Developing Unrest: New Struggles in Miserable Boom-Town Gurgaon

Gurgaon Workers News

Gurgaon, a satellite town in the south of Delhi has become a symbol of the ‘Shining India’. People are dazzled by the glass-fronts of shopping-malls and corporate towers and fail to see the development of a massive industrial working-class that lies behind this ‘post-Fordist’ display of consumerism. Together with other industrial centres like the Pearl River Delta in China and the Maquiladoras in Northern Mexico the Delhi industrial belt has become a focal point of the formation of the global working class.


A local form of the global working class

The industrial areas of Gurgaon have seen the emergence of a specific form of class composition – hundreds of thousands of (migrant) garment workers work side by side with similar numbers of automobile workers (working in the assembly lines of India’s biggest automobile hub) and young call-centre workers, sweating under head-sets. We are forced to re-think our traditional understandings of who ‘workers’ are, how they struggle and how this struggle can become a process of self-empowerment, moving towards self-emancipation.

Specific structures of industries and the nature of the composition of work-force push us, first of all, beyond regional and national frameworks. At the most obvious level this happens because of the global market. In the spring of 2008 the Rupee reached its peak value in relation to the US-Dollar, and caused bad export conditions. The garment industry in Gurgaon dismissed thousands of workers and shifted orders to ‘low currency’ countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh. In autumn, the same year the Rupee plummeted; with it crashed American and European markets, sending shock-waves into the industrial areas of Gurgaon: credit crunch for real estate, cutting down of garment orders, slump in US-banking services. Workers belonging to certain locations, who might have otherwise thought that they had little in common with chai stall owners, faced a situation very similar to these owners – cut in bonuses and piece-rates, end of free company meals and transport and threat of job cuts. The potential for a socially explosive tea-party of English-speaking youth working night-shifts at call centres, migrant garment and construction workers and young skilled workers in car-part plants emerged in the Industrial Model Town – a mass base for an actual ‘internal threat’.

There is a second level at which the ‘collective work-force’ needs to be understood beyond the boundaries of factory walls or and units. This level is shaped by local, regional and global divisions of labour. Maruti Suzuki connects its assembly lines and welding-robots with production units of hundreds of outsourced suppliers via transport chains, these networks reach the work-shop slum-villages of Faridabad and the green-field industrial areas along the National Highway. Assembly plants around the globe depend on parts manufactured in Gurgaon by companies like Rico and Delphi. IT and BPO offices cooperate closely with branches overseas, while production in the huge garment factories is supplied via supervisor middlemen with piece-work from working (wo)men stitching ‘at home’.

At a third level, the nature of the work-force cannot be grasped in localized forms. The majority of workers migrate into the area, moving back and forth between urban industrial life and the village. Wages are too low to reproduce a nuclear family in Gurgaon and most workers leave their families in the villages. Similarly it is almost impossible to survive a long period of unemployment, or for that matter, a long period of strike in Gurgaon. Though disintegrating, the village still functions as the main backup in times of unemployment. The introduction of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) or the general development of the agricultural market reverberates in the working conditions in Gurgaon. Workers arrive in Gurgaon with hopes, which in most cases are dead soon. They survive 16-hours shifts by keeping in mind village misery and paradoxically, also by glorifying it. Their hope of ‘not having to be a worker anymore’ expresses itself in plans to open a shop back home. Reality forces us to find a collective and social expression of this urge to abolish our existence as ‘workers’.

A major element of this ‘worker’ existence is the casualisation of work-force. In winter 2000/2001 Maruti Suzuki used a minor labour dispute to lock-out the permanent work-force, and replaced it through compulsory ‘Voluntary Retirement Schemes’ with temporary workers. This has also happened in other companies, to the point that 70 to 80 per cent of the average factory work-force is nowadays hired through contractors. Due to their mobility (or lack of stability) these workers are less interested in struggles for long running wage agreements and company pension schemes. They have ‘short-term’ desires and their anger too is directed at the immediate. The remaining casual and permanent workers are often young workers trained in various ITI-campuses all over India, employed with much less job security and at lower wages than the old permanent work-force. In the garment factories the skilled tailors working at piece-rate, producing ‘full-piece’ garments are increasingly being put under pressure by chain-systems employing 20 less ‘skilled’ workers to produce the same garment using a greater division of labour based on CNC-cutting and embroidery machines. In Kapashera, a workers’ dormitory ‘village’ where about 200,000 textile workers and families live close to the main industrial area, dozens of ‘CNC-courses’ and six week basic tailoring courses are offered by small-scale informal schools.

In this complex scenario the majority of workers do not face a single ‘company boss’ in a formal way; they face a multiplicity of bosses. Due to the real estate boom which catapulted local farmers out of their fields into landlordism and business, a specific coalition of the local political class, landlords, labour contractors, police and company-hired goons became a repressive front ready to quell expressions of workers’ unrest. This local front of the ruling class is complemented by a faceless front of multi-national investment and central government policies.

Old Type of Struggles: Locked-Out in Dead-Ends

Under these general conditions, struggles which remain within the boundaries of the classical company/trade-union structure normally end in defeats and/or institutionalisation. There have been many ‘union’ struggles in Gurgaon in the last few years and they seem to follow a certain pattern.(1)

There is discontent among permanent workers as well as workers hired through contractors. In most cases some ‘under-the-surface’ struggles pre-date the ‘official conflict.’ For instance, at Honda HMSI ‘spontaneous’ canteen occupations took place before the ‘official’ struggle for union recognition began. In this phase certain sections of workers get in touch with union officials hoping that registration of a union will strengthen their position. Representatives emerge; member-lists are required for the application. The company tries to put pressure on the emerging ‘leadership’ and in many cases provokes a situation where suspension of ‘outstanding’ workers can be declared. In many cases companies ask the remaining work-force to sign individual letters of ‘good conduct’, trying to single out the supporters of the struggle. Unions, interested only in their self-propagation ask the workers not to sign: a struggle within the classical framework is easier to organise once workers are victimised, although their actual power might be greater once they are back inside the factory. An unofficial lock-out takes place; often workers hired through contractors, who expect little gains from a company union, either enter the factory or additional workers are hired to keep up production. Often these new workers are hired from the local population of the surrounding villages – another division between them and the mainly migrant, original work-force. Companies are usually prepared for the lock-out and subsequent problems in production, either by piling-up extra-stock or by getting parts from other suppliers. ‘Unofficial unrests’ get structured into classical forms, often managed by the main union advisors; protests in front of the factory gate, demonstrations, meetings with political leaders – the martyrdom of workers becomes an opportunity for leaders to stage themselves. In most cases the conflict gets limited to a single company, and attempts to connect to the wider struggle are not made. The state and companies are easily able to deal with these ritualistic forms of struggle, either through repression or through entangling it in a long legal dispute. The results of these disputes usually exclude the workers hired through contractors who were also part of the initial struggle. Furthermore, the cases for re-instatement of victimised workers often run for years. The recognition of a company union is followed by silence.(2)

Once in the trap of a lock-out workers can do little more than wait for the next symbolic show of solidarity. In the case of the recent lock-out at the Maruti fuel-pump supplier Denso, in Manesar, thirty-six union members were suspended on 17th February 2010 and about 500 workers refused to sign papers of ‘good conduct’. Since mid-February they have been sitting outside the factory while newly hired workers are kept inside around the clock. Even before the lock-out Denso had already ordered additional parts from its Thailand plant; they were prepared. In nearby Faridabad, workers of another Maruti supplier, AC manufacturer Sanden Vikas, were ‘locked-out’ at the same time. The union did not facilitate direct links between these two work-forces. The suggestion came up to write a common letter to the Maruti Suzuki management – admittedly only symbolic of workers’ coordination, which could nonetheless have had some impact. Another idea which came up was to go in small numbers and stand with placards in front of Maruti or other local factories. Denso runs factories around the globe and some effort to let workers and managements in these factories know about the situation in Manesar could have been made (3); small steps which could help spread the word and perhaps create direct links between workers of the supply-chain. This did not happen; instead we saw one or two union demonstrations and bored young workers sitting and playing cards. According to a Denso worker, on 22nd March 2010, the company took back 23 of the 36 suspended union representatives and sent all Denso workers for a one week training to a local ‘World Spiritual University’ ashram, to find mental peace. When they returned to the factory most of the workers were shifted to new jobs in different departments, at new machines, with new work-mates.

A New Generation of Workers and their Struggles

There is a need to discuss with workers the shortcomings of traditional forms of waging struggles, and need to consider the possibility of the emergence of a new form in the light of the actual experiences of wildcat strikes and factory occupations in Gurgaon in the last few years. These struggles have largely remained unknown to the ‘wider public’. Unfortunately, left activists usually get to know of workers’ struggles only when they have gained a sort of ‘official’ status, which generally means when they are repressed. The lathi-charge at the Honda factory in 2005 mobilised the left, as did the murder of a worker at Rico; by and large the left took a ‘civil rights’ position on these incidents and no attempt to analyse the basis of workers’ power and self-activity was made. The struggles of a new generation of workers already provide some answers and ask many questions relevant for the future; for instance they raise questions about how struggles are to be extended from the factory base, avoiding ‘unnecessary’ direct confrontation with the state forces, and show us the pitfalls of formal representation.

In April 2006 more than 4,500 temporary workers occupied Hero Honda’s Gurgaon plant for several days, demanding higher wages and better conditions. The company cut water and electricity, but asked the police not to enter the factory. No support came from outside the plant. The workers sent a small delegation to negotiate, and the delegation was bought off. The delegates returned promising fulfilment of all major demands once production is restarted and they then disappeared. Only some demands were actually met by the management. When the factory occupation ended, workers at the Hero Honda supplier, Shivam Autotech, occupied their plant which was close by and raised similar demands. Workers at the KDR press-shop in Faridabad, who supply Shivam Autotech with metal parts, worked reduced hours during these days.

In September 2006, after temporary workers at Honda HMSI, Manesar were not included in a union deal, they occupied the canteen of the plant, supported from the outside by the next arriving shift. The company reacted by cutting water supply. The company and the union asked them to go back to work.

In January 2007 2,500 temporary workers working at the car-parts manufacturer Delphi, in Gurgaon, went on a wildcat strike, blockading the main gate. The company threatened to shut-down and relocate the factory and asked the union of the 250 permanent workers to get the temps back to work. After two days the blockade was lifted. In August 2007 the temps at Delphi struck again, this time for few hours and without prior notice, demanding the payment of the increased minimum wage and succeeded. Many of the workers live together in back-yards of nearby villages, sharing food, mobile phones and information about jobs.

In August 2007, after the Haryana government had increased the minimum wage, over a dozen companies in Faridabad and Gurgaon faced spontaneous short strikes mainly by casual workers, demanding the payment of the new wage. In most cases these actions were successful (4).

In May 2008 after not having been accepted as members by the permanent workers’ union the temporary and casual workers at Hero Honda in Dharuhera went on a wildcat strike and occupied the plant for two days. The management and the permanent workers’ union promised betterment in their situation. The temporary and casual workers then tried to register their own union – a process which ended in suspension of leaders and a mass lock-out in October 2008.

It would be reductive to label these struggles ‘spontaneous’. We need spaces to meet in the industrial areas to analyse the process of social production and the already existing day-to-day experiences of organisation and subversion within factories, along supply chains, in the back-yard living quarters, and in villages – spaces for self-inquiry. If there is to be a communist party it should celebrate the collective worker that discovers itself by turning its social cooperation against its proclaimed precondition: capital. A part of this proletarian self-reflection must be the development of a structure of mutual aid, practical support and coordination.(5)

Notes

(1) The list of examples is way too long. Just to mention a few in Gurgaon: Maruti lock-out in 2000, Honda HMSI in 2005, Amtek in 2006, Automax in 2008, Mushashi and Rico in 2009, Denso and Sanden Vikas in 2010.

(2) After recognition of the union at Honda HMSI the number of workers hired through contractors and the general productivity increased.

(3) It is difficult to rely on the classical union structure for these kinds of international links. When the dispute at Rico stopped GM and Ford assembly lines in the US and Canada due to missing parts the comment of a United Automobile Workers official in Michigan was: “We are experiencing the effects of outsourced suppliers, and we hope they would be able to resume production as quickly as possible so we can in turn resume production” Interestingly enough this comment was made after the UAW had signed an agreement to lower wages to ‘save jobs’, which were being disputed by many workers on the shop-floor. While Denso workers in Manesar were locked-out, Denso workers in Tychy, Poland, organised protests for wage hikes matching the wage increases for FIAT workers.

(4) Today the situation seems even more explosive, given that the April 2010 ‘minimum wage hike’ of 30 per cent for Delhi workers does not compensate for the enormous inflation in food and transport prices.

(5) Comrades of Faridabad Majdoor Talmel are about to open some physical spaces for workers’ meetings in Faridabad, Okhla, Gurgaon and Manesar. For more information, visit Gurgaon Workers News and Faridabad Majdoor Samachar.

Comments

  1. Neo_vision says:

    Dear Friend
    I liked your article, this is not a problem of casual manpower , Real problem is lack of common sence to handle casual manpower, which is not being handled in scientific way , means if any company is in need of casual ( flexible manpower–management view that is not wrong) and HR Dept is hiring on daily basis but they dont give the time to educate them to make their work intresting & innovative. This is transition period of permanant manpower to casual manpower and HR people & top management is not worried about the future of industries, they are just providing manpower and incharge of shop floor dont have sufficient time to manage these people in professional way to get optimum output because they dont have any guidelines from HR dept. They think casuals are working very hard but in reality quite different —High rejection,low quality, machine break down etc. Due to lack of hygenic condition of shop floor , behaviour of supervisor, middle management and ignorance of HR department towards casuals need–casuals are not taking intrest in their work.

    In Gurgaon, specially trend of casualas manpower is increasing & reaching in some industries up 100% and management of some industries moved two step forward by hiring casual management ( contractual job at manager position) to handle casual work forces. As per my openion at present HR department dont have concret paln to handle this work force and this manpower dont have much more education and off course less sence of industries. To handle such manpower we should have rigid plan for flexible manpower to increase common sence , education & training related to industries & job.

    Before hiring casual manpower, HR should think about their staff & middle management and they should be well trained like creator to handle casuals manpower otherwise without “casual handling plan” this will be the sabotage of industrie’s culture and it should not be blamed to workforce.

    As I see technical knowledge ratio also being disturbed and every thing is coming on the shoulders of manager –when 100% casuals untrained having agricultural view (when they need leave dont come to duty without information) and everyday new manpower instead of experience or fixed manpower, in that condition how it is possible to get international Quality & productivity. We are happy that we are being global but in reality management knows about its.

    Time is not far when contractors will be union leaders like Truck union and they will not allow other contractor’s manpower in their area and in that condition what ever manpower will be available we have to take work from them and such people will be more harmful for society.

    I dont see the major role of Government ,except political fixing minimum wages of casuals.

    Everybody’s role and contribution in building strong future of India.
    Without high skilled manpower having with high level of common sence ( im not talking about intelligent workforce), committed & punctual, Indian can not be Global for long period……. we should think collectively to handle this transition period to give right direction otherwise we will blame to workforce only—-any time any where in the world any industry can be stopped by wrong practices such as improper, directionless, untrained casual manpower which is not aligned with company’s objective & mission in India.
    Thanks

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