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The Maruti agitation has brought the spotlight back on workers' rights. Can the scant disregard for working conditions by the auto industry put a blot on the India growth story? Paramita Ghosh writes. Autohub - behind the scenes|Labour pains

business Updated: Oct 30, 2011 01:34 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times

Ten thousand copies of a monthly pamphlet in which factory workers in the National Capital Region (NCR) write about events, memories, workplace experiences has just been published. The only known archive of an invisible community, it chronicles the story of how most of them have lost skills, become button pushers, and are forced to cheapen their own labour-power by being at the receiving end of two practices that are in reality one - industrial policies that let companies speed up machines. And, men.

The Maruti-Suzuki truce last week- after 14 days of a workers' movement that actually started in June - demands a re-look at the economic model that has built the NCR and the shape of the current workers' struggle which, they say, is not just about Wages but about a Life.

Let's consider some. Sonu, one of the 30,000 factory workers in IMT Manesar, has held 10 jobs in five years. "Not because I like moving," he says wryly, "but because of unstable work conditions." He has worked 12-hour shifts at a small and medium enterprise (SME) making sidecovers for Hero Honda bike-parts. The 21-year-old has been a tailor, welder, helper, junior supervisor, steam pressman in various factories and has been allowed to specialise at none. He has lost jobs for falling ill for a day. He has done forced overtime to stave off unemployment. "But sometimes you have to say 'no' and face the consequences," he says.

Worker militancy, however, is not a given. Protest becomes impossible in a factory of five people, says Rajan, a worker at a Faridabad SME. Guddu, a co-worker, listens in as he balances two containers of plated auto parts for Mahindra tractors and Honda bikes on his head. His feet are a few inches away from boiling vats of chemicals placed at a corner of the soot-licked workshed. It's a daily hazard; he manages.

Turning a blind eye
All workers here are on contract. They are paid Rs 4,500-5,000 for a 12-13-hour shift in a six-day work-week. There's no accident allowance, but they get "R200 on asking". Last year, some of them got a hike of R500 - after five years. "We make rubber parts for Honda, but we do not get a Honda worker's benefits," says one of them. The SME owner, Sher Singh, denies the Honda connection, then admits getting "20% less than the market rate", claims a lower number of workforce than he actually employs, shrugs off not giving medical allowance, and then sums up: "Have to keep labour, as labour. Right?"

Many of these SMEs, stand on agricultural land so when a farmer (Sher Singh's father, for instance, was one) became an industrialist or was reduced to a contractor, he simply replicated the old patronage- and custom-based practices of a pre-modern economy.

"Work minus contract or legality that has become characteristic of the NCR economy now has become norm in small setups that feed big industries and in the latter as well," says labour scholar Pratyush Chandra.

But this is not a story about good or bad individuals, but of an economic system built on inequalities and false promises. The NCR region built in the '60s to develop a metropolitan area around Delhi, got a major industrial push '80s onwards. Faridabad and Ghaziabad in the '70s and '80s, Gurgaon in the '90s and IMT Manesar since 2000 became the post-modern belt, as it were, of 'competition', 'scope' and 'enterprise'.

Factories belonging to big industrial houses broke themselves up into a hundred parts and outsourced work to smaller ancillary units, mostly in the informal sector, following the post-Fordist model of '70s America. With this move, they stopped being accountable for all their workers, avoided their demands, made registration of unions difficult, and still got their job done. The new technology introduced, especially in the automobile sector, from the '90s, has in spite of huge productivity gains (Hero Honda posted a profit of Rs 557.89 crore in June as example) ironically enough, started to destabilise this neat plan.

The Gurgaon-IMT Manesar that developed as an autohub has, according to industry estimates over 60 auto companies in Gurgaon and over 35 in Manesar. The men work under extreme work-intensive conditions.

"AMT (Advanced Manufacturing Technique), CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing), for example, have redefined the relationship between workers and machines, by centralising control of assembly lines and its speed," says Amit, a labour activist. "Even if the speed is increased by even a fraction of a second, the worker feels the strain but it is difficult to detect." The oppression is higher in bigger factories says Mani Bhushan, a worker in the Manesar area, "and therefore, so is the awareness."

Joining hands
Unlike older areas of industry and infrastructure such as Faridabad, Gurgaon has a new kind of worker who has seen in the Maruti stand-off opportunities for real solidarity. Forty unions had backed the Maruti agitation, which is still an open wound with the management not having committed to taking back the leaders. Workers now have information about work processes not just in their factories, but elsewhere as well.

"One Honda Activa bike is assembled in 23 seconds, a Maruti car in 42 seconds, an Eicher truck in 7 minutes according to 2003 figures," informs Devender, a welder and permanent worker in a Honda Motorcycle factory. "There are 1,800 permanent workers in our factory", he says. "And 4,400 on contract. They get Rs 8-10,000 for a 8-hour shift. We get Rs 25-30,000." (Other than Honda Motors, Honda Siel Cars India, Hero MotoCorp contacted for worker wage breakup, did not respond.) Surely this will change. "No. A worker may remain on contract for five years, or more. They may never even become permanent," adds Devender.

Is this illegal? Yes and no. Contract workers were earlier only to be used for loading/unloading purposes and other unskilled jobs. But post-liberalisation in an environment of consensus among all political parties to give a push to industry, the NDA budget of 2001 delivered by Yashwant Sinha had already proposed that the Industrial Disputes Act's regulations on hire and fire should 'now apply to industrial establishments employing not less than 1,000 workers instead of 100.'

"But the Second Labour Commission's report submitted in 2002 recommended a limit of 300 workers. Yashwant Sinha's speech and the SLC's report definitely gave this aspect of labour reform a quasi-legal status," points out Chandra. "Being 'flexibile' in the labour market has always been an important component of the neo-liberal strategy to boost up the economy. But due to specific labour and industrial laws in India, big companies had to develop various strategies like ancillarisation, outsourcing and dispersed production networks to take advantage of flexibility that smaller firms enjoyed".

The UPA government, because of the increased pressure of industry due to the present financial crisis has continued the trend of making labour reform, one favouring industry, their main agenda, he adds. "Not surprisingly, this seems to have given companies a free hand to hire and fire and this has hit the most vulnerable section, the contract and casual workers, the hardest."

The role of labour officials, who would earlier try to enquire into malpractices, has also diminished. Gurgaon, for instance, has just 6-7 labour Inspectors. "The Assistant Labour Commissioner of Gurgaon is, in fact, a top official with the HUDA authority. He is kept busy with HUDA properties. Who has time for factory workers?" asks Shyamveer, an activist with the Inquilabi Mazdoor Kendra. "The labour department anyway takes money to register our unions. And sometimes from the management too - to halt the registration."
Factory workers, so they say, will soon no longer wait for outside 'help' - not even from the traditional Left. "Earlier we had not, but now we are going to take up the issue of contract workers," says veteran trade unionist and CPI MP Gurudas Dasgupta. "We have begun to organise ourselves," says Sunil Kumar, a Maruti-Suzuki worker. "We will not be dictated to by anyone. We will join all other struggles and find common cause with them, brother to brother."

(Inputs Sumant Banerji)

First Published: Oct 29, 2011 23:11 IST