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Thursday , October 20 , 2011
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Maruti’s Modern Times clash
- STRIKE ROOT- Gap between aspirations of a new generation of workers and clockwork precision of a prosperous company

Oct. 19: In the brown smog that covers Manesar this late autumn, large trucks that pack half-a-dozen cars each into their containers queue on the broken highway from Delhi to Jaipur and park any which way they can.

Their drivers loll in the teashops and dhabas. Few know when their containers will be loaded with Maruti Suzuki’s deliverables: cars named Swift and Dzire and A-Star and Sx4 that have been booked by tens of thousands of customers from Madurai to Malda, Srinagar to Srirangapatnam.

The newest plants of India’s largest car maker sprawl over a single campus of 700 acres some 8km west of the highway, 40-odd-km south of New Delhi, in a single facility so spread out that it can take in a town. Workers of the factories huddle under makeshift tents opposite the main gates that are manned by blue-uniformed guards from a private security agency.

The workers take turns speaking into a megaphone and raising slogans and promising to keep up the fight. Like the routine of the shifts they are assigned to, the workers come in for the “A” shift — from 7 in the morning to 3.45 in the afternoon — and for the “B” shift from 3.45 to midnight — to demonstrate.

Maruti and its workers made the car achievable for middle-class India. Today, Maruti Suzuki’s workers are alleged to be undoing that. The reason is among the fresh-faced youths who can be mistaken for high school students in the company’s shaded-green uniforms.

One of them, a Haryanvi named Naresh, was this afternoon discussing the nuances of Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times in his rented one-room tenement in Gurganva, old Gurgaon.

In the 1936 film, Chaplin is a factory worker engaged in assembly-line production and is assigned to tighten screws over metal bricks. Even on his way to the toilet, his hands perform the function in Pavlovian reflex and he unwittingly mistakes the big buttons on a lady’s skirt and runs the drivers over them.

Naresh does not laugh. He says: “Yes, I have seen the film, and, yes, that is it, we are not machines though we deal with them.” Chaplin’s character in Modern Times goes bonkers because he is so work-pressed. Naresh says he wants to stay human.

Naresh, a thinly bearded 25-year-old from a village in Hisar district, some 175km from Manesar, was Maruti Suzuki India Ltd’s best worker in April 2010. But this June, he was sacked.

He was among those reinstated following a strike in July. But days later, he was suspended. He cannot find the citation — and he could not care less for it — but he shows the trophy he was awarded for suggesting how to increase the production cycle of a “side-seal” — a component for car chassis — by inclining a conveyor belt so that it would be delivered faster to the next workstation.

Workstations in Maruti Suzuki have 40 seconds in which the worker has to do the job assigned to him. This duration may be compressed (or expanded) depending on the production target, just as in Modern Times, the foreman accelerates or slows down the pace of the conveyor belt. All the workers in Maruti Suzuki are able-bodied young men.

There are six shop floors in the main plant:

Press (where metal sheets are shaped for the cars)

Weld (welding)

Paint (this has two departments, where waterproofing and sealing is done of chassis and where the bodies of the cars are painted)

Assembly (where all the parts are integrated)

Vehicle Inspection (VI)

Utility and water treatment plant (WTT).

Naresh used to be assigned to the paint shop. He was so merited, in fact, that he was appointed line supervisor earlier this year. Naresh is one of the 970 permanent workers — a position the trainees, apprentices, casuals and contracted workers aspire for.

Like the other permanent workers he passed out of an ITI (Industrial Training Institute), the schools that produce fitters, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, plumbers, painters and welders.

In Maruti Suzuki, each of them were hired through campus-interviews but the management determined that Haryanvis were the better workers so long as most of them were not from in and around Manesar. Most of the permanent workers of the company are from Jheend and Jhajjhar and Hisar and Katthal, districts in Haryana that are not in the adjoining neighbourhoods of the plant.

Not far from Naresh’s place, Pradeep Kumar and Pradeep Kaushik from Jheend share a room with a worker from the Honda factory, also in Manesar. Kumar’s task is to apply sealants to waterproof the cars before they are painted.

“Every time I go into the shop floor I have to change from this uniform into overalls — I even have to change my footwear — and every time I leave the shop floor I have to change back into uniform,” he says.

Since the strike in 2000 in the Gurgaon facilities, the management introduced stringent measures. In the Manesar plant, the standing orders for workers list 103 types of “misconduct”. Among these are “spending too much time in the toilet” and “chatting”. Workers waiting in queue for lunch in the canteen are told not to talk among themselves because they may get “distracted” from their tasks.

In a shift, the workers have two seven-and-a-half-minute tea breaks and 30 minutes for lunch (or dinner). The time for the breaks may be reduced. “This does not leave me time to go to the toilet, change my clothes, run to the canteen that is 450 metres away and get back on the job before the belt starts running again,” Kumar says.

The seven-and-a-half-minute tea break in Maruti Suzuki is a story that rages across unions in the industrial towns of Gurgaon, Manesar and Dharuhera where workers often compare if they are better or worse off than the likes of Kumar.

The Maruti Suzuki workers were recruited when they were about 18 years of age in 2006. The Manesar plant opened in February 2007 and the first batch of trainees became permanent workers only last year. Almost immediately, the workers were urged to become members of the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (Muku) that is the only workers’ outfit in the company’s Gurgaon plant. (Manesar is about 18km south of Gurgaon).

The workers were hesitant. As more batches of trainees became permanent workers, the demand to form a union — basically the right to collective bargaining — was raised towards the end of 2010.

Maruti Suzuki now has 970 permanent workers in a total workforce of around 3,000 — a majority being contractual, casual or trainees and apprentices, who are worse off than the permanent workers.

“We knew that Muku was a pliant union with workers in Gurgaon who are much older and have families and, since their strike was broken in the year 2000, they do not have the stomach for a fight,” says Naresh.

His friend, the French-bearded Jitender Barot, who at 28 years is among the oldest permanent workers, raises his palms: “These hands have worked so hard that had I put them to use in my family farm in Hisar, my folks would have been very happy. We have delivered 2 lakh cars when the management wanted it, working overtime and breathlessly and we have been taken for granted.”

Asked why he does not go back home to work on his farm, Barot shoots back: “I wanted to be something else.”

As if to illustrate what it means to be young without liabilities, Barot walks us to Shabbir who, too, lives in Ashok Vihar in Gurganva. Unlike most workers, Shabbir, 26, is married and lives with his family — wife and two children — also in a one-room barsati. There are other workers who say they cannot marry because of the strike.

Shabbir’s eyes well up with tears when he remembers his travails over the weekend when his six-year-old son cried with stomach cramps. “I took him to a doctor who advised me to buy two Rs 30 vials for injections. I dug into my pocket and pulled out a Rs 10 note and gave it to the doctor and said ‘this is all I have, do what you will’.”

The rent for the one-room tenements in Gurganva where many of the workers live is between Rs 3,000 and Rs 3,500. A permanent worker technically earns about Rs 18,000 per month. Of this less than half is the fixed component of the salary and the rest are added incentives.

Maruti Suzuki’s punitive measures often mean that workers have to make do with cuts. In the case of Naresh and some 30 others who are suspended, this means that their salary slips show a negative pay of Rs 3,800, meaning that the amount would be deducted from their next salary.

“By contrast, the annual remuneration of the CEO has increased from Rs 47.3 lakh in 2007-08 to Rs 2.45 crore in 2010-11, an increase of 419 per cent. The annual remuneration of the chairman has also increased by 91.4 per cent during this period…. This clearly shows the deeply skewed manner in which the benefits of rising sales and profits of (Maruti Suzuki) have been shared between the management and the workers over the years,” write researchers Prasenjit Bose, who is a CPM analyst, and Sourindra Ghosh.

It is the sharp contrast — and clash — of the aspirations of a new generation of workers with the soaring revenues of Maruti Suzuki that has led to the stand-off and the repeated strikes — the current one being the third since June.

For now, the workers are not even demanding a hike in salaries. But what they are asking for — the right to form a union of their choice — is a political demand that may actually spell more trouble.

The workers allege that the Haryana government and the management of the company have colluded to prevent them from registering their proposed union, the Maruti Suzuki Employees’ Union (MSEU). Neither Muku nor the proposed MSEU is formally affiliated to any political party or to any of the central trade unions. The leaders of the MSEU are consulting central trade unions but said their union would be “independent”.

Asked by The Telegraph, Haryana deputy labour commissioner J.P. Mann said: “Yes, they have the right to form their own union. They can. But there is no obligation pending with the state labour department now. Their application in June was rejected on certain legal and technical grounds.”

In its rejection of the MSEU’s application, the Haryana government said many of the workers were still members of Muku — the workers say they were forced into membership of the old and “pliant” union that controls the workforce in the Gurgaon facilities.

Also, the Manesar workers went on strike on June 4, a day after applying for registration, even though the constitution of their proposed union said they would give 15 days’ notice. The workers say they were forced to go on strike because of punishment meted out by the management and that they have not been given an opportunity to explain their stand before the state government.

A management official said: “Despite the trouble, we are getting back to work and talks are on with them to find a solution in the presence of Haryana government officials.”

Maruti Suzuki chairman R.C. Bhargava is on record saying that the company cannot recognise a union that is not registered with the government. The Haryana government has declared the strike to be illegal.

In a television interview, Bhargava said a “newer, younger and more restless workforce” in Manesar was “complicating matters” by not sticking to agreements that they had signed since June this year.

Barot, the permanent worker who does not want to return to his farm, says the registering of a union — only permanent workers can form registered trade unions under the law — is only the first step towards raising more demands.

Ironically, Maruti owes its existence and growth to its ability to meet aspirations — its ubiquitous 800cc car symbolising the emergence of India’s new middle class. Three decades since the company was established, Maruti, whose workers in Manesar today were yet to be born when the company was formed, is the birthplace of Gen Y trade unionism.

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