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Failed aspirations fuel angst among striking workers

Failed aspirations fuel angst among striking workers
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First Published: Mon, Jun 13 2011. 11 01 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Jun 13 2011. 11 01 PM IST
Manesar/New Delhi: Industrial action at the Manesar plant of automobile firm Maruti Suzuki India Ltd has put the focus on the growing trend of unfulfilled aspirations.
While ostensibly the strike, which has lasted 10 days, at Maruti’s plant was prompted by the management’s refusal to permit a new workers union and the sacking of 11 staffers, interviews with a cross-section of employees reflect a desire for living standards more consistent with the prosperous neighbourhood of Gurgaon.
Importantly, industrial workers from other factories in Gurgaon have volunteered support and have threatened a two-hour tool-down strike on Tuesday if the Maruti management does not concede to the demands.
“We also want to earn more and live in a big house,” said Vinkendra Sharma, a protesting worker at the Manesar plant.
Sharma, employed as a worker on the factor floor is originally from Panna district of Madhya Pradesh and earns Rs 16,000 per month. According to him, not only does he have to contend with increasingly expensive food and lodging expenses, but has also to send money to his family.
Ashok Kumar, another agitating worker, believes that formation of an independent union can take care of their rights and provide them a “better living standard that is missing so far”.
Both Sharma and Kumar referred to the growing inequalities in income and living standards.
Two officials of Maruti’s management who met Mint at the Manesar plant said workers have gone on strike despite “very good working conditions and overall benefit they enjoy. Our CMD (R.C. Bhargava) also stands in the same line as the workers to eat at the canteen”, said one of the two officials, requesting anonymity as the matter is sensitive.
“Without notice, they halted the production bringing Rs 40 crore loss every day to the company. Forget about the loss our partners (auto ancilliary firms) are facing,” said the second official who also declined to be named.
Workers disagree and say their financial rewards have not matched the company’s performance; the automobile sector has been among the fastest growing till sales started moderating in the past few months.
They also complained about harsh working conditions.
“We cannot go to the washroom during any other time, and in case we do, we have to give an unconditional apology letter,” Manish Kumar said, a claim that was echoed by other workers.
“We are giving our best to the company, but what are we getting in turn? The production capacity of Maruti has gone up from 10 lakh units in 2009-10 to 12.7 lakh units in 2010-11, but our salary has not gone up at all. Where is the incentive for hard work?” asked Ashok Kumar.
Analysts seem to concur.
“This is typical of most firms working in the post-liberalization era. From outside, it might appear that the salaries are high, but actually may not be affordable for them. Obviously, there is clearly unequal distribution of wealth and the high-end economies like Gurgaon add to their dissatisfaction. The workers do not have an option to deal with it now, and the companies discourage unions which might help for such resolutions,” said Vinoj Abraham, Center for Development Studies, Trivandrum. “So it is natural to expect such reaction from the lowest wage earners.”
Mint visited a nearby village that houses some of Maruti’s employees. The living conditions were minimal, with four-five workers sharing rooms that also doubled up as the community kitchen; 20-25 people shared one toilet.
On Monday, labour minister Mallikarjun Kharge, at the International Labour Conference in Geneva, said: “Ensuring social sustainability of growth is a universal challenge today. Rapid growth and urbanization have contributed to increased inequalities and imbalances.”
“Industrialists and people who earn higher wages should not throw money around when we are surrounded by poverty. If the business empires in Gurgaon and other places are not discharging their social responsibility, I think they are foolish. This will definitely lead to problem in future and they should rethink,” said S.L. Rao, a sociologist and chairman of the Institute of Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. “Having said that, I am not willing to say that a worker should have the same lifestyle as a management executive.”
Sandip Kumar, a 20-year-old contract labourer at the Manesar plant, said: “Our colleagues who worked at Suzuki’s plant in Japan told us that they get at least Rs 40,000 for what we are doing.” A casual labourer at Maruti gets only Rs 6,700 with no medical insurance or travel facility.
The Manesar plant, which came into operation nearly four-and-a-half years ago, produces at least 1,200 cars per day. There are nearly 2,500 workers in the Manesar unit, of which around 40% are contract labourers, said the company management. Since the protest started on 4 June, the company has made some “Rs 400 crore loss” in income.
“If the fight is all about sharing the prosperity, then it’s a genuine cause, but I don’t think the issue same here. Obviously, the prosperity of a unity should be shared between all stakeholders—management, shareholders and labour force,” said Y.K. Modi, a former president of industry lobby group Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. “But multiplicity of unions is not going to benefit. It’s not fair to go for a strike suddenly without discussing the issue with the management.”
This is not the first time when workers agitation has halted production in an auto company in this region. Most recently, workers stopped work at Rico Auto Industries Ltd in October 2009. In 2005, a labour protest turned violent at Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India Pvt. Ltd’s (HMSI) Gurgaon factory, leading to police action.
“A majority of the protests in last 12-13 years in Gurgaon-Manesar belt is due to company’s unwillingness to allow formation of labour unions. They have a democratic right and the corporates should not oppose it,” said D.L. Sachdeva, national secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, the labour union that is supporting the agitation.
Sachdeva said he has already had two rounds of interaction with Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and labour minister Shiv Charan Lal Sharma. “The CM has assured us that he will prevail upon the management to take back the sacked workers and allow them to form a union. If this happens, then all will be happy,” he said, adding they are hopeful of reaching a workable solution by Tuesday morning. “Else the two-hour tool-down strike will take place across 50-60 companies in the region.”
Suresh Gaur, president of the workers union at HMSI, said they had a public meeting in their factory on Monday, and if the demands of the protesting workers at Maruti are not met, they will go on strike for two hours from 9am on Tuesday. He added that over 50 other firms will join the protest in their respective firms.
“The talks have failed. The company’s stand on not taking back 11 terminated employees stands,” said S.Y. Siddiqui, Maruti Suzuki’s chief managing executive, human resources, said after talks between the management, workers and state government representatives failed late on Monday evening.
Industrial stirs in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt
•Rico Auto workers went on strike in October 2009
• Workers struck work and stopped bike production at the Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India factory in Gurgaon in July 2005. This was followed up by another stir in 2009
• A workers’ protest at the Maruti Suzuki factory in Gurgaon in 2000 continued over two months
prashant.n@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Jun 13 2011. 11 01 PM IST