Worker´s Unrest in Automobile plants in India: Strikes and Occupations at Maruti Suzuki and Bajaj Auto in 2011/12 and 2013
The new plant of India´s biggest car passenger producer Maruti Suzuki was occupied twice in 2011 and saw widescale rioting in July 2012 as workers set the factory on fire – the events got widespread attention but did not lead to a considerable change of labour relations in India.
Before I move on to a closer description of the two strike movements in 2011/12 and 2013, I provide for some impression on the way industrial labour is structured today in India.
During the distribution of the worker´s newspaper Faridabad Mansoor Samachar in the industrial district of Okhla in New Delhi, the workers that take a newspaper are usually asked where they work. In earlier times they gave the name of the company, but now many of them respond with a number: 31, 44 or 142. The vast amount of industrial labour in India is done in supplier companies, while the product, electronic consumer articles or cars, is assembled by a comparatively small number of workers in the plant of the main company. The supplier companies employ between 80 and 100 % contract workers that are sacked again after 6 months. This leads to a permanent change of jobs and so the workers only memorize the number of the factory – the number is sufficient in order to know where they have to go in the industrial cluster. The workers don’t memorize the name of the employer company, because they are an interchangeable force of labor.
Especially the industrial city of Gurgaon south of New Delhi has seen an upswing of factory struggles since 2005. In 2005 workers at Honda factory occupied their plant. In 2007, again, the contract workers at Honda went on strike and in the same year India´s biggest motorcycle producer Hero saw a major strike movement. In 2008 the CEO of the Italian autoparts producer Graziano was killed by workers after a 1-year-long conflict. The background of that conflict was the replacement of permanent by contract workers and the dismissal of unionised workers.
Maruti Suzuki is the biggest car passenger procuder in India and was started as a state-run company. But since the mid 2000s it is controlled by the Japanese company Suzuki. The main plant of Maruti is in Gurgaon, too. 20 kilometres further south, in Manesar, Maruti opened a new plant in 2007. There are no settlements apart from a small village and the newly hired workers in the new plant are all aged between 20 and 25. In 2011, 75 % in this factory were contract workers from 60 different contractors, and the wages in that factory are lower than in the mother plant in Gurgaon. The contract workers earned in 2011 about a half (9.000 Rupies, about 100 Euro in a month) of the wage of permanent workers (17.000 Rupies/month). 800 workers were permanent at that time and 2700 were contract workers.
But just there, in this new ,model factory`, a three month-long conflict broke out in 2011. The workers were about to be forced to join the union MUKU that was founded by the management while the independent union MSWU was denied registration by the state. Usually trade unions are only allowed to register if the management approves the registration, Of course, this is against all labour laws, but in general labour law in India is quite good, but is either not implemented, or if it is, then it is circumvented in a myriad number of ways. A saying in India goes “It´s just a piece of paper” and it applies here, too. Plus, only permanent workers can effectively join a trade union – contract workers are fired if they join one.
In June 2011 the permanent workers were forced to sign up to the yellow union MUKU, and as a response 2000 workers organised an occupation of the factory for two weeks. After an agreement that the independent union MSWU will be able to register, the occupation ended. But, in mid-August the registration was denied again by the administration and on August 29 the management used a method that is well-known in India: The workers are locked out with the help of the police and are only able to enter the factory after they sign an undertaking of ,good conduct` with which they promise not to agitate against the management again. But this was only signed by 20 workers, the others didn’t enter the factory and held an assembly in front of the factory gates. In the meantime, the management recruits about 800 new contract workers in order to keep the production going. Finally, one month later the workers sign the undertaking, and some workers which were dismissed during the conflict are taken back. As workers want to return to work a few days later, only the permanent workers are allowed to enter and around 1.100 contract workers are denied entry. Now the contract workers force the permanent workers to show their solidarity and on the 7th of October the factory is occupied again. At the same day, three other nearby plants of Suzuki are occupied by the workers employed there and eight more auto plants stage solidarity strikes. That was the decisive moment in which permanent and contract workers organized a joint struggle for the second time in the Manesar plant, and in other Suzuki plants workers went on strike out of solidarity. In the occupation at the Manesar plant many of the contract workers that were newly hired during the lockout joined the struggle. While Suzuki Powertrain, the plant where the engines are produced, was occupied, too, the main plant in Gurgaon was affected and had to close down two days after the occupations for some time. One week later, at October 14, 2000 policemen evicted the canteen run by workers, and the workers decided to give up the occupations. But in the four Suzuki plants that were occupied the strike went on for another week until October 21. Finally, the management took back the locked-out contract workers. The conflict seemed to be settled, but a few days later the leaders of the independent MSWU union were forced to accept high severance payments. They were threatened with prison charges and had to leave the factory. That was a heavy blow for many workers, because they put a lot of trust in their union. Resignation spread and many said “If these people trait us, then everyone would trait us.”
That event marked the end of the first period of struggle at Maruti Suzuki. One important change was that the speed of the conveyer belt was reduced after the conflict: Instead of every 45 seconds, now one car was produced every 60 seconds.
In the course of spring 2012 the trade union MSWU got registered, but the negotiations about its demands – wage hikes and the integration of contract workers as permanent staff – saw outright rejection by the management. The mood among workers got worse. On July 18 in 2012 a worker was insulted by a supervisor and subsequently dismissed. Negotiations of the union did not yield any results and violence broke out. The exact circumstances of what happened that day are under dispute, but there are many hints that the escalation was at least provoked by the management. In India, violence initiated by security forces paid by management is a widespread method in order to get rid of organized workers, because subsequently the blame will be put on them. But initiating or provoking violence contains risks for the management as the situation might get out of control. Since 2 pm on that day, 50 policemen were in the factory, but it was only after 6 pm that a fire broke out in the plant. One manager dies in the flames. It was this manager who played an intermediate role between the independent trade union and the management.
After the incidents of July 18, the factory remained closed for one month, 546 permanent workers and 1800 contract workers were arbitrarily dismissed. In September 2012 wage hikes were introduced, but they widened the gap between permanent and contract workers. In addition, the management announced that it would restrain from using any contract labour in the future. In the weeks after the unrest, police arrested more than 150 workers, of which many have not been in the factory on July 18. They are in jail until the present day without any sentence, they don’t get bail and all are facing murder charges. Protests against the arbitrary arrests are met with violent police crackdowns and with new arrests, many of the prisoners have been tortured. One of the arrested workers got infected with tuberculosis and did not get proper medical help. In the end of October 2013, a banned demonstration in front of the jail was held amidst curfew and subsequently a meeting with the Industries Minister of Haryana state took place. The repression keeps many activists busy so that there is less time for the agitation and joint action in the factories which is the locus where workers can most effectively exert their power.
The results of the conflict are met with diverging views. Many of the dismissed workers think it was good to set a signal despite their individual situation. They think that the uprising spread fear among many CEOs so that labour relations might improve. In fact, many car factories hiked wages in Gurgaon after the conflict in Maruti in 2011 in order to prevent labour unrest. Some labor experts underline that companies use the struggle at Maruti to increase negative sentiment against trade unions. During a recent strike of airline pilots the strikers were labelled as ,labour terrorists´ by management. Another factor are the conditions in the state of Haryana where Gurgaon is located: In Haryana very conservative and patriarchal social relations prevail, leading many young people to a rebellious mindset. They leave the rural areas and go to the factories – their rebellion against honour killings and caste rules about marriage is mixing up with rebellion against harsh factory regimes with a high speed of work and short breaks. In any case, the conflict at Maruti Suzuki made a lot of waves in India, and particularly in the automobile sector.
As a strike broke out in one of the three plants of India´s second biggest motorcycle producer Bajaj in June 2013 in Pune, many newspapers compared to the conflict at Maruti Suzuki in the preceding year. Fears loomed in the corporate world that industrial violence would be on the agenda again. The area around Pune is another big automobile cluster in India. Many conditions at Bajaj in fact resemble the ones that could be found in the Manesar plant of Maruti. In 2002, Bajaj Auto opened an entirely new factory 15 kilometres north of the main plant in Pune and hired new workers, and closed down the former main plant in Pune in 2007. In the Chakan plant work around 1200 permanent workers and 1000 contract workers. In 2010, the trade union VKKS established itseld there, a pragmatic but leftist trade union. The old plant was dominated by a yellow union for a long time, connected to the right-wing hindu party Shiv Sena. VKKS agreed on an unusual long nine-year contract that was supposed to be renegotiated every three years. The contract contains a yearly wage hike of 8 percent. If the company is good in sales, the wage hikes can rise to up to 12 %. As there were renegotiations for the contract for the first time in March 2013, the trade union raised demands for a wage hike of 25 % and permanent contracts for the contract workers. As there is 10 % inflation in India from 2012 to 2013 and a much higher inflation in simple goods that are most important for workers, like vegetables, a 25 % wage hike is not as extraordinarily as it seems. Plus, in October 2012, a more hidden conflict began at the Chakan plant of Bajaj. After repeated harassment of workers and dismissals of single workers, one shift in the factory started to slow down the production and managed to do that for nine months. The management reclaims that the output in June 2013 would have been only 35 % of the normal output. The strike was followed by almost all the workers but the company managed to hire many new contract workers as scabs in order to go on with the production. 15 strikers were arrested during the strike with the charge that they beat up scabs who wanted to enter the factory. Although the company did not have a proper license to hire these workers, they entered the factory in police vans. The company claimed that it needed these workers for tasks like gardening that don’t require a license. Again, state institutions acted deliberately in favour of capitalists. Rahul Bajaj, the owner of the factory, stems from one of the old bourgeois families that run the country since Gandhi´s time and is closely aligned with the right-wing hindu nationalists of Shiv Sena. Thus, these close political alignments include a smooth functioning of both legal and executive institutions in the favour of Indian capital. Finally, the strike ended after 50 days without a proper result. The company took back 7 out of 22 workers who have been fired before the strike and agreed to start negotiations with the trade union. As the relations of forces in India is much in favour of capital it is not unusual that a strike is led in order to force the company to take up negotiations. So, what could be read as a total defeat, is at least a partial victory due to the standards of labour relations in India.
Even if the strike did not escalate at Bajaj Auto and the results remain somewhat unclear, there are important similarities with the conflict at Maruti-Suzuki: The companies in the auto industry in India saw considerable growth in the last ten years but they still increase the use of contract labour and open new plants with fresh workers – but it is just this mixture intended to provide better conditions for exploitation that lead to labour unrest. Real wages in the auto industry in India dropped about 25 % since the year 2000. In Maruti-Suzuki wages are just 2 % of net sales. Laywer Vikash Barnwal, who represents many of the dismissed Maruti workers in court, emphasises that violent incidents occur every week in Gurgaon. The working class is very much under pressure and the conditions are tough, but in the big picture worker´s struggles experience an upswing. Workers in the informal sector increasingly get organized. The participation in the general strike in February 2013 was the biggest ever in the history of the labour movement: 100 million workers participated, almost 10 % of the total population in India. In Noida close to Delhi, textile workers set their factories on fire at the day of the general strike.
„Merchants of menace“, Bericht der International Commission for Labor Rights,
People´s Union for Democratic Rights: Driving Force. Labour Struggles and Violation of Rights in Maruti Suzuki India Limited