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An unlikely leader

Sharmistha Mukherjee  |  New Delhi 

How did Sonu Gujjar, a poor, timid young man from Jhajjar in Haryana, grow into a formidable trade union leader?

When we go looking for Sonu Gujjar at a 6,000-strong rally in Kamla Nehru Park, Gurgaon, we expect to run into a firebrand leader belting out inspirational speeches to work up the gathering. There are union leaders who take turns at addressing the workers on the grounds but Gujjar is not one of them.

Instead, we spot him sitting under a shelter behind those making the speeches. Dressed in a purple and black checked shirt, Gujjar waves at us. “Comrade Sonu”, 25, shy, affable, the face of the agitation that has severely disrupted production work at Maruti Suzuki, intrigues us.

A technician from ITI Rohtak, Gujjar was in awe of Maruti Suzuki when he stepped out of the institute seven years ago. He had heard several stories about the benefits of working with the largest car maker in the country. So even though Gujjar started work with Sona Koyo Steering, he promptly made the switch when Maruti Suzuki commissioned its second unit in July 2006 and joined the Manesar unit as a welder. During his stint with the company, Gujjar won awards for the best welder once and the best operator thrice.

And now, five years later, Gujjar and his band of 2,000-odd workers have stirred up a protest that has been termed the worst labour unrest the company has witnessed since its inception in 1983. So what was it that transformed the timid lanky boy from a poor family in Jhajjar in Haryana into a spokesperson for the cause of his fellow workers in Manesar?

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Gujjar believes that his stint at Maruti Suzuki opened his eyes to the flip side of working for a multinational corporation. Two incidents particularly steeled his resolve to take a stand for his fellow workers. “When some workers in the factory met with an accident, they did not receive any help from the company’s human resources department. Later, when a colleague’s mother passed away, I asked the workers to observe silence for a few minutes as a mark of respect,” says Gujjar. His initiatives didn’t meet with the approval of the management.

Gujjar decided to then contest elections for the post of president of the unrecognised Maruti Suzuki Employees Union. He won and since then has been rallying for the workers’ right to form an independent union. Added to his list of demands is resumption of the company’s bus services for regular workers and re-induction of 1,200 contractual workers and 71 others suspended and dismissed from the Manesar plant.

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There have been allegations that it is difficult to negotiate with Gujjar. It is said that he never takes a stand during discussions with the management and that he is believed to be aligned with the Left-backed All India Trade Union Congress. “His actions may cause hundreds of workers to lose their livelihood and companies to suffer hundreds of crores worth of losses, but he is too immature to realise all this. He is not even clear on what he and his fellow leaders want for the workers,” says an industry source who doesn’t wish to be named.

The frequent labour unrests have spelled revenue losses worth Rs 2,200 crore for Maruti Suzuki, while the production losses lie in the region of 74,500 cars. Maruti Suzuki has around 250 vendors in the Gurgaon-Manesar region, 80 per cent of which had set up manufacturing units in the area to supply exclusively to the company. With the capacity now lying unutilised, these companies are now staring at 15-20 per cent loss in annual earnings. For them, the revenue loss since June has been estimated to be around Rs 1,400 crores.

Leaders at union bodies, however, present a contrasting picture. A senior member, who has been closely following the development, explains, “Gujjar is emotional. He is very involved with the movement but he doesn’t know a lot about trade union laws. And sometimes he hesitates while taking decisions. But, he is straightforward and coordinates regularly with the workers.”

It is perhaps for this reason that the protesting workers at Manesar have found it easier to connect with Gujjar than with Shiv Kumar, the brooding general secretary of the employees’ union. “Each time any decision needs to be taken, Gujjar discusses the matter with us. After that a resolution is arrived at and all the workers follow what has been suggested,” says Pradeep, a regular worker at Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant.

It is Gujjar’s closeness to the workers that led around 30 investors to reach out to him last week to get an inside perspective on the labour trouble ailing Maruti Suzuki. Gujjar explains: “Nobody had given them a proper account of what was going on at Manesar. The management is putting forward its version of the strike. I explained our situation to them which most of them understood.”

Gujjar, who lives with his parents and wife, travels to Manesar everyday for work. His family has no agricultural land to depend on. Gujjar, who claims to have experienced extreme poverty, is now not only concerned about the fate of the 2,000 workers at Maruti Suzuki but also of living up to the faith that the 10,000 workers in the belt have reposed in him.

Sustenance has now become an issue as sporadic labour unrests have meant that the workers have managed to earn only a quarter of their average wages over the past four months. But the determination is firm. Gujjar says, “We are collecting whatever we have saved to provide food for every contractual worker who has stood by us in the strike. There are difficulties but we will not give up till we secure our rights.”

First Published: Sat, October 22 2011. 00:46 IST