When Maruti Suzuki announced its plans for a new production plant in 2006, Santosh Kumar Yadav was a happy man. The 22-year-old from Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh felt that a job at the plant was his ticket to a better life. Three years later, the dream has gone sour.
Yadav cleared the exam for permanent employee status in Maruti thrice but is still a casual employee. “I wanted to make Delhi my home, but with my salary it’s not possible. They cut Rs1,870 if I miss work for two days. So I haven’t been back home. In these conditions I can’t survive, let alone bring my family here.”
Voices like Yadav’s have made the din of protest outside the Maruti Suzuki plant in Manesar even louder. The 600-acre manufacturing facility for India’s most selling auto brand is surrounded by agitating workers who are demanding job security, better wages and the right to form a union.
The lockout at Maruti is not a one-off incident.
Discontent among workers in the NCR has been brewing for a while now. Many workers claim that companies do not issue them identity cards or register them on rolls. Most of them are hired on contractual or apprentice-basis, which denies them access to health and retirement benefits.
Their blood and sweat may have changed the economic landscape but their aspirations remain far from realised.
All work, low pay?
When he tried to organise fellow employees into a union at an auto component factory in Noida, Deep Narayan, was suspended. That was six months ago. The 40-year-old worker at Kanwal Industrial Corporation has since had to fend for his family of five with half pay — Rs2,100 a month.
“Another worker and I were indefinitely suspended because the management thought that we were inciting others,” said Narayan, whose fate is now tied to the outcome of a company-ordered probe. “The biggest problem here is that 90% of the workers in big factories are not registered on the company roll, which makes it easier for them to exploit workers,” said Madan Prasad, a local office bearer of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions.”
According to the Labour Ministry, the number of industrial strikes declined to 79 in 2010 from 157 a year earlier, but the number does not reflect the growing disaffection among workers.
Even getting the prescribed minimum wage, which is a lowly Rs5,269 per month currently for a skilled worker in Uttar Pradesh, is a struggle. And when they get it, more than half of it goes toward paying rent.
“Though the dearness allowance has increased, the minimum wages, which should be revised every three years, hasn’t been revised since 2000,” said Prasad. In contrast, prices of essential goods have more than tripled.
David vs Goliath
Twenty five years ago, Pawan Kumar Mishra left Khagaria, Bihar to look for a well-paying job in the capital.
Currently a maintenance supervisor at Logwell Forge Ltd, an auto part supplier in Gurgaon, he has seen the profits of corporations rise and the conditions of the workers fall.
Mishra says his salary will never be enough to get his four kids through school. “Inflation and salaries are not going hand in hand, because the contractors take their cut. They need to go,” he said. “This needs to be the first step for change.”
Migration has fuelled the problem of excess supply of workers. “Because of this, for every worker who leaves, the companies find another who is willing to work for less,” said Vikash Barnwal at the Society for Labour and Development.The fervour of social activism is weak in the NCR, which is why labour here faces more problems than in Delhi. And the administration has done little to protect the interests of labour.
As for businesses, there are few signs of change they must embrace to make the India growth story sustainable and inclusive. Last week, a statement from FICCI president termed the protests as “non-democratic behaviour (that) not only leads their (the workers’) families into everyday bread-butter crisis, but also pushes the country into turmoil”. The statement asked the workers “to maintain discipline and handle the situation peacefully”, but made no such appeal to the management.
“India has become the ‘shirtmaker to the world,” said said Gautam Mody, secretary, National Trade Unions Initiative. “Now there are two ways of making shirts. One is that you pay just wages and respect workers' rights and the other is that you allow for extra ordinary profits at the cost of workers.”
Has India Inc. chosen the latter?