Center For Workers Education

for building a democratic labour movement in India

Tragic Plight of Workers

With faltering industrial demand, workers are in a difficult situation with little room to manoeuvre.

Maruti Suzuki is a hybrid, an offspring of the Bharatiya and Japanese species of management, and like any cross-breed, it is flexible. Its pliability derives not merely from its Japanese-style flexible manufacturing system, but also from its elasticity in the choice of how much of the Bharatiya vintage to adopt. In the wake of the violent clash on 18 July at the company’s Manesar factory between managers and workers in which the former had reportedly hired goons to attack the latter, and in which the company’s general manager (human resources) lost his life, the company called in a Vedic astrologer to undertake a vaastu correction to exorcise the “negative energy” believed to be the source of all the evil at the factory. The Vedic astrologer diagnosed the root cause of the “labour problem” thus – the 600 acres of land on which the factory was constructed was once the site of a burial ground and, moreover, three temples had been razed to construct the manufacturing facility!

One might just dismiss all this mumbo-jumbo out of hand, but when management engages in a set of repulsive practices in the treatment of its workers, what Annavajhula J C B and Surendra Pratap (“Worker Voices in an Auto Production Chain: Notes from the Pits of a Low Road”, EPW, 18 and 25 August 2012) have called “industrial terrorism”, then surely it needs to spin a protective cocoon of beliefs around itself and its arena of control and influence. At the just concluded annual general meeting of Maruti Suzuki, one also heard the mai-baap homily that the management ought to have maintained “family type” relations with the workers. But industrial terrorism accompanied by such tedious moralising by management and shareholders is not confined to Maruti Suzuki alone.

If one really has to draw lessons from the Annavajhula-Pratap paper mentioned above, one would think that the only route to success would be if the workers ally with their workmates in the hundreds of supplier factories (the first- and second-tier subcontractors), as also those in the small-supplier workshops who too are the victims of the industrial terrorism of the low road to competitive advantage. Indeed, one should take note that the workers of the Gurgaon factory did not join their Manesar workmates when the latter struck work in June last year. Of course, growth of the sales of cars had decelerated drastically last year (2011-12) compared to that in 2010-11 and this made for further unfavourable conditions from the workers’ point of view. But if the workers of Manesar are to win a voice for themselves, they need to establish active links with the wider workforce in this industrial corridor south of Delhi. They can win rights and higher wages only as part of a struggle that spreads beyond Maruti Suzuki to its suppliers and their suppliers, and down the supplier chain to the small workshops.

Low wages, large numbers of casual and contract workers, authoritarianism in the workplace, unjust victimisation of workers who are at the forefront of resistance, the coming together of company and state to put down worker resistance with a heavy hand, and the lack of a fighting spirit on the part of the central trade unions affiliated to the mainstream political parties – these are what the workers are up against, even in the public sector.

One is reminded of the 44-day strike that began in April this year of thousands of contract workers of the public sector Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) who have been struggling for many years to win wage parity with the company’s permanent workers and the regularisation of their jobs. Sadly, the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) allied with it, did not even give a call for the permanent workers to ally with these contract workers. ­Instead, all the AITUC did was to appeal to Jayalalithaa, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, in which the NLC is located, to intervene on behalf of the workers and prevail upon the central government to help settle the strike in their favour. This, when the Tamil Nadu police had been ordered to arrest the striking workers after their strike had been declared “illegal” through a court order.

The political parties to which the AITUC and the CITU are affiliated, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the CPI (Marxist), respectively, had entered into a thoroughly opportunistic alliance with Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in the state assembly elections last year and wanted to keep the alliance going. Indeed, it was the AIADMK government along with the central government, which controls the NLC, that was instrumental in the defeat of the strike when the AITUC decided to call it off after some vague promises of regularisation were made, without, of course, any agreement on pay parity.

If this then is the plight of workers in leading enterprises in the private and public sector, Maruti Suzuki and NLC, one can only imagine what their predicament is in labour-intensive manufacturing like apparel and footwear, and in the sweatshops of diamond cutting and polishing, all industries where the growth of exports is faltering.

Economic and Political Weekly; Vol – XLVII No. 36, September 08, 2012

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