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Sreelatha Menon: Wings on fire

Violence at Maruti Suzuki's Manesar plant shows the rot prevailing in employer-worker relationship

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The violence witnessed at Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant, leading to the death of a deputy HR general manager, is a repeat of what was seen in two other factories in Delhi-National Capital Region a few years ago.

What is turning workers into killers? No one will ever know. For, all investigations seem to be looking at one side of the story — the worker’s. Both the crime and the criminal seem to be pre-decided. The worker is the villain.

The police is already trailing all the 3,000 workers of the Manesar plant, irrespective of whether they were present during the shift when the violence erupted. Police is knocking at their doors in nearby villages of Thana and Aliyar. In fact, any worker seems a suspect, according to workers’ right activist Satyam, who is also the editor of a workers’ journal in Gurgaon. The police chasing Maruti Suzuki’s workers have even detained those from Hero Honda, adds.

Two years ago, a similar scene was played out at Allied Nippon in Ghaziabad. The HR manager was lynched to death by workers who alleged being treated worse than slaves. In another incident, another official in Graziano Transmissioni in Greater Noida was killed by angry workers.

In both cases, the accused were permanent workers — most of whom were fired or arrested. In Nippon, only 150 permanent workers remain, while there are 1,000 contract workers. Seven permanent workers are in jail and 168 on the streets — not even paid their dues. At Graziano, the cases are still on and almost no permanent worker is on the rolls.

Workers are treated poorly across sectors. Many textile workers who work in factories in the Manesar belt have reported to this writer of fines charged for using the urinal more than twice a day! At Maruti Suzuki, workers have taken only a seven-minute break everyday for 29 years without complaining, says a top official in order to justify the need to continue the tradition.

Such norms are not questioned. Media reports on these practices seldom lead to any action against the management. The stock explanation: The workers have not complained. The reason is known to all.

Contract workers are not allowed to be a part of any union. And, if they complain, they would be fired. So, managements prefer contract workers as they do nothing but work. And, for very little money.

While the manufactures 550,000 cars every year, the work is done by 3,000 contract workers and a handful of permanent workers. For the same work, a contract worker gets Rs 6,000 a month while a permanent one gets Rs 18,000, Satyam says.

The company has been promising an increase in wages since January but, despite the rising prices, the workers are kept waiting.

Ram Mehar, president of the Workers’ Union, says the same workers who are now accused of violence, agitated peacefully inside the premises for five months last year. He calls the July 18 incident pre-planned. It began when a supervisor in the shop floor abused and made casteist remarks at a dalit worker. The management immediately suspended the worker.

“When the other workers went to meet the HR to demand action against the supervisor, the HR officials flatly refused to hear them,” he says. There have been charges and counter-charges by the management and the workers on how the dispute was settled.

Dinesh Mishra, who heads the Ghaziabad district unit of Centre of Indian Trade Unions, says neither the government nor the police bothers to go to the root of the worker-management conflict. And, the industry is only interested in its flight upward.

At the root, he says, is the failure to have a working relationship of the employer with the labour.

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