Sixteen years ago, Shailendra Pal Singh decided to move from Firozabad, a town around 50 km east of Agra, to Delhi to look for a job in a factory.
Singh’s dreams finally were realised at Rico Auto Industries Ltd, a supplier of auto components and assemblies, in Gurgaon, then an upcoming suburb south of Delhi in Haryana.
The dream was not to last long.
In the next 15 years, Gurgaon grew from just a suburb to being the home of biggest multinational companies in the world, with malls and swanky penthouses. But Singh’s life, in spite of his dream city job, didn’t change much.
“Since 1993 I’ve seen both Rico Auto and Gurgaon advance and expand but my life remains untouched by this progress,” said Singh (37), who claims to be a graduate of Agra University. “Workers at Rico and at many other factories have no rights and no access to basic facilities.”
This week's clashes between protesting workers and the police in Gurgaon are as much due to a demand for better wages as is
a manifestation of the unfulfilled aspirations of people left out of the economic boom of the past one and a half decades.
Workers at Rico Auto have been demanding the right to form a union, the application for which is currently pending. In September trouble started brewing at the factory after the management expelled 16 workers. It was on Sunday during a protest demanding the 16 workers be reinstated that an employee from Rico Auto died and several others including Singh got injured. Overnight, more than 8,000 workers from across 60 factories in Gurgaon and Manesar decided to go on strike.
Though workers at Rico Auto are demanding higher pay and the right to form a union, their demands are not only those. The
workers want to form unions to address their real demands – concrete living quarters, buses to ferry workers from home to factory and back, school facilities for their children, adequate medical cover and well-equipped dispensaries and canteens on factory campus.
“Trade union activities had almost died down in India but in the last few years the tide has turned,” said Gautam Mody,
secretary, New Trade Union Initiative. “Growing inequality and the growth of the informal sector within the formal sector are responsible for it.”
The right to form a union is important because it will give the workers an opportunity to demand what is due to them, said Mody.
Worker unrest has been rising across the country in recent months. In September, striking workers at Pricol, an auto instruments maker in Coimbatore, attacked a senior manager, who later died. Last year, a group of sacked employees of an Italy-based company beat the company chief operating officer to death in Noida. Such incidents might rise if the government and employers don’t take stock of the situation soon.
Almost 70 per cent of factory workers in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt are not from Haryana. They are from states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa. The condominiums, high-rises, the eight-lane expressway and malls of Gurgaon have stoked the aspirations of workers who came to the city with big dreams and now find themselves even without basic infrastructure.
“If the companies can give their executives cars to travel, then why can’t a bus service start for workers,” asked Suresh Yadav (26), a worker at Rico Auto, who has decided to leave his farmland in Bhiwani district of Haryana and settle in Gurgaon. “Everyone knows Gurgaon has weak public transport infrastructure. The rich have their cars but a poor worker like me often has to walk to work at 6 am.”
Similarly, most residential complexes and malls turn to power backup during outages but “our families have to go without electricity for hours”, said Yadav.
“The government and employers need to stop treating unions as disruptive and demanding bodies,” said Sharat Bhowmik, dean, school of management and labour studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. “Around 6,000 workers die every hour in industrial accidents globally. So demanding, for instance, medical cover or good dispensaries on factory campus is not absurd.”
In Europe and some other regions of the world, trade unions are seen as a positive force because they help workers air their grievances and help employers address them, Bhowmik says.
Workers complain that they don’t get regular water supply at home and have to live next to open drains in hutments or cramped one-room accommodations.
For people such as Singh and Yadav, there isn’t much difference between their villages and Gurgaon, also known as the millennium city of India. The only difference is that of opportunities and one of the opportunities is that of better education for their children.
Singh and several of his colleagues are sending their children to private schools across Gurgaon.
“Government schools won’t be able to fulfil the dreams of my children,” said Mukesh Kaushik (28) from Punjab and a father of three. “Private schools are expensive but government schools are there in all villages and we all know what state they are in.”
“Worker unrest will only grow in coming years if the government and private companies don’t realise that India has changed tremendously in recent years,” said Mody. “We need to wake up to the demands of these workers.”