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With most workers fleeing in terror, unions pin hopes on fair probe

Aditi Nigam
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MARUTI MANESAR VIOLENCE

Uneasy calm: The lock-out notice pasted outside the main gate at Maruti’s Manesar plant. — T.K. Rajalakshmi
Uneasy calm: The lock-out notice pasted outside the main gate at Maruti’s Manesar plant. — T.K. Rajalakshmi

Analysts don’t see ‘light at the end of the tunnel, at least for the time being’ for Maruti’s Manesar plant, but the workers in its Gurgaon plant are hopeful.

“Our two jewels (here), Swift and DZire are made in Manesar. We are doing our bit to ensure immediate lifting of the lock-out there so that work restarts,” Kuldeep Janghu, General Secretary of Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union, told Business Line.

But will all the Manesar workers be taken back, or will new workers be recruited? Janghu smiled, but did not answer the question. As of now, most of Maruti Manesar workers have fled or are underground.

In 2011, there were 970 permanent workers, about 1,100 contract workers, 400-500 trainees and 200-300 apprentices. Some permanent and contract workers were suspended after last year’s strike.

The lock-out followed the violence on July 18 that led to the gruesome death of an HR Manager, left about 90 officers injured and caused a fire in the administrative block. About 3,000 workers fled their homes overnight.

Ironically, the lock-out notice has been pasted on the main gate in Hindi and English alongside a black marble plaque with “Maruti Suzuki Employees Union, IMT, Manesar, Gurgaon (Regd no 1923), Established on March 1, 2012” written in golden letters. The tension is palpable and an air of suspicion hangs in the area.

Investigations on

The Haryana Government has set up a special investigation team and the Maruti management is merging its findings with it. The Japanese Embassy is said to be conducting its own probe.

The questions are many. What went wrong in the once buzzing car plant that catapulted as a market leader in the country? Why did the workers, most of them in their 20s, who carried out a peaceful and prolonged struggle last year, suddenly turn violent? What were the 300-odd bouncers hired by the company doing? Why didn’t the Haryana Police act? Wouldn’t one teargas shell or one firing in the air have dispersed the miscreants? The police could brutally cane Honda workers in 2005, so why not in this case? The dead HR Manager’s wife, too, has raised some of these questions.

Corporate statements abound and accounts of the injured managers have started trickling in. But, to reach any fair conclusion about the ‘good, bad and the ugly’, the camera has to zoom into every nook and corner of the scene.

The First Information Report by Maruti reportedly names 55 workers and has added 600 others. “Some 90-odd workers, many of whom were on the other shifts, have been picked up,” Janghu said. “They can be made to say anything in custody,” added another worker. Clearly, they did not trust the Haryana Government probe team and wanted a CBI inquiry.

There is terror in the villages where these workers stayed, said Satbir, President of Centre of Indian Trade Unions, which has sought a judicial inquiry. “Anyone is being picked up by the police to make up for the figure of 600. They are also picking up parents and family members and harassing them,” he added.

A Maoist angle is also being floated. “It is too premature. Could be anything, could be Maruti’s competitors, could be Maoists, could be a section of workers or the management,” Janghu said.

Area unions admitted that the situation in Manesar was “worrisome”, but warned against the danger of demonising all workers, which was adding to the panic among the huge casual workforce, largely from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab.

Widespread concerns

“The tendency to demonise all workers is not good for industrial relations in the belt. The massive turn-out in the July 25 Honda factory meeting signals the widespread concerns of workers,” said Satbir.

Workers from Maruti’s Gurgaon plant, Suzuki Powertrain, Suzuki Castings, Suzuki Motocycle, Lumax Auto Technologies, Satyam Auto Components, Endurance Technologies, Hi-Lex India Pvt Ltd, Rico and others attended the meeting despite prohibitory orders.

Not just factory labour, about 30,000 workers attached to Maruti Manesar plant vendors are also sitting idle, said Satbir.

The huge casual workforce, a critical mass of this industrial belt, is living on the edge, with no laws to protect their livelihood, no social or job security, poor working and living conditions.

“In Manesar, the rent for one small room is a minimum of Rs 3,000. With inflation and rising transport costs, and a cut to the contractors, there is nothing left. Some companies even deduct provident fund and ESI from contract workers’ wages but do not submit these,” said Janghu.

According to the National Sample Survey Organisation, between 2004-2005 and 2009-2010, the number of casual workers increased by 21 million, while regular workers increased by only 5.8 million.

Corporates blame rigid labour laws for their increasing dependence on casual labour. But, unions do not buy this.

“Who follows labour laws? Two years ago, 11 workers died in a Panipat factory. None of them were registered. When we approached the Haryana Labour Department, we were told that the factory itself was not registered,” Satbir.

“The problem is that 21 {+s} {+t} century corporates have 15th century mindset when it comes to treating workers. You can’t turn half the wheel of development back,” he added.

aditi.n@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated July 30, 2012)
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