NOTHING TO LOSE BUT THEIR CHAINS…
In the backdrop of neoliberal onslaught, the Maruti workers’ 13-day successful strike near Delhi, backed by 1 lakh workers of 65 unions, is a historic sign of revival of working-class struggles in India
Sadiq Naqvi Manesar (Haryana)
Even as the June heat became unbearable, outside Maruti Suzuki India Limited’s (MSIL) sprawling manufacturing facility at Manesar 20km from Gurgaon, tempers continued to run high. A few workers who had finished their customary puja after a 13-day deadlock with the management were arguing with a journalist of an English business news channel for airing lies as facts during the strike. “Media has the responsibility of telling the facts. But these channels must have been bought over by the management,” one them sternly remarked. Others pitched in with their myriad of grievances. “With tea-break time restricted to seven minutes, sometimes we have to take snacks to the toilet to be able to reach the assembly line in time,” said a young worker. “This is humiliating.”
Hence, when around 2,000 workers (only 600, the management claims) stopped production and squatted inside the premises at the relatively new production facility at Manesar, it raised serious questions on the working conditions even in the assembly lines of top industrial groups. In this case it is Maruti, the country’s leading automobile manufacturer.
“The supervisors ritualistically abuse us even at the slightest of mistakes,” said a worker. He narrated how even medical emergencies are overlooked in the race for more production. “Even when we are ill, they refuse to allow us rest or leave. We have to keep working like robots till our stipulated eight-hour workday gets over.” While on the assembly line, workers allege, they are often not even allowed to go to the toilet.
On June 4, 2011, shocked workers discovered that their colleagues in the first shift were forced to sign ‘undertakings’ stating that they would continue with the old, ‘pro-management’ union, the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU), and not become a part of any new body. This was done after the management received information that a request for registration of a new union had been made in the office of the Labour Commissioner in Chandigarh on June 3. Workers walked up to senior officials and said this was unacceptable, and arm-twisting should be stopped. The “highhanded” bosses, it is learnt, did not pay heed — they cared two hoots. It was then that workers decided to halt production.
Later, 11 workers were sacked for instigating their colleagues. The confrontation reached a boiling point. “We have a right to get our union registered. How can the management stop us?” asked Sonu Gujar, president of the ‘alternative’ Maruti Suzuki Employees Union (MSEU), with clear majority support. Pay cuts were enforced with immediate effect. The employees’ pay cheque would now be poorer by eight days’ wages for that is the standard deduction at Maruti. “It’s dictatorship. Nothing less than that,” said a worker. The management stated that any unaccounted leave leads to hefty losses. Also, managers refused to budge on the idea of a new union.
Workers complain that for every day they don’t report to work, a sum of Rs 2,000 is deducted from their salary. For casual workers, the deduction is Rs 700 for one leave and the sum increases with every additional ‘holiday’. “I get Rs 6,600 per month. If there is an emergency and I am unable to report for a few days, all the money goes. Even room rent costs Rs 2,000 a month these days,” said Arvind (name changed). Almost 85 per cent of MSIL’s employees are working ‘on contract’ without any job security or other benefits. They stand the risk of being sacked at the slightest provocation.
Disgruntled and disgusted with MUKU, workers believe that a union of their own would lead to institutional changes and more democracy. “MUKU is a pocket trade union of the management,” said DL Sachdev, veteran trade union leader and National Secretary, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). Workers confirm this. “We never had a chance to meet the office bearers of MUKU. They don’t even care to come to Manesar. They are based in Gurgaon,” said Sonu. This, workers allege, is the reason behind the management pressurising them to join MUKU. “Then it becomes easy for them to block any new trade union. They always say that any new union would lead to more politicisation, which they find undesirable,” said a permanent employee.
A customary red flag flutters at the gate. “Even this flag was put up by the management,” said Sachdev.
MSIL had a functional trade union called Maruti Udyog Employees Union (MUEU) which looked after workers’ aspirations, wage revisions etc. The union was elected in 1993-94. In 2000, there was a serious confrontation with the management, partially affecting production. The then chief minister of Haryana, Om Prakash Chautala, it is alleged, aligned with the management, and over 150 workers were terminated. Another 700 were forced to take up voluntary retirement. In 2001, the union was finally de-registered and the management formed MUKU.
The current strike began on June 4. It peaked soon after, with over 1 lakh workers of 65 trade unions across the spectrum in the region pledging absolute solidarity, including collective fasts, tool down actions, protest rallies, gate meetings, and if necessary, total strike. Indeed, first, the management stuck to its position that only five workers would be taken back. After the 13-day intense strike, with production nearly at a halt, running into losses of apparently “Rs 400-plus crore”, and marathon negotiations in the presence of Haryana government’s representatives, the management finally accepted the demands and reinstated all the sacked workers. Politically, it also implied that the new union, which led the struggle with the support of the majority of workers, and which all the other unions backed fully, was the only legitimate representative union at this Maruti plant.
Ironically, the new union, MSEU, does not openly profess the traditional Left trade union ideology. It, as yet, does not even have a red flag (or any other flag). It has no direct political alignment, although the union was fully backed by AITUC, the trade union front of CPI, which is the dominant force in the region, especially since the historic ‘Honda strike’ in 2005 (for a graphic account, see Hardnews ).
However, there is still uncertainty if the new union’s request for registration will be accepted by the department of labour. “The labour department has a history of being a stooge of big business. They have no sensitivity towards workers’ demands,” said a CPM trade union leader from Haryana. “They fear that if there are agitations, companies would shift to other states,” said Sachdev. Trade unionists argue that most multinational outfits flocking to India see it as the best “sweat-shop option where cheap labour with no rights is available in plenty and a ‘stable’ government aligns with big business completely”. Recently, French luxury goods major Louis Vuitton’s decision to sell its manufacturing facility in Puducherry led to workers going on a strike, demanding their services to be regularised before the change of ownership.
Interestingly, in MSIL’s case, the grapevine has it that Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda has assured MSIL’s Managing Director Shinzo Nakanishi that the new union will not be approved. AITUC General Secretary and Lok Sabha MP, Gurudas Dasgupta, has alleged that the Congress governments in Haryana and Delhi have turned a blind eye to the workers’ woes since it is not in the hands of the management to recognise a trade union. Workers can also go to court under the Trade Union Act.
Activists argue that in this era of ruthless market capitalism and shrinking government control, trade unions have become an eyesore for both managements and the government. In 2009, when workers at Rico Auto in Gurgaon had applied for registering a union and asked for wage revision, they too were victimised. Later, when they struck work, they were shot at allegedly by “management goons”. One worker was killed. “A false case was file and I was arrested,” said a former worker.
In 2005, in an act of repression that shocked Parliament and the entire nation, several hundred peaceful workers of Honda Scooters and Motorcycles India were publicly and brutally beaten up, relentlessly, by police and paramilitary forces in Gurgaon. Even now, workers fear, a repeat of 2005 is always possible in any of the factories.
In the neighbouring states of Delhi, Uttarakhand and UP too, state governments are instinctively averse to workers’ legitimate demands. In government enterprises like the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, workers complained that their union is not being recognised by the management even after registration, even as workers behind camouflaged screens during the metro construction had their rights routinely violated. Hardnews had then reported that most metro workers were living in inhuman conditions and made to work for long hours without even minimum wages. Several died in various accidents. Even in premier educational institutions like the University of Delhi, there have been cases of contract labour not being paid their due.
Same was the tragic, inhuman story of daily wagers and migrant construction workers during the gigantic scam of the Commonwealth Games — sub-human conditions, no shelter, no medical facilities, no social security, no legitimate wages, no safety gear, not even a crèche in many cases for children of mothers who were “beautifying” the “world class” city of Delhi.
With migration on the rise, employing this roaming workforce has become an easy way out for unethical business groups. They are employed as casual workers by middlemen working for contractors, and then sacked or sent back. “In Uttarakhand too, most big companies are using contract labour. This is a big problem,” said AC Kulshreshtra, a trade unionist from Rudrapur. “Even in industrial areas developed by the State Infrastructure and Industrial Development Corporation of Uttarakhand Ltd (SIDCUL), there are no unions. The BJP-led state government has decided to block and repress trade unions. They raise objections and get existing unions de-registered,” said KR Kashyap, trade union leader from Haridwar. He alleged that there has been no minimum wages committee since 2007. And in several units of majors like ITC and Mahindra and Mahindra, the management has not allowed any trade union activity.
In Mayawati’s UP, things are bleak. “So many workers are dying at work. The government does not even give compensation. I have been a trade union activist for 30 years. But the current situation, where unions are not even allowed to operate, has baffled us. We are not able to find a solution,” said Pratap, based in Ghaziabad.
“This is what neoliberal policies has done to the working class. The bourgeoisie are afraid of the collective power of workers. That is why this sort of repression is spreading,” said Mohan Lal, of CPM’s Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).
In this pessimistic backdrop, the Maruti workers’ 13-day successful strike, backed by 1 lakh workers of 65 unions, is being seen as a historic sign of revival of working-class struggles in India. Even as governments openly back powerful business groups, poorly paid workers, most often with no job or social security, not even fundamental rights, have found a moment of hope. Against all odds. Against the cold-blooded laws of capitalism itself.
Clearly, at Manesar and across the industrial belt, the struggle has come back. In a quiet, rusted brick wall, almost invisible, was etched an old slogan, written in long hand: Duniya ke mazdooron ek ho (Workers of the World Unite!)… You have nothing to lose but your chains.