At Chakan, a Manesar déjà vu

On the 47th day of the workers’ protest at the Bajaj Auto Ltd (BAL) plant here, talks between the union and management have failed to be conclusive, yet again. Earlier this week, BAL Managing director Rajiv Bajaj served an ultimatum stating that if workers do not report to work by August 12, half the production would be shifted out of the Chakan plant.

Since June 25, BAL has witnessed “work stoppage” by 950 permanent labourers belonging to the Vishwa Kalyan Kamgar Sanghatana (VKKS), an internal union. While the union had raised issues of wage revision and excessive contract workers at the plant, the more pressing issue of reinstating 22 suspended workers has now become the bone of contention, VKKS president Dilip Pawar told The Hindu on Saturday. The management has agreed to take back seven of the 22 employees, but VKKS would not relent until given an assurance that none of the workers would lose their jobs, Mr. Pawar said.

Before the protests started, the assembly lines ran on top gear. In the last six years, the speed of the lines went from 42 seconds per bike to 28 seconds, helping the automobile giant produce 1,028 bikes everyday. This is one of the reasons of the ongoing workers’ agitation, fuelling labour frustration exactly the way it did in Manesar, at the Maruti plant a year ago, experts who have been following the situation have stated.

N. Vasudevan, secretary, National Trade Union Initiative, and who was part of the International Commission for Labor Rights (ICLR) group which recently tabled a preliminary report of its findings in Manesar said an aggressive method of production is at the core of both Manesar and other labour protests, including Chakan.

“There is no consideration for fatigue of workers. Labourers agree to work like machines because of unemployment and lack of security of work. But eventually, this will be explosive for the employees,” Mr. Vasudevan told The Hindu.

Kailash Zanzari, VP, manufacturing, who has alleged that workers belonging to the union had begun “sabotaging the operations”, denied that the work practices had taken a toll on their productivity. “Workers in other plants, including Auranagabad where we have older employees, have not complained. Then why should these people (the 22 workers who were suspended) find excuses?” Mr. Zanzari stated at a recent press conference.

Not enough relievers

However, labourers point out issues like strict regimentation on the factory floor. One of the complaints repeated by many workers who wished to remain anonymous was that of lack of enough relievers on the assembly line.

“For every 72 people, you need seven relievers, to take over from time to time, so that we can at least go to the toilet or drink water. At Bajaj, there are only three relievers for per cluster of 72 workers,” Pradeep Khade, a 52-year-old worker said at a meeting organised by VKKS last month.

An internal survey revealed that close to 50 workers were diagnosed with kidney stones, another worker stated. When The Hindu asked at a recent pres conference if these were legitimate concerns, Mr. Bajaj stated that the organisation followed the “Kaizen technique of constant improvement”.

“There used to be seven relievers, which was reduced to six, five, four and so on. At BAL, we are constantly improving our standards and reducing wastage,” he said.

Similarly, Mr. Vasudevan stated that the ICLR found that in Manesar “the physical and psychological strain associated with having to produce one car approximately every 45 seconds, and the lack of adequate rest time for meals and bathroom breaks” had contributed to labour unrest.

VKKS has alleged that the management has been trying to scuttle union activities since 2007. Disagreements and refusal to recognise the union was one of the major causes of the fallout in Manesar, the ICLR report has stated.

When the union protested against the shutting down of the Akurdi plant in Pune in 2007, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar had to intervene and a truce was reached. Further, VKKS’ efforts to establish its union at BAL’s Pantnagar branch in Uttarakhand were contained by the management, according to Mr. Dilip Pawar. It was after this failure that the union members started stopping production deliberately at the Chakan plant, Chief Operating Officer Pradeep Shrivastava stated.

Mr. Dilip Pawar has a different explanation. “The management is constantly threatened by the presence of the union. After Pantnagar, they wanted us to stop making any demands. But we reported the illegal number of contract workers hired by BAL, which is under investigation by the Labour department. The inquiry on union members is a way to get back at us,” he said.

Veteran Union leader D.L. Karad of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions stated that protests like this and the ongoing agitation at Maruti’s Manesar plant could spark off a much needed debate on labour reform.

“The machine-like treatment of labourers, the issue of illegal contract workers are very pertinent questions. But without a strong union that refuses to bend down, these issues will remain,” he said, speaking to The Hindu over telephone from Nashik.