Understanding 18th July at Maruti Suzuki, Manesar


Way back in 2005 the International Labor Organization estimated 40,000 work related deaths in India every year. This means that almost everyday 110 or more women and men in India lose their lives because of work-related accidents and problems. Given this general state of affairs what is so special about the death of one man, Awanish Kumar Dev, who died due to suffocation in a factory fire somewhere in the industrial periphery of Delhi on the evening of 18th July 2012? Why does his death become national news and why does it stay national news for more than a week? The answer lies less in the class that he belonged to; it has more to do with the context in which he got killed. That Mr. Awanish Kumar Dev was the general manager of human resources at Maruti Suzuki, Manesar is significant – the significance being that he was a member of the lower rungs of India's ruling elite. But far more significant is fact that Mr. AK Dev's death was not the expected outcome of the class struggle that was being waged at Maruti Suzuki or has being waged all over India over the last four decades. A worker dying in industrial violence or the poor dying silently on the margins in asphyxiating neo-liberal atmospheres is understandable and acceptable. But such looser-victims 'taking law and order into their hands', engaging in arson ……  was a completely unexpected turn of events. Therefore it baffled.

 

Surprisingly, for a short period, it baffled both sides! During this short period – about a week – both sides moved and maneuvered instinctively. It was only post 25th July 2012 that oral/written statements issued by both sides began moving beyond the Jiya Lal (worker) – Ramkishor Manjhi (supervisor) standoff narrative and started unearthing the long-term and basic factors that led to the current violence, or could lead to a repeat of such instances in coming days.

 

Beginning with a scared howling (“murder”, “arson”), followed by denunciations and moving on to intimidation (mass arrests of workers) and threats (Intelligence Bureau to probe role of Maoists) it took the ruling establishment more than a week to sober up and start analyzing 'the problem'. On 26th July 2012 The Economic Times carried a statement by Ravi Mathur the additional secretary in the Labor Ministry saying "In every industry, you will find a larger number of workers on contract than the regular workers… This has resulted in labour disputes and also resulted in labour violence." Moving beyond customary condemnations, this was the first public statement by any industry or government representative that also discarded 'workers gone berserk' 'criminal elements' 'sabotage' or 'outsider conspiracy' theories. It was the first real attempt at analysis.

 

A ruling establishment intoxicated by four decades of victories in its labor-disciplining campaign, engaging in denial/ self-delusion, head-hunting individuals that could be charged with orchestrating the violence and not looking the bull in the eye – not ready to accept that 18th July is the most normal and logical worker response to the “industrial relations” structure that has been instituted – is understandable. What was more difficult to comprehend was that advocates of labor also appeared to be dumb-founded by the event. The initial knee-jerk defense/ explanation for the event was that the arson took place because the workers were attacked by Maruti Suzuki bouncers. Later on many advocates of labor apologetically spent time and energy citing evidence that Maruti Suzuki workers have a history of non-violent struggle and therefore by nature they would not take law n order into their hands, that instead of arbitrarily charging and arresting workers the police could do better by investigating the event in an unbiased manner etc. That labor advocates did not, from day-one unequivocally say that arson was the most logical and normal reaction of workers to the oppressive structures of industrial relations that exist, is the most disturbing and eloquent evidence of the sort of hegemony that the culture of neo-liberal capitalism has on main-stream trade-unionism.

 

Even the radical left took time finding its words, getting its act together, and stating that what is surprising is not why 18th July happened but why it happened so late or why it was not happening more often in the length and breadth of the country?! But this sluggishness in articulating the most obvious most truth was not so much due to the fact that the leaders of the radical left, like the leaders of the main-stream trade unions, were incapable of thinking straight but more due to the disorganized state of the radical left itself. On many earlier occasions the radical left has failed to strike when the iron was hot; in the few instances it did strike in time the sound of its strike was so feeble that it got drowned in cacophony of the right. Manesar on July 18th, 2012 was no different. Beyond belatedly delivering a few press statements, putting up some symbolic demonstrations of solidarity and organizing legal support for the hounded workers the radical left could not do more. It had no plan of action. It could not lead.

 

Why did the violence take place?

Prior to the Emergency, during 1973-74, nearly 3,00,000 strikes were called; in 2010 just 429 such incidents occurred. Thus, if industrial unrest was at historic lows in terms of the numbers of incidents and man-days lost, it ought to be natural for factory management bodies to be surprised by something as sinister as arson. After all, wasn't it a docile tamed workforce that management bodies were dealing with!

 

The national backdrop to July 18th at Manesar gets better illuminated if one considers the fact that wage payments, as a percentage of the net value created by firms, have dropped from 30.3 per cent to 11.6 per cent over 30 years, meanwhile profits have increased from 23.4 per cent of the net value to 56.2 percent, suggesting that firms have become 'more efficient'. Statistics of the phenomenal increase in the absolute and relative surplus value that the worker hands over to his wage-lords may enlighten or re-educate the academician. They seldom interest the worker. He observes and comprehends the same truth in a far more living manner. He asks elder workers what Gurgaon-Manesar were like 30-40 years ago? He is told that it was semi-arid undulating land ploughed by half-naked men. He asks how it got transformed into multi-storied glass buildings, dazzling cars and stream-lined roads that fly over each other? He is told that it is men like himself who worked and created the wealth. Immersed in this learning, the worker sloshes through mud that carries the stink of human faeces in order to reach his rented room. It is small, damp and badly ventilated. He can afford no better. He lights the stove atop his small LPG cylinder. Incidentally it only cooks the cheapest vegetables. The contrast between the glitter and opulence of Gurgaon-Manesar and his own worn-down filthy existence haunts and angers him. He sleeps an uneasy sleep.

 

Next morning the worker arrives for the morning shift at Maruti-Suzuki. The contrast over here is not overwhelmingly quantitative. It is qualitative. The shop floor that he works on is divided into those who work and those who make them work. This relationship defines his very being. It belittles and humiliates him. It also dehumanizes the men standing behind and supervising him. They think that they have more and better gray matter than him. Nay, at times their superciliousness reaches the point where they start believing that it is their brains that make the muscles in his arms move. Very often some of them huddle and device schemes/ ways of making him work faster and better. The worker does not participate in the making of his work plan. He therefore hates the supervisors that thrust this alien plan upon him. At Maruti-Suzuki Manesar the worker uses some of the most sophisticated machinery in the world. Yet he hates every second of it. The work is not only repetitive and monotonous, it is extremely fast. The machines on the assembly line appear to have a life of their own. They set the pace of his limbs. He cannot stop the machines for a while or slow them down. The managers and supervisors breathing down his neck do not let him do that. Forget rest, they do not let him pause even if he has to answer nature's calls. Seldom does he get a replacement-worker when he needs to visit the loo. He is told that he gets two 7.5 minute tea breaks and a 30 minute lunch break in every eight-hour shift to answer natures calls. He is told that he needs to train and discipline his body, in order to work in a 'modern factory'. The worker innovates on the disciplining in comic and culturally debased ways – he can be found inside the urinal holding his genitals with one hand and chewing a samosa with the other. On his way out he often asks the men in the Q  whether the managers and supervisors have to do the same? They wink back.However small and damp his rented room be and however much his wretched living contrasts with the glitter and opulence of the city, it is the stress and indignity inside the factory that makes him yearn for another poverty-stricken day out. He is told that he will have to forfeit about 10% of his salary – INR 800 in the case of a casual worker and INR 1,500 for a permanent worker – for every leave that he takes beyond the mandated. Contract workers get a salary close to INR 8,000 and two mandated leaves per month. The worker's fatigued body shivers at the thought of such an expensive holiday! The solemn poet smiles at life's irony and concludes that speaking relatively: a rich man's cruise around the world in a luxury liner is cheaper than a worker's non-mandated leave-day.

 

The hay certainly is dry enough for July 18th; all that is needed are a few sparks. India's neo-liberal policy environment and Maruti Suzuki (MS) management's conceit made sure there were many.

 

The sparks that lit the hay-stack

Maruti Suzuki at Manesar works two main shifts – the night shift being irrelevant because it is not a proper work shift and operates with a miniscule work force. About 3,000 workers slog during these two day shifts, majority of them being non-permanent contract workers – the 150$ a month (INR 8,000) contract workers. Every 51 seconds these 3,000 workers make a state-of-the-art car that sells in best markets of the world. Over the past two years all they have been wanting is a union of their own and MS management to listen to that union.

 

Initially the MS management cajoled them by saying that they could articulate their demands through the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU) that operates in the Gurgaon plant. Experience with MUKU taught them that it was a “pocket-union” – workers' terminology for a union whose overt talk is pro-worker but one which in essence, in actual workings, serves the interests of the management. 2011 was a year of sovereignty for MS Manesar workers because they broke out of the strangle-hold of MUKU and the  management. They formed a genuinely independent and pro-worker union whom they christened Maruti Suzuki Employees Union (MSEU). However MS management refused to recognize this union as the representative of the workers,  for purposes of collective bargaining. Haryana administration, on the other hand, walking in sync with MS management refused to register this union. This custom of registering unions with a registrar of trade unions is a hang-over of the British era which independent India's new rulers preserved in order to perpetuate the new order. India's ruling elite are a tenacious lot, they have myriad ways of complicating an issue and tiring out their wage slaves. Example: a union (MSEU) actually comes into being, its genuineness amply evident by the level of worker participation in its affairs; yet the management of a factory (MS Manesar) refuses to recognize it as the workers' agent for collective bargaining; reason cited – union is not registered; main hurdle in registering the union – MS management’s influence over the state administration!! Therefore instead of engaging in collective bargaining over employment terms, the workers of MS Manesar spent 2011 in an uphill struggle attempting to acquire so called 'legitimacy'. Frustration, often manifested as continuous bickering and spontaneous eruptions of vandalism, is the most normal human emotion in such a situation. The workers of MS Manesar did not cave in, instead of getting frustrated they chose struggle and perseverance in struggle. Their struggle involved tool-downs, a 13-day occupation of the factory premises and successive strikes amounting to 59 days.

 

The final settlement of the 2011 struggle reflected the character of the parties involved in the struggle. The workers delegation was told in no uncertain terms by officials of the labor department that MS management was insisting on the resignations of Sonu Gujjar (President) and Vinod Kumar (Secretary) as a precondition to any settlement whatsoever. Sonu and Vinod complied – they knew how tough the situation was for their comrades – most workers badly wanted a settlement. (The mainstream media humored itself by speaking about a golden handshake with guesstimates of the blood-money paid varying from INR 2.8 million to 4 million; post 18th July 2012 these quotes went up as high as 15 million). In bargain the management had to relent and agree that it would not create any hurdles in the registration of MSEU, which it would subsequently recognize. To conclude the workers probably lost more than they won. Their singular achievement being that they got the management to blink and in principle accept an entity that had long back come into existence and which had been forcing the course of events ever since – the MSEU. Their loss being that they were alienated from their most capable organizers – workers like Sonu and Vinod, who had helped forge a sovereign and militant union out of an amorphous mass of frustrated depressed men.

 

If you ever attend a cremation/ burial ceremony you would chance upon a concerned elder consoling the young, telling them to take heart because life never comes to a stand still ….. that despite the colossal loss things will move on ….This wisdom flowing in from antiquity did not by-pass MS Manesar. The year 2012 saw the bereaved leaderless worker masses at MS Manesar stirring once again; organizing and unionizing once again. The same underlying forces that had created the MSEU in the first place, were still unceasingly at work. The trigger this time, although novel, had something to do with the 2011 settlement. At that point of time MS management had spoken of electing two committees from amongst the workers – a grievances amelioration committee and a kind of works committee.  Later on MS management announced that any worker charge-sheeted for the 2011 disturbances would not be allowed to participate in the elections to these committees. The sentimental response, to this disciplining, from the worker masses was: '…if those who fought the hardest during 2011 for our rights can not be elected to these committees then we do not need any such committees. All that we want is our union.'  MS management in its conceit had kick started union activity at MS Manesar once again. The leaderless mass of workers churned and created a structure – it put-together an 11 member leading committee. The difference this time being that the mass of workers was controlling the union more than ever before. The 11 member leading committee was representative yet figurative. With every passing week it became more and more evident that the 100 odd member co-ordination committee, made up by the most active workers on all shop floors, was actually controlling and developing the union. It needs to be remembered that like the 2011 unionizing, contract workers were an organic part of the 2012 union activity.

 

2012 also began with the worker masses realizing that whatever the management may have committed in the October 2011 settlement, their union registration still was not happening … forget union recognition and subsequent collective bargaining over employment terms. In other words things would be still the same – same pay, same working conditions. Cheated men are angry men. Collectively cheated men mutually share and curse a lot. At times they can become very angry, even belligerent. 4th March 2012 was such a day. MS management sensed the mood that day. It did not want to be beaten up. It blinked and it talked soft. It recognized the union on the spot. Brushing aside all so-called legalities, shedding all hypocrisy,  it recognized an un-registered union! It further facilitated the union registration. A few telephone calls, and what stood thwarted for more than a year happened within two weeks. The bureaucracy suddenly started functioning – along with a number in a government register, Maruti Suzuki Workers Union (MSWU) was the name they got for themselves.

 

Thinking everything to be on-course, the workers began working on their charter-of-demands. They collected photocopies of the best industrial agreements they could come across. They constituted a committee to visit the best schools in town to collate information on the expenses needed. They talked to the wise and the learned. They did everything they could in order to write out, on a piece of paper, a charter-of-demands that would give them a decent life. They presented this charter-of-demands to the management and sat politely across the negotiating table. They had no inkling of what was in store for them. Over the next two months, through a series of meetings, the management did to them what only educated debased Indians can think of doing to their countrymen – the charter-of-demands was picked upon, its inconsistencies and mistakes were used as a mirror to show the workers how stupid they were. By telling them how low they stood in the hierarchy of men who read and write, the management sought to smash their confidence. In-confident negotiators settle for less. The indignity of being told that they were lesser men was repulsive at the gut-level but the 11 man team gamely stuck to the task entrusted to it by its comrades. The worker mass outside the negotiating room however wanted results. It was not interested in lessons in syntax correction or etiquette. It was growing restless by the day. The workers could not understand why things should take so long? The management expected them to assemble an intricate car every 51 seconds, yet it had taken more than two months and it still hadn't dished out an answer to their straight-forward demands!?

 

The proverbial 'last straw on the camel's back' was placed on July 16th, two days before the violence. On 16th July 2012 MS management responded to the workers demands by circulating a sheet of paper that informed the workers what Maruti Suzuki was willing to give, during the next three years, in return for their work. It was way below expectations and in bad taste as well. It did not concede the principal demand of the workers that all contract workers be made permanent since Maruti Suzuki at Manesar had steady work for them round the year i.e. the paper tacitly implied that Maruti Suzuki would not be implementing the law of the land, it would not be implementing the 'Contract Labor (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970'. It's position on other important demands was only marginally better. Then, it was in awful bad taste. Workers want decent education for their kids – they want their kids to grow up into college professors, doctors and cine stars – Maruti Suzuki offered them INR 200 a month for child education! The message from the management was unambiguous and workers read it as follows: “… these people are really bad people, they work us like dogs, they want us to keep living filthy lives…. they do not even want our children to receive good education”. 

 

Nothing happened on 17th July. It took a bit of time for the truth to sink in. The writing on the wall was clear: the talks on their charter-of-demands could go on for many more days but nothing significant was going to happen. The truth sank in and the frustration reached a peak. It had hit a peak by the morning of the 18th. Had supervisor Ramkishor Manjhi not cursed worker Jiya Lal's caste, MS Manesar was still heading towards a confrontation between the management and the workers. Management's unequivocal support for Ramkishor Manjhi's act – Jiya Lal's immediate suspension, Ramkishor Manjhi's disappearance from the scene after his express complaint and MS management's clear refusal to revoke Jiya Lal's suspension – was the wolf's growl that made sure that the confrontation happened on the evening of 18th July itself. 'A shift' did not leave the factory premises when 'B shift' entered to begin work. A good number of them had iron rods, car door frame-channels and projectiles tucked beneath their shirts – intimidating management bouncers were always around and these workers had not forgotten the 2005 Haryana Police beat up of Honda workers inside the court premises. They were prepared, angry and no mood to take it lying down. It is said that Ram Meher, Sandeep Dhillon, Sarabjit Singh and Co. – the men representing the workers inside the negotiating room – folded their hands and told the management that the least it could do was revoke Jiya's suspension in order to lessen the tension that evening. It is said that Mr. SY Siddiqui (Chief Operating Officer – Administration) contemptuously smiled back – he was probably intriguing on the basis of intelligence that the 11 man delegation would be beaten up if it did not accomplish anything that evening. Mr Siddiqui left the factory with 'A shift' still inside the premises. Mr. Siddiqui drove out of the factory leaving 3,000 seething workers inside instead of the normal obedient 1,500. The 11 man delegation went and reported to the mass that it could not achieve anything. “Not even the revocation of Jiya's suspension?” was the singular question asked that fateful evening. “Not even that” was the frustrated candid reply. The mass arose to do the only thing it felt itself capable of doing – its actions bespoke the limits of its current consciousness. The mass arose, not to build the future but to redeem its present – are we men or are we Mr. Suzuki's robots?

 

The significance of July 18th

The arson did not happen. They did it. They first smashed the CC TV cameras that could record what they were doing. They they went after the bones of the men who had spent years teaching them efficiency; denying them nature's calls in the name of efficiency. Efficient they were: it was all over within half an hour. Maruti Suzuki reported a burnt main gate and administration building, ninety-six supervisors and managers hospitalized for fractured bones and other injuries, one dead. Maruti Suzuki did not report that its bouncers did not put up a fight, that they fled.

 

In court the accused will plead not guilty, to any of the above. In India, pleading guilt on one charge is generally perceived as admission of guilt on all other charges as well. Out of court, in private conversations, they deny the murder. It is plausible that the workers did not kill AK Dev, that he was only beaten up by workers. Had murder been on their minds, the number of dead would not have been so low. The postmortem found AK Dev with broken bones and it reported death due to asphyxiation. In all probability AK Dev, unlike his other colleagues, failed to find his way out after the angry mob left.

 

One interesting outcome of the half an hour of worker fury was that on the morning of 19th July a very large number of managers and directors of industrial establishments in Gurgaon-Manesar chose not to go to office. They were really scared. They made it to their offices in the post-lunch session only after they received phone calls that everything was 'normal'.

 

On 19th July 2012 Maruti Suzuki issued a statement which has often been quoted. The statement says (http://www.marutisuzuki.com/Maruti-Suzuki-statement-on-Manesar.aspx accessed 16th August 2012) “… By any account, this is not an “industrial relations” problem in the nature of management-worker differences over issues of wages or working conditions. Rather, it is an orchestrated act of mob violence at a time when operations had been normal over the past many months.” The word 'normal' is significant and has therefore been purposefully underlined. The purpose not being to show that MS management is deliberately lying but on the contrary to say that it is speaking the truth. Industrial relations that are horrible for the worker happen to be the most 'normal' state in which work should be done in the eyes of the neo-liberalist. Industrial relations getting better in any way for the worker is a less normal state-of-affairs for the neo-liberalist. The neo-liberal mind wants a docile work force engaged at dirt cheap wage rates, accepting flexible working hours and obeying management directives without a murmur. Collective bargaining is the beginning of abnormality in industrial relations, for the neo-liberalist. Militant trade-unionism is sacrilege. There is no untruth or immorality involved over here – the same reality is perceived in two very different non-congruent ways by workers and their employers.

 

Neo-liberalism took a beating and some amount of 'abnormality' crept into industrial relations when Maruti Suzuki announced on 16th August 2012 that it would not be employing contract workers on the direct production line anymore, that beginning on September 2nd existing contract workers (said to be 1,869) would be screened for absorption as permanent workers. At the same time the company showed its stick by saying it would be retrenching more than 500 existing permanent workers and getting 100 para-military personnel from the state government to patrol the shop-floors during each shift. Both moves do not contradict each other. Their unity signifies a transition from neo-liberal type industrial relations to a kind where the armed might of the sate protects employer interests in an extremely visible on-the-spot manner and yet worker aspirations are also fulfilled to slight degrees. The end of the contract system at MS Manesar is the most significant fall out of 18th July.

 

Maruti Suzuki Manesar's model may get replicated in other factories across the country where workers rebel against neo-liberal regimes. However para-military personnel cannot be made to patrol production lines in all or a majority of industrial enterprises because of the costs involved. Hence if worker resistance to neo-liberalism escalates India's ruling elite will have to completely back-track on their war against collective-bargaining and accept it as a natural ingredient of industrial relations. The manner in which history will actually unfold is difficult to predict on the basis of sketchy instances like MS Manesar or Allied Nipon (Gaziabad – 2010). All the same, thoughts about the future do implore us to consider an important question – the question of political consciousness.

 

The struggle at MS Manesar does show a progression in workers' understanding about the realities of the world. MS Manesar rebelled against MUKU, the management controlled union. The workers thought that state labor department officers would support their cause but the labor department spoke about competitive times, about the limits and difficulties of the management in accepting their demands in such competitive times. In vain they wrote a letter to I Suzuki; they even tried getting it translated into Japanese. Ultimately they thought that the registration of their union with the state administration would open the doors to a solution of their problems; it didn't. They realized that the only times the management took them seriously was when it suffers production losses or when it gets threatened with physical pain. They realized the significance of united action. Yet despite acting in unison and looking for collective solutions to problems that affected all of them, they did not come to any realization that they needed to act as a class at a country wide level. In fact their vision did not even extend to united action across the entire national automobile sector. It was restricted to the Maruti Suzuki group of factories. They did not even have an organized cell in their midst that thought critically about the class-character of India's constitution and about the structure of its polity. Any blue-prints for a workers' state or debates about the possibilities of mankind advancing towards a stateless classless order were beyond them.

 

Career politicians, socialists, parliamentary communists and radical leftists of various hues do interact with these workers on an individual basis or at the group level through many direct or indirect forms. Their propaganda influences the MS Manesar worker.  But a mapping of these outside influences cannot be the key to understanding the build-up to the 18th July blast and its aftermath. The master key to understanding the blast lies in accepting that primacy of the fact that there were two classes – wage earners and the owners of the means of production aided by their executing managers – confronting each other for a prolonged period of time and on 18th July 2012 the confrontation entered a phase in which the wage slaves retorted violently to the sustained aggression of their wage lords. An auxiliary key to understanding the blast happens to be a study of the nature of the repression the workers faced 19th July 2012 onwards.

 

The claim that the violence erupted out of nowhere is a fool's claim – one should not deny that a particular type of industrial relationship led to the blast. 

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