Monday, August 20, 2012

Maruti's Manesar plant

Maruti Udyog Ltd has announced that it will reopen its Manesar plant but only after dismissing about 500 workers allegedly involved in the recent disturbances leading to the tragic killing of one of its managers. I have been reading the news stories in the media to get a coherent account of what led up to the explosion of worker fury at the plant. I wasn't able to. A commentary in EPW has helped me gain some sort of perspective.

We cannot take seriously the insinuation that the problems are the work of 'Naxalites' who have infiltrated the workers at the plant. Nor can we subscribe to the notion that it was the result of vaulting  aspirations of a new generation of workers, who are keen to have the good things of life without regard for issues of affordability or productivity. It takes a lot for workers to rebel seriously in a situation such as Maruti's because the odds are stacked against them.

There is a fundamental asymmetry in management-worker relationships: the management has financial muscle and staying power, backed by support from the government which includes the police force and the labour department of the state. Workers eke out a precarious living and cannot do without their wages for long. To risk disruption and jobs and to incur the wrath of the law enforcement authorities would require serious provocation.

The EPW article tells us something about the immediate provocation:

A handful of workers we managed to speak to were unanimous in the view that the death of the Maruti Suzuki ­executive Awanish Kumar Dev “should not have happened”. According to a worker, Awanish Dev had agreed to take back Jiya Lal, the suspended worker, who had protested caste abuse by a supervisor during the A-shift on 18 July, but then Awanish Dev got a call from a senior, instructing him otherwise. Naresh Narwal, additional labour com­mis­sioner, and Gurgaon district administration officials told a joint trade union delegation that they too had received word that Maruti Suzuki management had agreed to take back the suspended worker the next day on 19 July and that the matter was almost resolved. Some B-shift workers we spoke to report hearing the same.What happened in the matter of a couple of minutes that changed the course of events that evening? 
But this episode only provided the spark to an explosive situation. The following factors seem to have been at work:

  • Management's refusal to recognise the workers' union  until the workers first agreed to form grievance and welfare committees
  • Management's unwillingess to implement the long-term wage settlement for casual workers and not just for for permanent workers. (There is huge gulf in wages between the two and casualisation has become the norm for many companies)
  • Worker discontent over harsh working conditions including the limited breaks available for meals and toilet visits.
How the Manesar affairs pans out will have important implications for industrial relations. If management is allowed to ride roughshod over workers' sentiments and legitimate demands with the connivance of the state government and if it is emulated by other companies,  there is risk of a dangerous backlash in the years to come.

We are revisiting land acquisition and envrionment policies that have worked to the disadvantage of the poor for decades. It would be tragic if industrial relations were reworked to suit management and came to militate against the interests of workers.

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