There can be no two ways of looking at the horrific violence unleashed by workers at the Manesar plant of Maruti Suzuki that resulted in the death of a manager of the company. It was ghastly and shocking and deserves to be condemned in unequivocal terms. Nothing can justify the brutal murder. It is disturbing to read reports that the manager burned to death because his legs were fractured by some workers and he could not escape the fire set off by them. Indeed, the violence of the mob was so ghastly that 33 managers are still in hospital nursing injuries inflicted on them. The police have arrested 91 workers who allegedly participated in the violence. Those found guilty should be dealt with sternly and held to account especially considering that worker violence has become all too frequent in recent times in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt that houses many automobile and ancillary companies. Indeed, in this context one needs to ask if the sad events at Maruti’s plant could have been avoided if the Haryana government had been proactive. It is clear that the labour in this region, working for different employers, is restive for varied reasons and has been so for more than the last couple of years.
While condemning the violence unleashed by the workers, it is important to find out why they reacted in such an extreme way. Maruti’s Manesar plant workers and management have been in an uneasy relationship for over a year now. The plant witnessed labour protests for more than four months last year, culminating in a 33-day lockout following a dispute over employment of contract labour, wages, the creation of a new union and speed-ups. The truce since then was an uneasy one as borne out by the unfortunate events of last week. Across Indian industry, the traditional management-labour face-off has acquired a new edge in recent times as companies grappling with a complex business environment do their utmost to rein in costs, including wages. Workers have been frustrated and this has to be seen in the context of the consumer culture that has taken hold of the country. The attempt by some companies, especially multinationals, to discourage unionisation has added to the volatility of industrial relations, and their preferred tactic is to employ workers on contract so as to have a hold over them. Apart from the Gurgaon-Manesar belt, there have been problems in other parts of the country, notably the Sriperumbudur industrial corridor near Chennai, Bangalore and Pune. Apex industry bodies such as business chambers, labour unions and the government need to put their heads together to assess what is undoubtedly a disturbing trend and examine ways to reverse this trend.