Why are workers in India’s major auto cluster so volatile?

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Manesar-Gurgaon industrial belt has been witness to industrial conflicts for a long time now. Here are the reasons!

Last week, an HR head of Mitsuba, a Japanese manufacturer of automobile parts, was shot at by a sacked worker. This could pass off as a one-off tragic incident, but the Manesar- Gurgaon industrial belt, which extends up to Neemrana in Rajasthan, has been witness to industrial conflicts for a long time now. What could be the reason(s)?

This belt, which is one of the major auto clusters in India, has experienced great industrial growth in the last three decades. At the same time, it has also been branded as a prominent centre of militant labour unrest.

The Centre for Sustainable Employment (CSE), Azim Premji University, has published a report which shows how, despite growth, employment conditions of workers in these factories have worsened over the years. For instance, at the Honda Tapukara plant, there is manual handling of hot metal of 10 kilogram with a tong, and breaking of surplus material (‘runner’) physically. The conditions at other plants of other companies will be no less strenuous and risky. There is no provision of ‘relievers’. If someone has to drink water or go to the toilet, other workers have to adjust the work. After eight hours, the contract workers are regularly forced for overtime.

The study by CSE is based on primary survey work of qualitative nature spread over six months from September 2017 to March 2018. Primary respondents are workers of different segments, plant-level trade union leaders and trade union activists of the belt, with some inputs from secondary literature, workers magazines and data published by the companies and the Government.

The beginning
In 1983, Maruti Udyog Limited (MUL), a joint venture of the Government of India and Suzuki Motor Corporation, established its plant in Gurgaon.
To promote indigenisation, it had to adopt the Phased Manufacturing Programme (PMP), following government policy, which required 92 per cent localisation of components within five years from the start of production.

To reduce its vulnerability of production, MUL attempted to develop a strong base of supplier companies and encouraged its local vendors to adopt flexible practices or advanced technology. In 1984, Hero Honda also set up its factory in Dharuhera.

This facilitated the process of establishment of a strong supply base of auto components in Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera industrial belt, which later extended to the Bawal industrial area. Several auto ancillary companies, such as Bosch, Denso, FCC, Delphi, and Continental set up plants in this zone.

In the first decade until 2005, the struggles were few — mainly plant based and local, because of limited expansion of the industrial belt.

Post 2005
During this period, the struggle for union formation, inspired by Honda workers struggle, spread in various plants in Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera. Almost 35–40 unions were formed in this period in the auto belt.

The permanent workers of newly-formed unions could improve their salary, facilities and working conditions through their settlements with the management. However, this struggle was not bloodless – a worker, Ajit Yadav – was killed by management-hired goons at the factory gate of Rico Gurgaon during a 44-day strike.

This incident spread like wildfire and more than a lakh workers, across factories and companies, went on a strike on one single day. However, the management won over this situation, which created further frustration among workers.

Post 2011
This is when the militant struggle of workers started. It assumed new forms, such as factory occupation by workers, solidarity strikes, unprecedented unity of permanent and contract workers, ground-level self-organisation of plant-level workers dissociating from central trade union dictates, and the emergence of an insipient form of ‘working class power’ expressed on the shop floor. The capital–labour conflict went beyond the legal framework of trade union settlements.

The factory management was able to take control of the situation, mostly through police repression—one still remembers the violent incident of 18 July 2012 — but only for a year. New unions were formed again in 2013.

2015–18
The report says that this phase is marked by some militant and resilient struggles for union formation ending in defeat, after heavy repression by police and the non-negotiable attitude of companies and institutions towards struggling workers. This phase is also marked by the attempt to crush established unions in several factories, by repression or by shifting of production.

There is no union in any other plant of Rico except the Dharuhera and Gurgaon plants. The Gurgaon plant union, formed after the defeat of the workers’ struggle in 2009–10 and crushing of the then leading union body, acts as a puppet union of the management, as revealed by the Rico workers.

The Rico management initially terminated around 200 contract workers in mid-2017. Then the management declared a VRS package under which 95 permanent workers took VRS till April 2018, and ultimately applied to the labour secretary, Haryana for partial closure of production in Dharuhera plant and approval of termination of 118 workers working at Hero line on 26 March. The legal struggle between the management and the union is still going on.

How management has successfully taken control of the situation

NEW PRODUCTION UNITS: Companies have started new multiple production units, which allow them to shift production from one unit to the other and have reduced workers control over production, effectiveness of strikes and bargaining capacity of unions in the older units.

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Mechanisation and automation have provided the management with great power to take control of the situation and decreased the bargaining power of the labour forces. In general, one robot substitutes three to ten workers, depending on the nature of the job. It has made workers disposable, rendered skill and experience redundant and has caused job insecurity for workers. In the Honda Tamukara plant, the machine shop is fully robotised.

NEW BREED OF TEMPORARY WORKERS: Companies have drastically brought down the number of permanent workers, which leaves the union with minimal power to negotiate. Companies have either increased the number of temporary workers or have hired new categories of workers, such as diploma trainees, student trainees and diploma apprentices. These hires are not recognised as ‘workers’ and so can’t be part of any union.

For instance, of the 7000 workers in the three factories of Maruti Suzuki, only 1700 are permanent workers. All others are hired as temporary workers (TW), contract workers, apprentices and student trainees who work along with permanent workers in the same nature of production work in press shops, weld shops, paint shops, bumper shops, injection moulding and assembly lines.

Legal framework
In the earlier days, the main institutions to deal with labour matters were the labour courts, Industrial Tribunal and Labour Department. The study suggests that now criminal and civil courts and the police-administration are taking increasing pro-active roles to decide the matters related to labour disputes and unrest, while the labour courts and labour department take a back seat.

Thus, the collective bargaining mechanism involving tripartite settlement of workers, management personnel and labour department officials under section 12(3) of the Industrial Disputes Act 1947 has been negatively affected.

Today, unfortunately, the union process and ‘collective bargaining’ of workers are seen as ‘acts of indiscipline’ and any ‘labour dispute’ is now considered a ‘law and order’ problem.

In the absence of a bargaining and conciliation mechanism, labour disputes have graduated to labour unrest, labour conflict and finally labour militancy!

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