Cogs in the Wheel
All production is exploitative, says Rahul Roy
Abeer Kapoor Delhi
Rahul Roy is an independent documentary filmmaker. His work has focused on communalism, labour and masculinity. His films have been widely screened internationally and have won several awards. His latest documentary, The Factory, is about the 147 workers who are facing trial for the murder of a senior manager and the dismissal of 2,500 workers by Maruti Suzuki. The film documents the struggles faced by the families of the workers who travel all the way from various parts of the country to meet or catch glimpses of their sons, husbands and fathers as they walk into the courtrooms. This documentary, funded by the Justice Project, provides an entry point into the idea of development, legality and crime in the Indian context
The workers were seen as important to the idea of the nation, when do you think this idea vanished?
There was a brief period in this nation’s history when the workers were integral to the building of the nation. Under the Nehruvian State, the workers were instrumental in helping the country industrialise, examples of this were most commonly found in the cinema of that time. However, this has changed rapidly. There is no longer any space for the workers in the imagination of the nation. It’s as if they don’t exist.
Towards the end of the1960s that the problems with the trade unions started. Earlier narratives were heavily influenced by the proximity to Soviet Russia. The trade unions steadily grew stronger and stronger, gaining greater currency. The purpose of the trade unions was not towards building the nation, but to look after the workers who did.
When the Communist Party of India (CPI) assumed control in Kerala and West Bengal, a mass exodus of industrialists was witnessed in these states. Almost suddenly, the trade unions became synonymous with an anti-development discourse.
The nail in the coffin of the trade unions was the railway strike of 1974 and the strike in the Bombay Textile Industry circa 1982, which marked the decisive end of unions. At this point it became a matter of importance to control the trade unions.
What was the form of trade unions in the factory before the 2011 protests?
There has been a constant tug- of-war between successive state governments and other political parties in Haryana to control the trade union movement. When Maruti Suzuki first came into the market it was supposed to be a model car, a people’s car. It represented the idea of development, of a nation driving into the future; it became ever so important to control the union that delivered that dream.
Maruti was supposed to be the model company that showed the ethos of an integrated workplace. The relationship between the administration and the workers was supposed to be horizontal; they wore the same uniforms and ate in the same canteens. Outside the factory, the company set up schools and housing facilities for those who worked in the Gurgaon assembly unit. This was a completely new way of organising work in the automotive industry. A lot was written about this form of work, but the real problem began when more companies entered the sector and the dominance of Maruti Suzuki dropped from 80 to 50 per cent of the market share. There was at the same time a shift in priority to gain larger profits. The sequence of events that was unleashed because of this broke the back of the trade union from the early 1990s. The company began retrenchment; the workers’ incentives were shifted from production to profit. This was followed by strikes. There were lockouts; but the union could not win against the company, and many workers were thrown out.
There was at the same time a shift in priority to gain larger profits. The sequence of events that was unleashed because of this broke the back of the trade union from the early 1990s
Finally, by 1991, they broke the Maruti union, and since then it has been more or less in the control of political parties. Then, again this changed with the 2011 protests.
As you see in the film, there is a certain circularity that is visible in the way workers were treated. In the end, when the project is shifted to Gujarat, we know the same thing is going to happen. The script has already been laid out. This is the most dominant and accepted form of development; there is only one way industrialisation is imagined now. The same thing is repeated everywhere again and again.
What happens to Unions now?
The biggest problem facing unions is the process of informalisation of the labour market, which is that you employ fewer regular workers, but more contract workers. Trade unions do not represent contract workers and are alined with the permanent workers. There was a visible movement towards employing more contract labourers and fewer regular workers across industries. Contract labourers aren’t supposed to work on the main production line, but all of them do. Slowly but surely, there has been an increase in the number of contract workers and the strength of the union has diminished.
Trade union influence is concentrated in the public sector. Their influence does not permeate into private companies and that is why you see the rise of independent trade unions that are within companies or across a couple of factories. Another hurdle that the trade unions are unable to cross is that most labour is now coming out of neighbourhoods; this inability to adjust to the localisation and informal nature of work is what has led to the decline or redundancy of the trade unions.
Slowly but surely, there has been an increase in the number of contract workers and the strength of the union has diminished
Amartya Sen alludes to another problem. Without education and a skilled workforce, no nation can develop. The company in Manesar was confronted by an educated workforce. This was not the same set of people who have come to work for centuries, this was a different class. Besides, the issue of dignity was at the core. That the workers felt extremely humiliated by the policies and work culture was apparent. They had a very different self-image. They had Facebook accounts, they had smart phones, and they filmed things that they shared with the Press. This is not the same working class and it becomes important to understand how to deal with them.
All production is exploitative; there is no running away from this singular fact. There has to be some way in which you allow people to be human. Instead, they are only stripping people of their ability to be human. This is a big problem here, in the industrial area around Manesar in Haryana.