The strike at the Maruti Suzuki plant at Manesar has entered the 5th day. Production has stopped and the workers have taken over the plant, staging a ‘sit-in’ protest. What has fuelled this ugly face-off?
This is verbatim feedback received from a friend who tried to visit the
Maruti Suzuki factory at Manesar earlier. His identity will be protected as he does value his job too. His account goes something like this-"A kilometre away from the Maruti Suzuki factory in Manesar is when it becomes apparent that further progress is going to be impossible. Private individuals with faces masked standing around barriers and stakes dug into the road with policemen watching on from the sidelines insist that since they are private individuals, their photos should not be taken, and that in any case, the road ahead is shut, so please turn around. That's it. In Haryana, if somebody 'big' tells you not to take your camera out, you do not take your camera out."
Here's more from a senior person in one of the companies on strike in the troubled industrial belt. (The company names have already been reported in the media). "Some of the senior Japanese officials are making preparations to send their families back to Japan and moving into hotels for better security. Specifically in context with Maruti Suzuki, some amount of work for companies like Nissan and GM is already being done in Haryana, and it is expected that reciprocal work will be done in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat at the Nissan and GM facilities respectively. There are also unconfirmed whispers about a possible plant in the UAE, probably Sharjah or Fujairah."
Meanwhile, the strike at Maruti has entered the 5th day, with no production activity at Manesar. A spokesperson from the company has said that the Manesar plant "remains captive in the hands of workers. There is no production possible there." Yesterday, the company had said the Gurgaon plant produced around 1,800 vehicles, as against the normal 2,800 units a day.
Maruti Suzuki's management claims that workers have indulged in "random acts of violence like beating up company managers, supervisors and those co-workers not supporting the strike", along with "damaging equipment and property." Production remains at a standstill at the plant.
Workers at Maruti's Manesar plant went on a 'sit-in' strike in the afternoon on Friday (7th October). On Sunday, the automaker dismissed 10 workers, terminated five trainees and suspended 10 employees in connection "with the strike and violence at the Manesar factory premises".
Around 2,000 workers in all categories-including regular and contractual employees, apprentices and trainees-have been taking part in the "sit-in" strike inside the Manesar plant.
Communication with people inside the plant is not feasible, and so all one gets is rumours. Hopefully, people inside are being provided basic sanitation, food and water-but the company, as usual, is not inclined to provide any information. Incidentally, there does appear to be an element of truculence and provocation in some of the steps taken by the management-withdrawing local transportation to and from the factory, for example, which does appear to be very petty. But it is, once again, the visible sullen atmosphere-which cannot be described-that is apparently underway in this and other industrial units in and around Gurgaon. Senior managers talk about workers who have been friendly and now they are not as friendly as before. Looking behind your back has become second nature. Whispers about how managers were lynched and done to death in Noida, and what that did to industry there, have started circulating again.
And then, of course, is the larger issue-what is happening, why is this happening in what used to be an industrially-peaceful city, and where does this go next?
To understand this, one has to look beyond issues at the workplace-of which there always have been and will continue to be differences. Reportage on the subject of unions and working conditions in the larger and better factories have done the rounds, and reportage on what actually happens in some of the smaller ancillaries which are often no better than Victorian-era sweatshops is never reported. That is the nature of things in industry. We live with that on a
day-to-day basis all over India.
Likewise, there is no dearth of information being provided by people purporting to be acting on the 'behest' of the management-here again, the value and genuineness of such information is not very clear. As in all cases like this, and as the cliché goes-truth is the first victim.
However, if one digs deeper, it does appear as though the Maruti Suzuki strife is more a symbol of all that is going wrong in this part of the country. And less of industrial unrest as well as labour action. And then some.
Here are a few facts to consider:
1) The cost of living in and around Gurgaon has gone through the roof. At the simplest, anybody who is living in ancestral properties could probably make as much as he or she is earning by renting out the rooms they occupy. Which leads to the question-where else do they go and live, then? Rentals are extremely high too-so unless workers are willing to live in shanty-town type bedroom accommodation (Rs1,000-Rs1,500 per bed per month with a dozen people or more to a 'room'), they will end up spending, easily, Rs3,000-Rs4,000 per person for "shared" accommodation. Food is not cheap, either, and the workload is so heavy at some of these units, that after an 8-hour/6-day per week shift, there is simply no time or energy to cook.
The demand, therefore, is that the industry should provide free or subsidised housing as well as food. This is partly also because some of the factories that have relocated to remote locations in other parts of the country-Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are examples-are providing in-campus housing with full meals and facilities including washing of clothes.
2) The heavily skewed male-female ratio in this part of India brings its own share of sociological problems. Add to that a huge number of migrant labour, again predominantly male, and you have a tinderbox which has been described as close to what one would expect in an all-male environment. In addition, this is a part of the country where society does not have a tolerant view on prostitution-whether it exists or not.
This is not something that people usually speak about, but it is a simple fact of life-industrial township areas always provide for what can be called some form of recreation. Where sexual release is not available, it shows up in other forms-excess alcohol consumption, narcotics and even aggression. Can strikes be one offshoot? An interesting theory-but this is one that is being suggested.
3) Take the syndrome of the landowner, who became an employee, and often a pauper in one or two generations. Land sold for thousands of rupees an acre is now valued at lakhs per square metre, and a lot of the landowners-real, imaginary, tenants, squatters, multiple-claimants or otherwise, bear a grudge towards anybody and everybody who is on that land now. In fact this is the most commonly-heard issue behind disciplinary episodes-of people shouting back in sheer frustration that this land belonged to their parents and grandparents, who frittered the money away, and now they don't have to work for a salary.
To this boiling-pot, add the issue of a new generation of land sharks who are seizing and usurping property of those who really have the title to existing remaining land parcels. And to that add the way litigation is taking its toll on this issue too. Expecting somebody to stand for 8 hours a day on an assembly line when these sorts of problems are chewing his mind is another reality which brings out behaviour of the "strike" sort.
4) There is a saying in the areas that surround Delhi that this ancient capital is burnt to the ground every 200-odd years, and it is those who live around and encircling Delhi who will benefit from this-it is almost like a truism here. The cycle time is expected to shorten, though. For a part of the country where higher or even basic education is not anywhere near what it is in other parts of the country, it is also a fact that better-educated "outsiders" come and pick up the higher-valued jobs, and that adds to the logic, if any, behind this aspiration-destroy and get your "rights" back.
The result is that there is often a destructive streak in interactions, which is based on these aspects, wherein the recycled nature of the multiple cities beneath Delhi as well as the history of bloodshed by and against "outsiders" while those who lived around Delhi continued with their agrarian existences, is considered to be inevitable. It is not unusual to find agricultural methods that have not changed for a thousand years not more than 30-40 kilometres from Delhi's borders-especially in some Haryana districts which lie beyond Gurgaon. Saying anything more will be considered communal.
5) Corruption across-the-board in Haryana is reported to have gone past all previous records and levels. This has been repeated to me so often and by so many, that even if it were not true, it has become folklore. The tolls collected on the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway, where you now take the same amount of time to go from Delhi to Gurgaon as you used to in the past-mainly because of bad design and faulty implementation, are quoted as a live example. Behind the walls and office doors, of course, it is another matter. The cost of this corruption extends all the way down- and that is another truth. You want to work in Gurgaon, or if you need a mobile phone or anything else-just pay up.
And then there are the palaces that have come up, the open display of extreme wealth by all sorts of people who should have been in clean governance, but are actually in the dirty money-making business, and the arrogance of it all-is appalling even for the middle class, which can withdraw into comfort zones every evening. But what about those who toil, are trying to pretend that they have arrived with that sought-after job in an MNC or large company, and are still nowhere?
6) There is of course the final truth-that the bottom has fallen out of the Indian car industry, and once it resurfaces, there will be a new range of leaders whose products will be judged (and bought) on more than the inferior price and simpler functionality curve that Maruti had carefully cultivated all these decades. Higher technology and lower price will be the new paradigms, and in that, Maruti-Suzuki may well be already lagging behind with all products.
The new kid on the block, with cars that are giving everybody else a race for their money, is Hyundai. Their new small car, the 'Eon', whose brochures have already been "leaked", is likely to bring a change in the market of a sort not seen in a while. Think about it this way-if you were a manufacturer who had already made as much as you wanted to in a protected environment, would you want to fight bigger rivals in an open contest, or would you rather pack up and move on? Suzuki versus Hyundai, is that even the semblance of a fair contest?
To some extent, that appears to be what the grapevine has already picked up, and in pure business terms, it does seem to make perfect business sense, if you look only at numbers. Book your profits, exit before they become losses, and leave somebody else to clean up behind you.
And at the end of the day, whether striking employee or management director, it is the number at the bottom which influences the decision.
Sad about what it may do to the Gurgaon belt, though. And as one sends this to the editor, news just filters in that some local people who tried to deliver food and water were turned back, and that it appears that a bigger group will try to do the same soon.