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Prayaag Akbar is Associate Editor of The Sunday Guardian

Maruti attempts to curtail union power in Manesar

Maruti Suzuki workers demonstrate against the management at the company’s plant in Manesar last week. PTI

ate at night on 28 August, last Sunday, four battalions of Haryana Police arrived at the gates of the Maruti Suzuki factory in Manesar, somewhere between 250 and 300 policemen. Overnight, they set up their tents within the factory's compound, and so curious eyes could not look in, erected tented scaffolding all along the road bordering the front wall of the factory. There had been no labour unrest at the site in the days preceding this move. So what prompted this unprecedented show of strength?

A highly-placed officer within the Haryana Police told The Sunday Guardian that the order to send around 300 policemen to the site in Manesar came directly from the office of Deepender Singh Hooda, son of the Chief Minister of Haryana, Bhupinder Hooda.

One highly-placed officer within the Haryana Police, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Sunday Guardian that the order to send so many policemen to the site in Manesar came directly from the office of Deepender Singh Hooda, Member of Parliament from Rohtak (Manesar is in the Rohtak constituency). Hooda is the son of the Chief Minister of Haryana, Bhupinder Hooda. Though work continued at the plant until the arrival of the police force last Sunday, there has been a long-standing dispute between the Maruti management and the workers at their Manesar factory over the workers' right to effectively unionise. Haryana Government's decision to send the police force in when there had been no violence, or threat of it, has been interpreted by the workers at the site as the Maruti management's attempt to use intimidatory tactics to quash their demands. Certainly, the decision to use its police force to collude in this matter with corporate management demands further examination. Despite repeated attempts, Deepender Hooda would not speak to The Sunday Guardian.

Manesar, in the making

In the last ten or twelve years, gleaming, eight-lane National Highway 8 has become an artery of commerce, a tumescent extension of the commercial-industrial complex that powers Delhi. The Haryana Government hopes to replicate in a smaller way the commercial success of its richest city, Gurgaon, all along the National Highway — the key selling point of these purported commercial centres is their proximity to Delhi. The smooth flow of traffic along the Highway ensures land that was previously useful only for agriculture can be parcelled out to companies willing to shell out top dollar.

Manesar is the first of these commercial-industrial townships. Under the stewardship of the Chief Minister's son, a sleepy agricultural town has become a motley collection of offices and factories. As soon as you turn off the National Highway, a giant photograph of Mahendra Singh Dhoni (who else?) smiles at you coquettishly, imploring you to buy an office in Amrapali Corporate Hub. The architectural idiom of the place seems to be garish, low-slung buildings of blue and white, most fronted by a wall of "modernist" mirrors. Flanking the main road are factories, some small, some big, with signs indicating their affiliation: "Dayco Power Transmission", "Avlight Automotives Ltd.", and then, "R.K. & Company — Largest Manpower Provider — Naukriya hi Naukriya (in Hindi)".Image 2nd

Manesar is vital to this story because the state's involvement in this dispute stems from its need to paint this town as a safe and viable place to do business. The decision by Maruti Suzuki Motors, India's largest car manufacturer, to build its new plant in Manesar five years ago has been a significant spur to Manesar's growth as an economic centre. Faced with the impasse between the workforce and Maruti management, on Friday the company began production with a new production plant in Manesar. The new production plant, called "Plant B", requires notably less manpower than the first production unit in Manesar. It has been brought into operation more than a month ahead of schedule.

The labour dispute comes at an especially tricky time for Maruti Suzuki. Last year they announced production on a new line of its top-selling model, the Maruti Swift, and have already received 80,000 bookings. These cars were supposed to hit the road in three months, but that target has been pushed back. It is estimated that Rs 650 cr was lost during the 13-day strike in June, and Maruti fears they will lose out on bookings for the new Swift if the first batch is not delivered on time.

Unionisation and the "Good Conduct" Bond

his has been a protracted struggle between Maruti management and its labour workforce. In June this year, production shut down for 13 days after the workforce demanded they be allowed to create a union that effectively brought their grievances to the company. Shiv Kumar, general secretary of the Maruti Suzuki Employees Union, explains how things came to a head in June: "The old union [Maruti Suzuki Kamgar Union] was completely in the pocket of the management. Whatever it did, it did for the workers in the Gurgaon plant. In May, we decided we needed something that would get the position of the Manesar plant workers across. When we tried to do this, the management got angry and intervened."

At the centre of the dispute this time around is the termination of employment on 23 August of 11 contracted employees, and the suspension of 45 more. Four workers were also arrested by the police that day. Maruti says the employees were terminated because they were hampering output at the plant and being disruptive. But the workers disagree.

General secretary Shiv Kumar says, "Relations had not been good between the management and the workers. The HR head at the plant, Avneesh Kumar Dev, even objected that many members of our union went to the Ramlila Grounds to support Anna Hazare's movement. When they terminated and suspended some employees last week, we started considering what we could do, though we had not agreed upon a course of action. We asked the management to give us chargesheets against these employees, so we would know why they had been fired. They said they would send it to the employees' homes, but nothing has been sent so far.

"Then, when the morning shift workers got to the plant on Monday we saw this huge police presence. Security had been instructed to ensure every worker who walked in had to sign a 'Good Conduct' bond. Our members refused. We have not gone on strike, but the company has locked out all the labourers, contracted or temporary."

A Maruti spokesperson told the media, "The company has had no conversations with workers. We are not negotiating with them. The issue here is of ultimate quality of the product. If the workers are not willing to sign the bond and assure they will follow quality standards, and not hamper production, we will not allow them."

The Good Conduct Bond M aruti Suzuki wants all of its Manesar labour workers to sign mandates that workers cannot resort to anything that could be construed as slowing or stopping work, at any point, no matter what the management does. It is a useful — and old — trick to give it such a benign name. Most media reports have stated that workers at a factory refused to sign a bond requiring good conduct, without actually examining the strictures the bond imposes.

The workers have a number of grievances with the working conditions in the plant: they say too much salary is cut for unscheduled leave, that they have to request permission to use the bathroom, that Rs 700 is cut from their wages if they are late for a shift by even a few minutes, and that temporary employees do not have the rights they should be accorded. They see the new union as essential to look into these concerns. They argue that signing the Good Conduct bond will effectively render the union powerless, since it ensures that the employees cannot use the only resource at their disposal: collective protest.

Sonu Gujjar, a leading functionary of the Maruti Suzuki Employees Union, told The Sunday Guardian, "They removed 11 important members of our Union. They are trying to make sure we don't fight for our rights. We will now only enter the factory when they reemploy all the workers who have been fired and suspended, and when they say we don't have to sign this Good Conduct form. Only then will we go back to work."

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