Maruti Suzuki Manesar Workers: From oppression to resistance to riot

A long-simmering struggle of autoworkers at Maruti Suzuki’s plant in Manesar exploded recently into a violent confrontation between company goons and workers fed up with years of broken promises, workplace intimidation, and harassment of union activists. When a supervisor made used caste-ist slurs against a dalit worker and subsequently fired him, workers and their union representatives protested against the supervisor’s remarks and demanded the worker’s reinstatement. According to union activists, the confrontation escalated as company goons were called in and workers fought back. What ensued was unfortunate and tragic: some 90 people were injured, a section of the plant was burned down, and one of the plant managers was killed.

The mainstream media have worked themselves into a frenzy following the recent flare up. Reports have been filled with vague assertions that “a large number” of the 3000 workers at the plant were involved in the clashes. The police in turn have brought criminal charges against some 500-600 workers, and arrested more than 90 as of this writing, and launched a massive manhunt across neighboring states for the leaders of the union. “We have formed 10 teams to raid places in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Punjab and Haryana to nab the absconding accused, including the union leaders,” proclaimed a senior police official. Maruti Suzuki, meanwhile, has locked out the workers and announced that the Manesar plant will remain closed indefinitely.

But this has not quelled the media uproar. “Killers roam free,” screams a newspaper headline, while another speaks of an “air of menace” at the factory. Journalists and commentators have taken to presenting the workers as an irrational mob bent on violence and murder. One story doing the rounds is that the ruckus, as well as the death of the plant manager, was premeditated: “The Haryana police have still not been able to nab the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union’s 14 leaders, who are believed to have been the main conspirators,” claimed the Hindustan Times on Sunday. And then there’s the red-baiting: The Economic Times Magazine confidently asserts that a key reason for the violence at the plant is “The Return of the Red Flag.”

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Forgotten in this narrative is the fact that workers have repeatedly protested conditions at the Manesar plant, to no avail. Some 40% of the workers at the plant are contract workers who are paid lower wages than regular workers. The resulting two-tier workforce helps the company maximize profits while undermining worker unity. In June 2011,  workers occupied the factory for 13 days because they were denied independent union representation. In an apparent concession, the company offered to set up a “grievance committee” and a “labor welfare committee” to resolve labor-management disputes. But it refused to recognize the union, and continues to do so to this day.

In August 2011, the company tried to force workers to sign a so-called “Good Conduct Bond” or face termination; workers responded with a 33-day dharna (sit-in) outside the factory gates. Then in October, when Maruti refused to take back 1200 contract workers, the workers again went on strike. The strike was a success in that the contract workers got their jobs back, but management initiated action against 94 workers for “indiscipline.” The strikes and occupations last year reportedly “resulted in production losses of approximately 83,000 cars” with losses of $500 million.

The Manesar plant is the flagship of Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL), and produces nearly 1200 cars a day. Conditions at the plant remind one of Charlie Chaplin’s tragi-comic portrayal of the assembly line in Modern Times, as one blogger recently pointed out. Here are some excerpts from a November 2011 article in The Hindu that is well worth reading in its entirety to get a sense of the horrendous work conditions at the factory:

A Maruti worker spends 8 hours on the assembly [line], and breaks twice for a 7.5 minute tea break and once for a 30 minute lunch break. Those who arrive a minute after the shift’s scheduled commencement are fined half a day’s salary….

When a car rolls in, the worker looks at a large matrix pasted on the vehicle that indicates if the car is a left or right hand drive, powered by petrol, diesel or compressed natural gas engines intended for the domestic, European or general export market. Depending on his work station he chooses from 32 different upholstered seats, 90 tyre and wheel assemblies, and innumerable kinds of wire-harnesses, air conditioning tubes, steering wheels, dashboard trims, gearboxes, switches, locks, and door trims, in an average time of 50 seconds per car.

For parts like air conditioning tubes, the worker stands between a set of parts racks. As a particular car variant rolls in, a light above the corresponding parts rack blinks with increasing urgency as the worker runs to it, grabs a part and pulls a cord to acknowledge he has chosen the right part. He then steps onto the conveyor belt, fits the part and rushes back to match the next car to the next blinking parts rack before an alarm rings.

If the line halts, signboards across the shop floor light up – flashing the number of the workstation where the line has stopped and the duration of the stoppage. Another board displays the total time ‘lost’ during the shift; a scrolling ticker lists the production targets at a given time of the day, the actual cars produced and the variance.

“For every fault, the feedback is recorded and the worker has to sign against it… it goes into his record,” said a worker, speaking on condition of anonymity as every Maruti worker must sign ‘Standing Orders’ that, among 100 other conditions, bar them from slowing down work, singing, gossiping, spreading rumours and making derogatory statements against the company and management. The work record is examined during yearly appraisals….

For a worker, line acceleration can be a harrowing experience. “When I first began working for Maruti, assembly lines used to run right through my dreams,” said a worker with a laugh, “These days I suppose I’m so tired that I don’t get dreams anymore.”

Meanwhile, the state government of Haryana has done little to push the company to recognize the union, as it is more interested in presenting Haryana as a “business-friendly” state for multinationals to invest in. The latest conflagration at the plant is thus the result of abysmal work conditions, management that refuses to recognize the workers’ union and instead witch-hunts and persecutes union activists, and a government that refuses to enforce already-existing laws regarding union representation.

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The events at Manesar are a setback to workers’ efforts to win union recognition, but they are fighting back. Workers at Maruti Suzuki’s nearby Gurgaon plant have begun to discuss the possibility of going on strike in solidarity with the locked-out Manesar workers. And earlier this weekend, some 100 activists gathered to express their solidarity with the workers. In a hard-hitting speech, one activist spoke out against the demonization of the workers and the continuing persecution and harassment of union organizers: