Roadblocks to rights in ‘Detroit of the South’

The lock-out declared at the Maruti-Suzuki plant at Manesar, Haryana, comes at the end of a series of events that had their genesis in the 13-day strike last year.

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Though a year has passed, the promises workers secured from the management have not been kept — including bringing the wages of contract workers on a par with permanent workers, and the setting up of a grievance redress committee.

In such a sullen and volatile atmosphere, the alleged casteist remarks by a supervisor led to workers banding together and demanding that the supervisor be brought to book. The violence that ensued bears examination by impartial observers.

We have statements on the events from five different quarters. The management, of course, lost no time in declaring that the workers resorted to violence and arson and caused the death of a manager. Workers’ representatives, including trade unions, have denied this version. They have pointed out that theirs was a peaceful protest, with no intention of precipitating violence; rather, they were confronted with violence when a group of ‘bouncers’ was brought in by the management. In the ensuing melee, violence took place, including one case of death.

There have been media reports, based on the accounts of individual workers, that roughly match what the unions have said: there was no premeditated plan. A third point of view — that of government officials based on Intelligence inputs — claims that Maoists, in all likelihood, infiltrated the unions and caused unrest. A fourth point of view is that of ‘impartial’ observers, in this case business houses not linked to Maruti, who have expressed concern at the social unrest that led to mayhem at the plant, disrupting production. Such unrest, it has been pointed out, needs to be put down ruthlessly.

A fifth point of view is that of the Mahapanchayat of representatives from villages around Manesar, which backed the continuation of production at Manesar and opposed the unions. The Mahapanchayat represents the voice of those who have benefited — those who sold their land for the setting up of the factory, those who are engaged in several professions that serve the workers and so on.

In spite of these various and contrasting views, much of the print and electronic media have expressed righteous ire at the unions, and at people described by a well-known Tamil daily in its editorial as “mediators” (‘politicised’ union leaders), who politicise shop floor issues and distract workers from their real interests. These sections of the media have attributed the violence and its consequences to worker anger — accepting the management’s version.

It is as if matters could not be otherwise — and the reference to bouncers who were brought in to assault workers has not since been repeated in the media or examined for its veracity. Even otherwise, sober reports, which have highlighted the conditions of work at the plant, and drawn on The Hindu article of nearly a year ago (‘Workers’ Struggle in Maruti Suzuki,’ September 28, 2011) to point out how real wages have not gone up commensurate with labour time or in relation to management emoluments, have decided that the workers are entirely to blame.

The casual manner in which trade unions are being made absolute villains — thereby depriving them of legitimacy and dissociating them from shop floor tensions and related worker concerns — is a matter of great worry. Workers, it appears, are fit subjects only for liberal condescension, and the consensus is that the worker and his union are best separated. To make matters worse for unions, they are being branded either “self-seeking” or “illegitimate” (the Maoist tag comes in handy). A leading Tamil daily wrote a long editorial on this subject — taking the side of the embattled worker, but insisting that he dissociate himself from his “disruptive” trade union representatives.

Clearly, whether it is Haryana or Tamil Nadu, corporate houses need not look too hard for supporters, especially those who would demonise trade unions. In Tamil Nadu, home to important automobile players, the Manesar story has attracted attention in a way few events occurring north of the Vindhyas do.

Tamil Nadu has had its own tryst with trade unions and their alleged militancy. In 2009, this militancy was in the news when an altercation between unions and the management resulted in the death of a supervisor in Pricol in Coimbatore. Hyundai workers in Chennai are constantly being rapped for attempting to unionise and celebrate May Day. Their desire to start a union is seen as nothing less than heinous — a grateful State government has looked the other way, given that Hyundai presented 100 cars to the Tamil Nadu police and enrolled students to assist in traffic regulation.

Meanwhile, production conditions continue to worsen: a car has to be turned out every 48 seconds. This means workers hardly have time for breaks either to visit the toilet or for a cup of tea or even to have lunch. Many of them travel up to four hours to reach the factory and then work for eight hours. In fact, in almost all factories in the north-west industrial corridor near Chennai, the labour conditions are abysmal: in companies such as Foxconn, a majority of the workforce are young, and hired on contract for wages as low as Rs.3,500-Rs. 4,000 a month. And here, we are not referring to inter-State migrant workers, who work and live in even worse conditions, often for daily wages not above Rs. 140 a month, and this, in the ‘efficient,’ profit-making automobile sector.

If we are to go back to the earlier period of industrial growth in the State, the 1970s, we find a similar picture: automobile-related companies such as MRF and TVS set new records in scuttling union activity and were actively aided in their efforts by the then DMK and later AIADMK governments. The governments lost no time in using state power to assault and bring workers and union leaders “to their senses.” Today, Hyundai and several smaller companies that are part of the Korean major’s supply chain have their defenders not only in the ruling party, but in the liberal media and a large Tamil middle class.

In this sense, the Manesar incidents are not exceptional. But they are certainly novel in terms of how in the present conjuncture, capital seeks to establish its legitimacy and how it consistently fails even within the severely limited space of the organised shop floor, where it has a fair chance of success: neither the Mahapanchayat that is set against the “reds,” nor the State that is determined to deploy the term ‘Maoist’ as a de-legitimising phrase wishes to acknowledge that the conditions of production, their very mechanics, are conducive to the making of a class conflict.

(V. Geetha is a feminist historian, active in the women's movement and interested in labour, caste and education. Madhumita Dutta is with the Vetiver Collective in Chennai, with a longstanding interest in labour issues).

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Printable version | Nov 23, 2020 1:12:20 PM |

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