Maruti Workers’ Movement: Resisting Exploitation And Defending Democracy

CPIML Liberation

The workers’ struggle at the Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant has, once again, exposed the ugly and exploitative underbelly of liberalised ‘growth’. The intrepid struggle of young workers there is a glaring reminder that in the celebrated industrial enclaves of the national capital region, profit margins are extracted by abuse of contract labour laws, relentlessly exploitative work conditions – and above all by the brute suppression of the basic democratic right to organise and unionise. It is bringing home the fact that the Government of Haryana is treating the workers’ legally mandated right to unionise as disruptive; while it is condoning and even defending the flagrantly illegal lockout by the management!

Since the Maruti workers’ strike was defeated in 2000, the management had allowed only a pocket union to function. In the past few years, the automobile industry has chosen to cope with recession by imposing even more exploitative work conditions and even more restricted democracy. This may be the reason why many recent instances of workers’ resistance and severe repression have been witnessed in the automobile sector – at Honda in 2005, at Pricol in 2009, at Rico in 2009 followed by the workers’ strike in Gurgaon, and at Maruti in 2011.

A majority of the Maruti workers are contract workers, most of them skilled – who are paid less than half the salary for the same work, and denied various benefits. This pattern of cutting costs by employing contract labour (in violation of the labour laws) has increasingly become the norm, not only in the private sector but even in the public sector. At the Maruti Manesar struggle, a remarkable feature is the unity between the permanent and contract workers.

Some months back, the workers at Maruti’s Manesar plant had formed an independent union of their own – the MSEU (Maruti Suzuki Employees Union) – to voice their grievances over the severely exploitative work conditions. When the management dismissed and suspended the MSEU leaders in June 2011, the workers went on a strike that lasted 13 days. The strike ended with an understanding that the Haryana Government and Maruti management would recognise the MSEU, take back the dismissed workers, and refrain from further victimisation. Instead, in late August, the MSEU’s application for registration was turned down on technical grounds. On the heels of this rejection, the management swung into action. Workers were told that they could enter the factory premises only if they signed a ‘good conduct bond’ – thereby signing away their right to protest in any form. Scores of workers – all active in the formation of the union – were suspended and dismissed.

Workers refused to sign the ‘good conduct bond’ and began a dharna. Ever since, the gates of the factory have been encircled by hundreds of policemen behind a barricade. The bond itself is absolutely illegal, and the management’s action amounts to an illegal lockout. Yet, the Haryana Government has, throughout, sided with the management against the workers. During negotiations, three top MSEU office bearers were arrested after they refused to relent till all dismissed/suspended workers were taken back. Haryana Labour Minister Shiv Charan Lal Sharma defended the arrest, accusing workers of being ‘adamant’ in their demand that all dismissed and suspended workers be reinstated. The Haryana Labour Commissioner has actually made the indefensible claim that the ‘Good Conduct Bond’ is legal, while echoing the MSI management’s allegation that the MSEU and the workers’ struggle is the handiwork of ‘outside’ elements. Meanwhile, workers in other Maruti factories in the region, as well as workers in the entire Gurgaon-Manesar industrial belt have shown great solidarity with the Maruti workers’ struggle.

The young, skilled workers who are at the frontline of the sustained agitation at the Maruti plant are the emerging face of a new chapter of the working class movement in India. Many of them have strong roots in rural Haryana and western UP. Their struggle is a challenge to the two foremost (and illegal) offensives on workers’ rights by liberalisation and corporate capital – contractualisation of labour and denial of the right to unionise.

The Maruti workers’ movement is not just a trade union struggle. Their struggle for the right to organise, unionise and protest against exploitative conditions is a crucial, and welcome, aspect of the struggle to defend democracy in India today.

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