It would be sad if the ghastly violence at Maruti Suzuki’s (MSIL) Manesar plant on July 18, 2012, in which a HR manager died, were to be understood simply as a ‘murderous workers’ vs ‘rational management’ kind of an incident. There is a history and a context to this violence, and how that is understood, and acknowledged, by India Inc. will indicate how serious we are about preventing such incidents in the future.
First of all, let’s begin with a game of call-a-spade-a-spade. When your profits go up by 2,200% over nine years (MSIL’s from 2001-02 to 2010-11), when your CEO’s pay goes up by 419% over four years (MSIL CEO’s from 2007-08 to 2010-11), when you get a 400% increase in productivity with just a 65% increase in your workforce (from 1992-2000), when your workers’ real wages increase 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 – you have a situation that free market economists are programmed not to register: extreme exploitation.
As per media reports, about 65% of MSIL’s workers in its Manesar campus are non-permanent – contract labour, apprentices, trainees, what have you. While the permanent worker gets a maximum of Rs17000 per month, the contract worker gets a maximum of Rs7000. The CEO gets a little more, about Rs.2.45 crore per annum (and this is a 2010-11 figure). And unlike 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), the top management does not, I think, get penalised if they spend more than 7.5 minutes at a time flooding the toilet.
Apart from the physical and economic exploitation, what the workers were reacting to on July 18 was the sustained assault on their dignity. In 2011, there had been at least three confrontations – in June, September and October — between the workers and the management. All were totally non-violent. The workers had been agitating for an independent union in place of the ineffective ‘company union’ – the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU). After a lot of struggle, they registered the Maruti Suzuki Employees’ Union (MSEU) in October last year. But in the same month, 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. It was this union which had been negotiating with the management through 2012 – for wage increases, for transportation facilities, slowing down the robotic pace of work, and regularisation of leave benefits.
But with the MSWU apparently making little headway in the negotiations, discontent was simmering among the workers. And on July 18, when a floor supervisor allegedly misbehaved with a Dalit worker (Jiyalal), and instead of the supervisor getting pulled up, the worker got suspended, the new union was expected to deliver – to get Jiyalal reinstated. And when it began to look like they wouldn’t be able to, violence broke out.
The management has said that the workers unleashed the violence. The workers say that the management instigated it by getting hundreds of bouncers to attack the workers, who responded to that attack. But nobody seems to know what exactly happened. The truth might be closer to what a labour activist describes as a combination of karna, karwana and hone dena.
The permanently temporary worker
At the heart of this whole mess is India Inc.’s love for contract labour. My research tells me that manufacturing cars is not a seasonal enterprise – it happens round the year; nor is assembling a car in a factory incidental to the making of a car – it is not like gardening or mopping the factory floor; nor is it something that can be done with a few dozen workers. 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.”
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. And non-permanent labour includes contract workers, apprentices, trainees, etc. —- add all of them and the percentage of temporary workers becomes as high as 95% in many factories. And these workers remain ‘temporary’ for years and years. I guess you could say that corporate India’s favourite worker is the permanently temporary one.
It wasn’t always this bad. The percentage of contract labour as a proportion of the total workforce doing core manufacturing work has been steadily rising since 1991, the year liberalisation began, and today, the informalisation and fragmentation of what used to be formal or organised labour has reached absurd levels. What this means, in human terms, for the workers, is exploitation of a kind that is not much different from slave labour.
To take a simple example, many factories have what is called the ‘night shift’ and the ‘full night shift’. The ‘night shift’ is from 9am to 1am and the ‘full night shift’ is from 9am to 5 am, resuming again at 9am. Yes, 16-hour and 20-hour shifts are pretty common in the NCR, about as common as the rampant violation of labour laws. And yet, we never hear about the appalling condition of India’s working class, or about how India Inc. routinely breaks the nation’s labour laws with impunity and gets away with it. Or is it possible that this is how we want most of our fellow Indians to live? We seem to care more about one Indian winning an Olympic gold than 700 million Indians living like insects in a drain. All we hear, instead, is how ‘labour law reforms’ are necessary to improve the ‘investment climate’.
Before and after Manesar
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. And they are not exclusive to NCR – similar unrest has been seen in other parts of the country as well, and they are only set to spread even more. There are four simple take-aways from all of this:
One: the growing irrelevance of the union. The workers’ unions can only represent the permanent workers. The vast majority of the workers are temporary ones, and the union means little to them, as it does not represent them. The union has traditionally been a management tool to control the workers. But in this scenario, where the union has little leverage, the management either has to play it straight (pay fair wages, give decent working conditions and benefits) or call bouncers and goons to control the workers.
Two: there is a clear nexus between the state and the corporate managements. The two have come together to maximize the exploitation of the worker. Haryana, where Manesar is located, has not even bothered to constitute the legally mandated board that is supposed to oversee the enforcement of the Contract Labour Act. The labour department is conveniently understaffed, and the cops, like cops everywhere, protect the exploiter from the exploited.
According to the workers, not just cops, but also bouncers, local goons, private security agencies, intelligence agencies (take a wild guess who put out the story about the ‘Naxal hand’ in the incident), and even the local village headmen (many of whom are huge beneficiaries of the recent industrialisation of the area – having made money from selling part of their land holdings, from renting out accommodation to workers, from getting into the transportation business, ferrying goods and material to and from the factories, as labour contractors, and other kinds of ‘middleman’ services) have been enlisted to ‘fix’ the ‘troublesome’ workers.
Three: the average factory worker in the NCR today, particularly in Manesar, is a new breed. Corporate India is very clear what it wants: absolute control over the Indian worker. But factory workers of today are not like those workers of 20-30 years ago. They are mostly ITI-trained diploma holders, young, in their twenties, mobile-savvy, net-savvy, and don’t have the time for good old ‘Down with Capitalism’ kind of sloganeering. They don’t care for the ‘communist’ stuff any more than your standard issue MBA. Though they have been hired as contract labour, unlike, say, construction workers, they are not from dirt poor backgrounds. Many are from lower-middle or middle-middle class families; they are exposed to the mall-bound luxuries of Shining India, and they want their rightful share of the GDP they busted their ass to produce. And: they care about their dignity more than they care about their jobs, and that’s easy, because they don’t really have a job anyway – they are temporary workers hired by a contractor, see?
And when such a worker is pushed to breaking point – not just worked to the bone, but taunted and humiliated, he is liable to lash out blindly. And when that happens, you get what happened at MSIL’s Manesar plant last week. It is not a rational or premeditated action – they gained nothing from it. Such violence serves no purpose. In fact, most of them are now busy hiding from the cops. But that is the nature of a rebellion – it is not calculated, it is not rational. And that is how we must understand the Manesar eruption: as a workers’ revolt.
Four: Capitalism is not sustainable without an independent union. If you look at the so-called golden period of capitalism in the 20th century, the US after the New Deal, up to the time Reagan and Thatcher came on the scene, it was a period marked by strong independent unions that managed to get the workers a decent standard of living, and Capital was forced to keep its ‘social contract’, as it were, with Labour. But then, this period, from the 1940s to the early 1980s, was also the period when communism had to be kept at bay; it was the period when capitalists had to show the world that capitalism is a better system for everyone (and not just capitalists) than any other system.
But today, of course, there is no alternative to capitalism, or so the masters of the universe want us to believe. And they also want us to believe there is no need for an independent union because they have a right to squeeze the worker as much as they want, and can. But history – and countless management studies – has shown time and again that a union which enjoys the confidence of the workers is the best tool that management can ever have to ‘control’ the workers. Hire temporary workers, take the union out of the picture – well, you’ll rake in super-profits for a while, but you’re going to have to pay a heavy price later in terms of worker unrest, and the kind of incident we saw at Manesar last week.
Yes, it is true that India’s labour legislation right now is a total mess. We have about 55 central labour laws and more than a 100 state laws, and they are all mostly observed in the breach. It is also argued that these laws make it unreasonably difficult to lay off a worker, and this is cited as the reason why employers want to keep their permanent workers to the bare minimum. The legislation in question here is the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, which requires companies employing more than 100 workers to seek government approval before firing anybody or closing down.
While this provision should be debated, with equal participation from all the stakeholders, India Inc. needs to look at it less as an unpleasant provision to be eliminated or circumvented, and more as a necessary reminder that a business enterprise always has a social dimension that is as important as profit, and which it ignores at its own peril. Trample on workers’ livelihood and dignity, and your profit is basically blood money – it won’t say so in the balance sheet or the P&L statement, but it will show up somewhere, later, if not sooner. It could be the money you pay to bouncers and private security agencies; or the money you spend on surveillance equipment; it could be an expensive lockout; or it could be the brain tumour caused by all the curses of your downsized workforce; or it could even be the death of one of your managers.
Instead of shedding crocodile tears about the worsening ‘investment climate’, the oligarchs who make up Indian Inc. and their MBA underlings would do well to engage in some soul-searching. For a change, they can ask themselves: Should I continue to treat the Indian worker simply as a cost factor that has to be reduced to zero, or can I treat them with a little more respect, so that they too can live, and work, with dignity?