Gurgaon, Haryana: Northern India’s commercial hub of Gurgaon was rocked by industrial unrest that had been simmering for the past few months as about 8,000 workers walked off their jobs after the death of a colleague over the weekend when police fired on agitating employees of an auto parts company.

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The large turnout, the first time that there has been this level of coordination among unions in four years, underlined the dissatisfaction among workers who say they’ve been shortchanged by managements unwilling to share the benefits that a recovery in auto sales have brought their companies, threatening to hamper the nascent economic recovery that this heralds if the turmoil spreads.

“I don’t know if this is the same India as the 1990s where unions can stop economic growth but people do get rattled with such incidents," said V.G. Ramakrishnan, senior director, automotive and transportation at Frost and Sullivan, a consulting firm.

The strike comes after union violence across industrial hubs such as Sriperumbudur and Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, also home to several automobile companies and their ancillaries.

The workers, belonging mostly to auto parts units in a belt that houses factories of India’s biggest car maker Maruti Suzuki India Ltd and bike maker Hero Honda Motors Ltd, were protesting against the death of the Rico Auto Industries Ltd worker on Sunday. Maruti Suzuki, which makes half the cars sold in India, was itself unaffected by the stir.

Work at Hero Honda, however, was disrupted, prompting a statement by the company calling attention to the overall industrial climate.

“The recurring labour issues in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt are severely impacting the industrial environment in the state, and hence it is indeed a concern for all industry," Hero Honda said in a release. “Production in the morning shift at our Gurgaon plant was impacted today due to short supply of components."

While the Rico agitation is set to continue, workers at the other units plan to return to work on Wednesday.

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Protests began early Tuesday morning with a few hundred workers from Rico and Sunbeam Auto Ltd protesting near the company gates on a narrow 300m strip on the service lane of National Highway 8, which connects Delhi to Jaipur.

They were joined by waves of workers from other units such as Sona Koyo Steering Systems Ltd, Lumax Industries Ltd, Bajaj Auto Ltd and Hero Honda Motors Ltd.

The protests remained peaceful except for an incident in the morning when Sanjiv Arya, a deputy general manager at Rico, was attacked as he was leaving the factory under police escort.

Trouble began at Rico’s Gurgaon factory on 21 September when 16 employees were sacked on disciplinary grounds.

“Workers had adopted a go slow approach in August and we had no option but to ask them to leave," said Surendra Singh Chaudhary, senior vice-president, human resources, Rico Auto. The workers are demanding about Rs30,000 more per worker over a period of three years, he said.

Earlier that month, the company’s employees had asked that their union be recognized by the labour commissioner.

Chaudhary traces the problem to union troubles at Honda Motorcycle and Scooter Co. India’s Manesar factory in 2005, which had resulted in the death of a worker on 25 July that year. HMSI employees have also been on strike for the past month.

Union leaders such as Gurudas Dasgupta of the Communist Party of India had been dismayed by the low turnout at a meeting at the Kamla Nehru Park in Gurgaon to commemorate the death this year, prompting them to go on a drive to unionize workers in and around the commercial belt, given the large number of factories in the area.

“We are planning to concentrate on industrial belts and rural areas," said D. Raja, a Communist Party of India lawmaker.

While Gurgaon could be a key battleground for Communist parties seeking to recover from setbacks in the April-May general election, Dasgupta says it’s the absence of recognized trade unions that leads to violence as there is no formal dispute settlement process.

The Haryana government said companies should be more amenable to workers’ demands.

“Company managements and state labour enforcement agencies should encourage trade union registration," said Harish Rawat, minister of state for labour and employment. “But some industries feel by denying this demand, they will be at peace."

Workers at Rico complain that they were treated shabbily by the management, which, they claimed, awards executives with large pay increases, while those lower down the chain get a maximum raise of Rs500 a month every year. Chaudhary denies this, saying the hikes are closer to Rs1,000 a month.

The labour turmoil also reflects the changing profile of industrial workers around the country. The vast majority of workers in Gurgaon’s auto belt have been to Industrial Training Institutes and expect to be treated as skilled workmen, unlike older, more traditional labour forces.

Raghuvir Kumar Singh has worked for eight years at Rico and takes home Rs8,000 a month.

“As far as qualifications go, there is very little difference between us and our bosses," Singh said. “Then why should we be paid so much less?"

Singh joined the union as there was no other way for him to air his grievances, he said.

“We didn’t do this to threaten the management," he said. “After all, it is also in our interest to keep our jobs."

Other workers joined the protests as they saw Rico’s troubles as a test case. Lending support to Rico’s union now will make it easier for them to negotiate with their managements, they said.

Most of the affected factories lost one shift of production.

Prasanth Kumar, a worker at Bajaj Auto, pointed out that his union was able to negotiate a Rs3,000 a month raise a few weeks ago.

The surge in auto sales, a contrast from a year earlier, has emboldened workers to ask for raises. Car sales rose by one-fifth last month and manufacturers have been unable to meet demand for popular models.

Last October, as auto sales crashed, managements had asked workers to help them tide over the hard times. Companies started working five days a week instead of the usual six.

As a result, workers were asked to take a pay cut or sacrifice their vacation days.

“When times were hard, we stood by our company," said Vinay Mishra, a worker at Rico. “Why can’t they do something for us now?"

Maitrayee Handique and Liz Mathew contributed to this story.