanish Kumar Dev, general manager (human resources) of Maruti Suzuki, was burned to death, and 100 others, including two Japanese officials, were injured, 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.

There is a history and a context to this violence, but to understand this you need to have that courage to call-a-spade-a-spade. You need to take into account that when a company’s profits go up by 2,200% over nine years (MSIL’s from 2001-02 to 2010-11), when the company’s CEO’s pay goes up by 419% over four years (MSIL CEO’s from 2007-08 to 2010-11), when the company get a 400% increase in productivity with just a 65% increase in your workforce (from 1992-2000), when company’s workers’ real wages increases by just 5.5% when the consumer price index rose by 50% (2007-11) (figures as reported by the researchers Prasenjit Bose and Sourindra Ghosh in The Hindu), when a worker can lose nearly half his salary for taking a couple of days leave in a month – there is hardly any doubt that workers at Manesar’s MSIL unit has been forced to thrive under extreme exploitation.

Back Story

The workers’ agitation in Maruti Suzuki Manesar plant is not a new phenomenon at all. In June 2011, the workers of the Manesar plant went on a strike. The workers had been demanding an independent union in place of the ineffective ‘company union’ – the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU). The management responded high-handedly by dismissing 11 workers. After a 13 day non-violent strike, settlement was reached and the dismissed workers were reinstated. However, all the workers suffered wage cuts for participating in the strike, with regular workers’ wages cut for 26 days (i.e. double the number of days they were on strike).

On end-August 2011, the workers of MSIL started an agitation against dismissal and suspension of more than 60 of their fellow workers and management’s insistence on signing a ‘good conduct bond’ by the workers. The management was adamant on workers’ signing the ‘bond’, without which no worker will be allowed to work. The management tried to in-still discipline into their workforce by introducing a ‘good conduct bond’, which, among many things, listed such acts like: (i) lack of proper personal appearance, sanitation and cleanliness including proper grooming, (ii) Conduct in private life prejudicial to the reputation of the company, (iii) Habitual neglect of cleanliness as “major misconducts”, liable for major disciplinary actions like dismissal without notice, suspension without wages for 15 days etc. The workers protested against imposition of such ‘discipline’.

The agitation went on for 33 long days; and without any single incident of violence. The one-month long agitation ended on 1st October, 2011 and both the parties came to a “settlement”. The management had their say on the ‘good conduct bond’ – every worker would sign it. Only 18 trainees who were suspended were taken back by the management; 44 suspended regular employees remained under suspension. The discontent among the workers were reaching a brink.

From 7th October, the workers of the Manesar plant went on to strike, again. They alleged that contract workers and trainees were refused work when they reported for duty after the end of one-month agitation, which was a clear violation of the spirit of the agreement reached between the two parties after the end of strike on 1st October. They also demanded the reinstatement of 44 regular employees still under suspension. First the management responded in a strong-arm manner with more sacking and suspension of workers. But after a 14 day stand-off, the strike ended with the agreement that 64 permanent workers will be taken back while 30 more will still remain under suspension; 1200 contract workers and trainees will be allowed to resume their work; promises were made to set up a grievance redressal committee and a labour welfare committee. However, the issue of an independent union still remained unresolved.

In the same month, after a lot of struggle, workers succeeded in registering the Maruti Suzuki Employees’ Union (MSEU). But the management reportedly got rid of the troublesome leadership of this union by offering them a VRS-type settlement.

The workers then formed a new union, the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union (MSWU) with a new set of committee members. The registration of this new union was being delayed beyond the target timeframe of end-January. After the company forwarded the application and its report to the state labour department of Haryana in end-January, it was this time, the labour department now delayed the process. It is only in March, 2012, that the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union (MSWU) got registered with the labour department.

The immediate task that was in front of the newly formed MSWU was wage negotiations, transportation facilities, slowing down of the robotic pace of work and regularisation of leave benefits. Between 2007-2011, wages have increased by 5.5% whereas consumer price index has gone up by over 5o%. Adding to the woos of the workers, salary of all the three types of employee (contract, trainee and permanent) at MSIL Manesar unit has a component called ‘production incentive’. This variable component depends on (a) production, dependent upon sales of the company, and (b) number of holidays taken by a worker. On an average, if a worker takes 3-4 holidays in a month, his entire ‘variable’ wage component gets deducted. The deduction is irrespective of whether the worker has accumulated casual leave, sick leave or paid leave over time. Any leave leads to a pay cut. The worker resented this pay structure. They demanded that the production incentive be dependent upon (a) the amount of work a worker is willing to do and is actually doing and (b) that there should be no wage cut if a worker has accumulated leaves.

Discontentment

As per media reports, about 65% of MSIL’s workers in its Manesar are non-permanent – contract labour, apprentices or trainees. While in 2012, the permanent workers were getting a maximum of Rs 17000 per month, the contract worker use to get a maximum of Rs 7000. The CEO gets a little more, about Rs.2.45 crore per annum (and this is a 2010-11 figure). The worker, who gets only two 7.5 minute tea-toilet breaks during an eight-hour shift, and has to run 150 metres to pick up his tea and snack, run another 400 metres to the toilet, drink tea and piss at the same time, holding his cup in one hand and you-know-what in the other, and run back to the assembly line before the seven minutes are up (as otherwise he could end up losing half a day’s pay).

But MSWU could hardly make any headway in negotiations with management. There was no change in the wage rates of the permanent worker. The wages of the trainees have been increased by Rs. 300-400 in ‘production incentive’ component and Rs. 210 in the fixed component. The wages of contract worker has increased by Rs.35 per day on average on health and travel provision/benefits. The fixed component of apprentices’ wage has been increased by Rs.1000, and the variable component by Rs. 500.

The workers were agitated with such token increase of wages. Moreover, the exploitative wage deduction system has largely remained the same. Amid severe discontentment among workers regarding wages, the new union was negotiating with the management on the issue of wages. The previous offer of increased wages made by the management was not satisfactory to the workers.

On the other hand, surprisingly, amid such high tension, the management was pushing increasing the speed of production on the assembly line. The management was trying to curtail the previous two-time 7.5 minutes tea-breaks into 5 minutes each. The workers always had dissatisfaction with the original 7.5 minutes tea-break time; they had to gulp tea and snacks while standing in toilet-queue or even inside the toilets. Further curtailing that meagre break-time added to their frustration.

The Outburst

On 18 July 2012 (Wednesday) at 3:30 pm, representatives from Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union and the Maruti management had met to discuss the reinstatement of Jiya Lal, a permanent worker who had been suspended that morning after an altercation with his floor supervisor. Lal is a Dalit and alleges that he had reacted when the supervisor made derogatory casteist remarks against him. The workers were protesting that the management had been unfair, suspending Lal from service while merely sending the supervisor home on leave for a few days.

The afternoon meeting did not reach any resolution. By 7:30 pm the negotiations broke down without a compromise. Aggrieved workers who were already boiling in discontentment on several issues like extreme poor wage, exploitative wage deduction system, curtailing toilet-tea breaks, broke out in anger. The workers attacked staffs, including senior officials, with iron rods and other objects. A lot of private security deployed by the company was already present inside the premises and they too instigated the violence. In the melee, fire broke out in the campus and gutted down a section of the factory. The General Manager (HR), Awanish Kumar Dey, lost his life and about 90 others were treated for minor injuries.

Thereafter

The police rounded up the factory workers and, by the next day, had arrested over 90 people including all the newly-elected union leaders. They slapped conspiracy charges against the union leaders and workers and started a massive manhunt for other workers on the charges of rioting, arson, and murder of the HR manager.

In total, the police arrested and charged 148 workers for the incidents of July 18th and imprisoned them in the Gurgaon jail. All the injured persons were discharged in less than a week. The company locked the factory for a brief period and reopened it on 21st August 2012 after sacking nearly 500 permanent workers. With over 1500 police officers deployed, the Manesar plant was temporarily converted into a veritable fortress.

On February 2015, plead at Supreme Court by two of the 148 jailed workers, Sunil Kumar and Kanwaljeet was successful and bail was granted to both.

Based on the Supreme Court verdict, Gurgaon district court grants bail to 77 of the 148 workers in March 2015. Almost three years of their life lost!

Haryana government under chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda of the Congress spent a whopping Rs. 5.5 crore – to prosecute workers accused of violence at Maruti’s plant in Manesar and this in spite of the fact that the government already had a battery of 88 appointed lawyers. Congress Rajya Sabha MP KTS Tulsi was appointed by the state as a Special Public Prosecutor (SPP) in the Maruti case. Mr Tulsi charged Rs. 11 lakh per appearance in the Gurgaon Additional District and Sessions Court.

Conclusion

According to the law of the land – the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, and Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Central Rules, 1971, it is illegal to employ contract labour where “work is perennial and must go on from day to day”, “where the work is necessary for the work of the factory”, and “where the work is sufficient to employ considerable number of whole time workmen.”

Assembling a car in a factory incidental to the making of a car is not a seasonal enterprise – it is not like gardening or mopping the factory floor; nor is it something that can be done with a few dozen workers. But who cares !!!

It is the employer’s responsibility to follow the law, and the government’s responsibility to ensure that it is not violated. Not even the MSIL management can deny that they have been using temporary workers for permanent, core, production work. And this is not something that happens in this one plant of Maruti Suzuki. In the entire NCR region – in Manesar, Gurgaon, Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Noida – where there are thousands of factories of all sizes that carry out manufacturing work round the year, the average percentage of permanent workers in the total workforce is 15%. About 85% of the workforce is made up of non-permanent labour who continue to remain temporary year after year.

Corporate India’s intense love for easily available permanently temporary workers, ability to bypass labour laws with much ease, direct support of the government, judgemental media houses which are mostly run by big business houses and eyeing working class as ‘born to be exploited’ is so evident in the Maruti’s Manesra factory violence incident that even such an act, where a person is charred to death finds apt reasons.

It is no wonder that the workers of the Maruti Suzuki plant have – unlike Chaplin (in the movie Modern Times), who loses his mind and becomes as much a nut in the assembly line – taken up cudgels to protest against these dehumanising conditions in which they have been made to work. Such extreme exploitation is bound to trigger unrest at some point, and the Manesar violence is only the latest in a long series of worker conflagrations that we have seen in the past decade – in Honda Motors, Rico Auto, Orient Craft, EIRO, Pricol and many others. Alienation is not a consequence only of lack of adequate wages alone. Working conditions of this kind that the Maruti Suzuki management has imposed, has clearly forced them to say enough is enough.

Awanish Kumar Dev must not have died. There is no place for murder in a democracy be it that of a manager or a worker. But it was not the first time that someone lost his life in the plant floor. A worker who is charred to death while handling liquid steel, because of violations of safety parameters, in pursuit of maximisation of production is no less than a murder. But the management or the official who bypassed the safety issue is let off, even without a suspension in most cases.

MSIL Manesar incident is perhaps an evidence of the tyranny of power where a large corporate entity can through a case like this and subvert the constitutional rights of the workers. We have to ask ourselves, is this the way we conduct the criminal trials in our country? Is this the way the police investigate? Is this the manner in which the law on bail be taken forward in India because it took 3 years to get 2 men out on bail and that too after the Supreme Court intervened – it speaks of our system.

Who not knows, that people accused of far more serious crimes are out on bail. These poor convicted workers hardly have the money power to fight their case in higher courts of law, unless labour unions and workers wee-wishers come out in support. Hopefully, the higher courts of law will look on this MSIL Manesar violence as just not a law and order issue but also from the point of view of what led to such an act and reach the bottom.

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This is an article by Tania Chatterjee, a teacher by profession who is known for her activism on social issues.

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