IN a display of resilience and unity to safeguard one of the oldest rights guaranteed under labour laws and protected constitutionally, namely, that of the right to association, nearly 2,000 workers of India’s leading car manufacturer, Maruti Suzuki India Limited, agitated for 13 days before a settlement was reached with the management. Eleven workers who were sacked for leading the protest were reinstated. No criminal charges were filed and the management gave an assurance that it would not react vindictively. Given the experience of past protests and their outcomes in this industrial region, where trade union activity is taboo and “work committees” are the norm, the workers had made a mark.
The protest by workers of the Maruti Suzuki India factory at Manesar, a sprawling industrial hub in Gurgaon district, Haryana, led to an impasse as the management declined to relent on their basic demand of forming a union. Predictably, the crisis worsened with the termination of the services of 11 workers. The demand, in any case, was not one for the management to give. It was the workers’ legal right under the Trade Unions Act of 1926 and all they had to do to achieve it was to file an application with the Haryana Labour Department. While the reasons for forming a trade union may have had to do with working conditions and other issues, what stood out was the obduracy of the company, in which the Japanese partner, Suzuki Motor Corp., has a more than 50 per cent stake. It led to a nearly two-week stand-off that threatened to envelop the entire industrial belt stretching from Gurgaon to Rewari district.
The problem started on June 3 when the management learnt that an application for the registration of a trade union had been sent to the Labour Department. The company has two plants in the region, the older one in Gurgaon and another in Manesar. The management reasoned that since the workers in the Manesar unit were affiliated to the Maruti Kamgaar Udyog Union in Gurgaon they had no reason to apply for an independent union.
On the other hand, the workers had been mulling over the merits of being affiliated to the existing union. It was perceived to be a management union and elections had not been held in it for about 11 years. It was for all purposes a “pocket” union, as a worker put it. There were work-related issues too, pertaining to emoluments, leave, regularisation of contract workers and so on, which the workers felt could be raised only by a democratically elected union.
The right to form unions and the freedom of association and collective bargaining are sacrosanct, guaranteed in the Constitution. It is another matter that the Indian government is yet to ratify the two core conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), namely, the Freedom of Association and Protection of Right to Organise Convention and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention.
The Indian Trade Unions Act stipulates that the registrar of trade unions in any State cannot refuse to register a trade union if the application for the purpose complies with the technical requirements of the law. The Registrar has to ensure that the application fulfils the technical requirements and nothing more.
Any seven or more members of a trade union can, by submitting their names to the registrar and complying with the provisions of the Act, apply for registration of a trade union. The employer concerned has little to do with this process.
Therefore, the interference of the Maruti management in an area that was well within the rights of the workers was baffling in the least. Even more peculiar was the Haryana government’s role. On the seventh day of the protest, June 10, it issued a notification stating that the strike was prohibited and referred the legality or otherwise of the strike and the issue of the termination of the workers to the Labour court. Members of the Haryana police and the private security guards of the company stood side by side to prevent workers from assembling at the gate and also the media from doing their work.
“We never went on strike. It was the actions of the management following our application to the registrar of trade unions that led to this situation. They said we were on strike. They wanted us to be part of the ‘pocket union’, which was unacceptable to us. They refused to talk to us,” said one of the leaders of the newly formed Maruti Employees Union. As the workers had not struck work, there was no notice given. On June 3, matters came to a head when workers alleged that their signatures were taken forcibly to affirm their support to the existing union.
As news about this spread on the shop floor, workers assembled to discuss the developments. Their representatives requested the management not to resort to intimidation. The management then allegedly concluded that the workers had given a call for a strike and labelled it illegal.
“The Labour Commissioner who was in the know of the developments should have intervened. We formed a joint action committee with representation from some central trade unions and decided to hold a satyagraha in front of the gate,” said Satbir Singh, State vice-president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). Satbir Singh, who met the workers the next day, June 4, said that all they wanted was an independent union. “They were not affiliated to any political party,” he said.
The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) and representatives of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) also supported the Maruti workers and protested against the termination and harassment of workers. On June 6, the management sacked 11 workers. Said Satbir Singh: “We decided that if the management did not reinstate the workers and continued to behave in a hostile manner we would launch a bigger agitation, beginning on June 20 with a two-hour tool-down protest.” Suresh Gaur, president of the Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India (HMSI) Limited union, said the protest had gained momentum with support pouring in from industrial workers in the Dharuhera industrial belt in Rewari district and even from parts of the Gurgaon industrial area. Nearly 50 unions participated in a joint protest meeting but union representatives from outside were not allowed to meet the workers. The media, too, were blocked for a while.
It was an interesting sight. Workers were on protest inside the factory and thousands sat in support outside the gate. Gurudas Dasgupta, Member of Parliament of the Communist Party of India, met Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda but could not get an assurance from the government on recognition of the union by the management.
On June 16, Satbir Singh said workers representing 60 unions participated in a meeting and resolved to carry the protest further if the management refused to initiate a dialogue. Prior to this, they constituted a five-member joint committee of central unions in the region in preparation for a long battle.
Sensing that industrial unrest could spread in the entire region (the memories of the 2005 Honda agitation were still fresh), the Labour Secretary called the union representatives, including members of the five-member committee, for consultations on June 16. “It was a big achievement. For the first time, without victimisation, all the sacked workers were reinstated,” said Satbir Singh.
Worker unrest is not a new phenomenon in the State, especially in Gurgaon district, its commercial capital, where huge disparities exist. The residential areas of the workers are reminiscent of Dickensian hovels, perhaps even worse. On the other side are the areas with plush houses and corporate offices with shiny exteriors. The first of the violent agitations to take place in the region was in 1998, at the Pashupati Spinning and Weaving Mill, where five workers were killed in police firing. All the central trade unions took up the matter.
In September 2000, there was a fairly prolonged agitation at the Maruti Udyog Limited plant in Gurgaon (since renamed Maruti Suzuki India Limited) for better emoluments. The agitation was crushed and even some permanent workers lost their jobs.
In July 2005, the nationwide telecast of the police crackdown on workers of Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India Private Limited detailed perhaps the extent to which the state could collude with the corporate sector. The issues were more or less the same. The issue was raised in Parliament and the Congress government was criticised for its high-handedness.
In 2009, workers of Rico Auto Industries Limited (an auto parts manufacturer) sat in protest, which went on for a month and turned violent after one worker died. Their demand was also the formation of a union.
After the negative publicity it received following the HMSI crackdown in 2005, the Haryana government has been overeager to prevent such confrontations. But it has done little to implement labour laws, and tensions have only risen around basic issues such as trade union formation.
With land prices escalating in the National Capital Region in recent years, some industrial units have begun to relocate, getting prime rates for their land but giving displaced workers a raw deal. With increasing industry pressure on government to liberalise labour laws and make it easier to hire and fire and to close down units after a minimum notice period, the region seems to be in for a long period of labour unrest.