The workers being brought to the district court in February 2015.
Photo: Anumeha Yadav
The workers being brought to the district court in February 2015. Photo: Anumeha Yadav

Maruti strikes

Jailed Maruti Suzuki workers continue to fight for bail.

(On the 17th of this month, 77 of the 147 workers accused of violence at the Maruti Suzuki plant in Haryana nearly three years ago were granted bail. The 2012 arson, which killed the company's human-resources manager and injured many others, eclipsed the stories of the workers' year-long struggle for a union and better working conditions. In this reportage for our latest quarterly Labour and its Discontents, Anumeha Yadav traces the lead-up to this unrest – and its aftermath. More web-exclusive articles from this issue here in the days ahead.)

On 23 February 2015, the Supreme Court of India granted bail to Sunil Kumar and Kanwaljeet Singh. The two are among 147 workers of Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) in jail since July 2012, after a senior manager died in arson at the car manufacturer's plant in Haryana, on the outskirts of Delhi.

The workers' repeated strikes over a period of a year preceding the arson and rioting at the factory had found their way into the news cycle, where questions related to labour are usually articulated as a question of creating jobs, or improving the 'business climate'. Maruti Suzuki is no sweatshop. A job at MSIL, India's largest automobile manufacturing company, was coveted by the workers' peers. What then were they resisting exactly? Financial press tracked the dip in the company's market share in India from over 45 percent to 38.9 percent as the workers, most in their twenties, struck work thrice that year. The workers' grievances, first articulated in 2011 as a demand for an independent union, seemed almost beyond comprehension to the management. In July 2012, the conflict took a violent turn as a senior manager died and several others were injured in an incident of arson. There were more than 2000 workers in the factory at the time. The police rounded up and arrested 147 workers over the next few days from their nearby rented rooms, and homes.

This article is from our latest quarterly issue '<a href="" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank" title="Labour and its discontents">Labour and its Discontents</a>' (March 2015).
This article is from our latest quarterly issue 'Labour and its Discontents' (March 2015).

The effect of the Maruti strikes on investment and their impact on industry confidence has been the central focus of the press and political circles since the day after the July incident. The effect of this massive industrial unrest on investor confidence has even been emphasised by the highest court in the state of Haryana, the High Court of Punjab and Haryana. The court rejected the workers' bail petition last year.

Even as the Supreme Court granted bail to two of the workers in February 2015 for the first time, the jailed workers' colleagues have kept their struggle on. It is their continuing solidarities, inside the jail, the courts, and in the industrial area around Manesar, which may signal a turn in the answer to the question which has refused to go away – what do the workers want? Is there anything the present labour-industrial structure can give them at all?

 It was a busy weekday at the Gurgaon district court. After a break for lunch, lawyers in black robes made their way back to the court rooms. Through the afternoon, visitors gathered, and streamed in and out of the brick-red court buildings. In room 169 on the third floor of the lawyers' chamber, two men in their twenties sat at a large wooden table, preparing an application to be submitted two days later.

Every week for over two and a half years, Satish Dalal and Imaan Khan, both former workers of Maruti Suzuki, have worked out of this room in the lawyers' chamber, using it as a makeshift office. The two, along with six of their former colleagues dismissed from Maruti's Manesar plant around the same time – Khushi Ram, Ram Niwas, Rajpal, Mahaveer, Jitendra and Sunil Kaushik – act as a support group for 147 of their colleagues who have been in jail since July 2012.

"Sunil and Satish usually organise the documents related to the trial, to bail applications. Every week, I visit the workers in jail and sometimes their families in the village too," explained Khushi Ram, who worked at MSIL for five years till 2012. A small room with a single desk and chairs, their office has 20 large shelves stacked with documents related to legal proceedings against the workers. The day for the completion of cross-examination of a total of 102 witnesses is drawing close. The arguments from both sides will begin afterwards.

Fifteen kilometres from Gurgaon's glass high-rises and gated colonies, Manesar village, along National Highway-8, was transformed into an industrial area in the 1990s. The Industrial Model Township (IMT) Manesar, set up to decongest Delhi of industrial units and factories, now holds more than 1000 industrial units employing nearly 1.5 lakh workers. Gurgaon and Manesar, along with Dharuhera and Rewari, at least another 40 kilometres away, form a hub of automobile factories in Delhi's neighbouring state, Haryana. IMT Manesar is set to be developed as part of a large industrial area spread over 200 square kilometres, stretching over six states, from Delhi to Mumbai.

MSIL, a subsidiary of Japan's Suzuki Motor Corporation, is India's largest automobile manufacturer. At its manufacturing facilities in Manesar, set up in 2006, it makes five of 14 models of cars produced by MSIL – Swift, Swift Dzire, A-Star, SX4 Sedan, Celerio – at the rate of over 1000 cars a day. The company was set up as Maruti Udyog Limited (MUL) in 1981 and a joint venture was initiated between the Government of India and Japan's Suzuki Motor Corporation in 1982, with the government owning 74 percent of the share. Initially, both the Government of India and Suzuki had joint control over the management, with both taking turns to appoint the chairperson and managing director of the company. The company produced the Maruti 800, a hatchback, associated with being India's first affordable car. In 1987, the government allowed Suzuki's shareholding in the company to be increased to 40 percent. Suzuki's share went up to 50 percent and control passed to the company in 1992, giving them control over the company. In 2002, the Government of India disinvested its majority share in MUL to Suzuki. At that time, MUL contributed INR 2500 crore (USD 400 million) to the national exchequer. By 2007, the government had relinquished its entire stake in Maruti.

The company had witnessed conflict between workers and management through 2000 and 2001. The workers had opposed disinvestment while demanding better working conditions for themselves. In October 2000, the workers at the Gurgaon plant, organised as Maruti Udyog Employees Union (MUEU), stopped work for 89 days. The strike ended with MUEU's leaders being arrested and over 2500 permanent workers being removed from service. Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU) was formed to replace the older union at the Gurgaon plant.

In the summer of 2011, more than 4000 workers at the company's Manesar plant, set up in 2006, began agitating to form a union to fight for better working conditions. While the management encouraged them to join MUKU, at Maruti's older plant at Gurgaon, the workers rejected the suggestion citing management's control over that union. The workers occupied the plant for 13 days in June and continued the protest by sitting outside the plant for 33 days starting in late August. The sit-ins and lockouts that went on for over five months resulted in losses of over INR 2500 crore (USD 400 million) for the company and a fall of eight percent in its market share. The management finally agreed to the formation of a new union, the Maruti Suzuki Workers' Union (MSWU), but only after it had 30 of the workers who had led the strike at the plant resign.

The new union (MSWU) was allowed registration by the government in February 2012. Over the next few months, while MSWU and the MSIL management were still negotiating on a number of issues, including a wage increase, privilege leave and reduced duration of the training period of two instead of three years, the uneasy settlement broke down. On 18 July 2012, the management suspended a worker after an altercation between the worker and a supervisor on the shop floor; the worker alleged the supervisor had made a casteist remark against him. The confrontation between the management and MSWU over the union's demand to reinstate the line worker turned violent. In the rioting that followed, more than 90 managers, including MSIL's Japanese staff, were injured. Human resources manager Awanish Kumar Dev died of burn injuries with multiple fractures in his legs.

The Maruti management accused the workers of having planned the violence. It terminated the services of over 1800 contract workers and 546 permanent employees. Twelve main functionaries of the MSWU and over 140 other workers were arrested from nearby villages in the days following the incident and were charged on 18 counts, including murder, attempt to murder, and rioting armed with deadly weapons.

In an op-ed in the Hindu, researchers Prasenjit Bose and Sourindra Ghosh calculated that in the period preceding the strikes, MSIL had emerged as the most productive and profitable subsidiary of the Suzuki Motor Corporation. Based on data from annual reports of the Suzuki Motor Corporation, they calculated that in 2010-11, while its car sales were falling in Japan, they increased by 18.8 percent elsewhere. MSIL contributed significantly to this with a sales growth of nearly 25 percent between 2009-10 and 2010-11. According to their calculations, “The contribution of the Indian subsidiary of the Suzuki Motor Corporation to its global net sales of automobiles (in monetary terms) has grown from 12 percent in 2005 to 27 percent in 2010, and the contribution to its global operating income from 42 percent in 2005 to 55 percent in 2010.” At the Manesar plant, 65 percent of the workforce was non-permanent, and were paid about 40 percent of the wages paid to the permanent staff. The combination of an expanding domestic market with high productivity at the plants helped Suzuki Motor Corporation increase profits substantially.

Both Gurgaon and Manesar plants were operating above capacity. MSIL has three plants in Gurgaon at the same location, with an installed capacity to produce 750,000 cars annually. In 2011, its production was 1,000,000 cars. At the Manesar plant too, with an installed capacity of 500,000 cars per year, the production was above capacity at 600,000 cars per year. In 2010, as the company faced a sudden increase of 30 percent in the demand for cars, it put in a series of measures to increase production in the existing assembly line capacity. The Economic Times reported that between 2010 and 2011, the cars produced at its Gurgaon facility rose by 17 percent. At Manesar, there was a 40 percent jump in production between 2010 and 2012.

The workers’ experience reveals the underside of this story.

Inside room 169 at the lawyers’ chamber, 28-year-old Imaan Khan recounted that he began work as a trainee technician in the Manesar plant in November 2007. Working on the assembly shop floor, Khan’s job over three years of traineeship was to remove two side doors off the car frame every 48 seconds, the time it took for one car to roll off the assembly line. Work-shifts were usually eight hours and forty-five minutes long, and alternated week to week between day and night shifts. “We got two tea breaks of seven minutes each in which we would rush to the canteen 150 metres away and back, and use this break to go to the toilet too, holding the teacup and snack in one hand even inside the toilet. There was a 30-minute lunch break. We would walk 300 metres to queue up for food, and rush back to the work stations to be there a minute before time. Three years later, in 2010, I was confirmed as a permanent junior associate technician,” said Khan.

Khan had finished high school and a two-year training at Industrial Training Institute (ITI) near his home in Hisar in Haryana before coming to Manesar. From ITI, he was placed as an apprentice at Maruti’s Gurgaon plant. He did not have a job after completing his one-year apprenticeship and had approached a placement agency in Gurgaon. “At Om Placement Agency, I got information about a test scheduled at a hotel near Manesar. I appeared for the test and an interview conducted by MSIL staff, and was placed at the Manesar plant,” he recalled. Satish Dalal, sitting nearby, described what he saw as the logic of the tests and the interview process: “They want to hire only those of us as staff who appear docile. The managers on the shop floor told us as much later. ‘We have tested that your jaws contain no teeth,’ they would tell us.”

Like Khan, for 25-year-old Dalal, MSIL Manesar was his first job. He had completed ITI from Rohtak in Haryana after finishing class X. He did a one-year apprenticeship at Maruti’s Gurgaon plant in the research and development division and began work at the Manesar plant as a trainee in November 2007, a day after Khan had joined the factory. From 2007 to 2010, he worked as a trainee in the paint shop, mechanically painting two car doors every minute, standing alongside robots doing the same work. The work got more difficult during the summers, he recounted, as he had to stand for long shifts in the heat with remnants of paint all around.

In 2007, a permanent worker at MSIL got INR 17,000 (USD 270) a month, while a casual worker got INR 7000 (USD 111). Of this, a part was fixed while the rest was a variable component which got deduced depending on the number of leaves taken by the worker, a system meant to serve as an incentive for full attendance. According to Bose and Ghosh, pay slips of the workers from 2011 show that for most permanent workers, INR 8000 (USD 127) was the fixed component of the wage. Of the ‘variable component’, INR 1500 (USD 24) was deducted per day of leave. This meant that “if a permanent worker took more than five days of leave in a month, the entire [variable] component was exhausted and he received a wage of Rs. 8000 [USD 127] only.” Among trainees, INR 800 (USD 13) per day of leave was deducted from the variable component of the trainee’s wage. For contract workers and apprentices, two days of leave in a month exhausted the entire variable component. The workers say they found this ‘incentives system’ exploitative. “Irrespective of whether we had accumulated casual leave, sick leave or paid leave, any leave led to a pay cut,” said Satish Dalal. However, Factory Head and MSIL Vice President Vikram Khazanchi denied the company followed such a policy. “It is incorrect to suggest that our company has the policy to penalise workers by deducting their incentives for remaining absent,” Mr Khazanchi stated while deposing in the Gurgaon district court on 15 November 2013.

Bose and Ghosh calculated that MSIL profits after taxes had increased by 2200 percent since 2001-02. On the other hand, between 2007 and 2011, while MSIL workers’ yearly earnings increased by only 5.5 percent; the consumer price index (for the Faridabad centre, Haryana) went up by over 50 percent. Workers from all categories were experiencing a severe squeeze in their real wages.

“There is so much work, if my leg itched, I do not have time to even scratch it… After we produced one crore cars, the company gifted us a mobile phone, but no time for conversation.”

“They say the wage is Rs 17000 [USD 270], but actually they give us Rs 12000 [USD 191]…”

“They don’t change the shifts. Being in the C-shift, working from 12:30 in the night till 8:30 in the morning regularly is very difficult. During the C-shift, in lieu of the meal, they used to give us Rs 44 [70 US cents] and now that has been reduced to Rs 22 [35 US cents], and still they want us to stay back and work overtime.”

These are excerpts from workers’ testimonies from July 2011 in the Faridabad Mazdoor Samachar, a workers’ broadsheet published from Haryana. The workers say all categories of workers had begun pooling in INR 2000 each to form a union. On 4 June 2011, after an argument on the shop floor between managers and workers, the workers in A-shift stopped the machines, even as workers in both A-shift and B-shift gathered inside the plant. The workers made phone calls to the workers in C-shift, and soon, they reached the plant too: trainees, apprentices, contract and permanent workers, numbering 2000 to 2500 had gathered inside the plant. They stayed inside for 13 days and halted production.

In late August that year, the worker slowed production again for 33 days, as they refused to sign “good conduct bonds”, which the management had asked them to sign as a condition to enter the plant. In September, over 4500 workers in three other Suzuki plants – Suzuki Powertrain, Suzuki Castings, and Suzuki Motorcycles – and the nearby Munjal Showa, an automobile parts plant, went on strike in support of the workers at the Manesar facility. As differences with management continued, on 7 October 2011, the permanent workers occupied the plant a second time demanding the company take back 1100 temporary workers who were protesting outside the factory.

“70 percent of us on the shop floor, whichever category the company had hired us as, permanent, contract or temporary, were from Haryana. We had been classmates in ITIs. We had no mentality of differences amongst us young generation of workers at the plant,” said Imam Khan.

“The days we were on strike we felt we were in a relaxed frame of mind, everyone looked healthier in those weeks,” recounted Satish.

“There were so many conversations when we were sitting outside the plants during the period of the strikes, it was as if we were seeing each for the first time,” said another worker.

The MSIL management had originally named 55 workers in the First Information Report on 18 July 2012. Over the next three weeks, the police arrested all 12 office bearers of the union, including MSWU’s pradhan (head) Ram Meher, General Secretary Sarabjeet Singh, and Chief Patron Sandeep Dhillon, and 135 other workers. The chargesheet against 147 workers was prepared in October 2012.

Soon afterwards, the Haryana government hired Delhi-based high-profile lawyer K T S Tulsi as a special public prosecutor (PP) in State vs Ram Meher, agreeing to pay him INR 11.25 lakh (USD 18,000) for every appearance in the district court. Mr Tulsi remained special PP in the case till December 2014, not long after the Bharatiya Janta Party formed a new government in the state. In December 2014, the Economic Times reported that the Bhupinder Hooda-led Congress government paid INR 5.5 crore (USD 876,000) to Mr Tulsi in bills.

The bail plea of 15 workers was rejected by the sessions court in December 2012. In May 2013, turning down the workers’ bail plea, Justice K C Puri of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana observed: “The incident is most unfortunate occurrence which has lowered the reputation of India in the estimation of the world. Foreign investors are not likely to invest the money in India out of fear of labour unrest.” On hearing two of 147 workers’ bail plea on 17 February 2014, the Supreme Court ordered the trial court to first complete examining eyewitnesses by 30 April of the same year.

The workers’ efforts to organise have been ongoing. After the arrests, the terminated workers had held their first meeting on 19 August 2012, at Agrasen Dharamshala in Gurgaon, attended by various other trade unions in the district. With all of the previously elected union leaders now in jail, the terminated workers formed a provisional working committee. The workers and their families planned rallies in different parts of the state – Faridabad, Narnaul, Sirsa, Ambala – between January 21 and 27, ending with a rally in Rohtak. Their efforts to stay organised, however, made them the target of further police action.

Imaan Khan recollects that on 24 January 2013, he had reached Sarva Karamchari Sangh, the office of a union of road workers in Gurgaon’s Sector 15 to hold a press conference, when he received a phone call. “I got a call from someone who said he is a press reporter and could not locate the building. I stepped out and saw an Alto car approach, of which two people got out. They asked me to get into the car with them, when I resisted, they clamped my mouth and put me inside the Alto. Five hundred metres ahead, they made me get into a second small car. I could not understand what was going on. Then I saw a Tavera approach, with a red light on top. Then, I understood it was the police. They drove me to Manesar thana and from there to Bhondsi jail.”

Imaan Khan remained in Bhondsi jail for ten and a half months, from January to December 2013, till he was granted bail by the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, the only worker at that point to have received bail. The police’s arrest memo records that Khan was arrested by an assistant sub-inspector of the Manesar police station from Pataudi Chowk in Gurgaon, eight kilometres from the site where the press conference was organised.

While the bail applications of the 147 workers have been rejected repeatedly, a curious pattern has emerged from the evidence cited against them. For 89 of the workers, Haryana police relied on testimonies from just four labour supply contractors hired by the MSIL. Defence counsels RS Hooda and Rajender Pathak point out that each of the four labour contractors testified to witnessing workers indulge in violence. Based on court documents, the 25 workers named by witness Rajender Yadav were given in such a way that they are all in the alphabetical range of A to G. Another witness, contractor Yaad Ram, named 25 workers all of whose names fell in the following range G to P. Witness Ashok Rana testified against 26 workers allegedly seen rioting whose names fell between P and S. The final witness Rakesh, who worked with Tirupati Associates, which supplied MSIL with 900 contract workers, testified that he saw 13 workers engaging in violence; not surprisingly, the names of these workers fell alphabetically between S and Y. In the district court on 5 July 2014, the four contractors gave identical testimonies, but were unable to identify any of the 89 workers they had named earlier.

Arguing in the Supreme Court in February 2015, lawyer Rebecca M John walked the court through the peculiar alphabetic pattern in the accused’s names provided by the eyewitnesses. “After the rioting, the Haryana government put its force into using this instance to crush the workers’ movement in Manesar. The alphabetic testimonies show the state manufactured evidence against the workers,” said Ms John. “The police arbitrarily arrested these workers, and assigned these 89 names to the four labour contractors to memorise their names. None of them could identify the workers in the court,” pointed out defence counsel R S Hooda. D C Gupta, a lawyer representing MSIL, said the prosecution may produce more witnesses who can identify the accused.

Inside Bhondsi jail, on the outskirts of Gurgaon, Khushi Ram and several workers’ families waited for their turn to meet the jailed workers. Speaking through the bars, Ram Meher, the former head of MSWU, reiterated that several workers had surrendered but the police had shown them to have been arrested from different areas. “We were fighting for our rights; we did not go on strikes out of enmity with the company. But it feels like the government and powerful people have treated us like personal enemies,” Sarabjeet Singh, the former general secretary of the union, told me as his 15 minutes with visitors ended (inmates are allowed to speak to visitors for only 15 minutes a week).

The bail granted to the two Maruti workers by the Supreme Court was reported by several major news publications. The legal case against the workers, its implications, the condition at the industrial plant as well as those in the Industrial Model Township have largely remained absent from public discussion. In 2011-12, most newspaper reports remained focused on the declining production and the financial implications of the workers’ strikes for India’s largest automobile manufacturer. After the 18 July 2012 incident, a report in the Economic Times claiming the wisdom of hindsight described how the atmosphere in the Japanese-run company’s Manesar plant, instead of resembling “quiet, humming efficiency”, had been closer to “chaotic, bordering on the faintly menacing”.

On Friday, 13 February 2015, the last of the 102 witnesses testified in the Gurgaon district court. A senior manager with MSIL testified, followed by Dr Rajesh Singh, a consultant at Artemis Hospital, Gurgaon, followed by the Investigating Officer Deputy Superintendent of Police Om Prakash. In one corner of courtroom number 3, a dozen iron rods and car-door beams lie on the floor wrapped in white cloth. The police have shown these as the rioting weapons. The Recovery Memo from the police says 139 car-door frames and several iron rods were recovered from the workers, including from those arrested weeks after the incident from districts far from the factory. This would imply that some of the workers took the trouble to carry these iron rods and door frames all the way home over long distances.

As the testimonies went on, one of MSIL’s managers sits at the back of the courtroom. “The workers were young, in their 20s. They were immature, impatient, and not reasonable, or logical beyond a point,” says the senior manager, declining to be named. He describes what he saw in the workers’ stance as a change in norms and practices he has long tracked in the Industrial Model Township at Manesar. “They had got their union. The wage negotiations were on, that meant there was going to be some increase for sure. They were going to get all this. Then why this reaction?” he asks.

The cross-examination of witnesses continues. D S P Om Prakash is asked to take part in a Test Identification Parade. At four pm, all the 147 workers are brought to court; every two workers are accompanied by one policeman. It is the end of winter, a sunny day in February. Most workers are dressed casually in jeans and T-shirts. Imaan Khan stands by a pillar outside the door of the court. He smiles and yells a loud greeting just before each set of two workers enter the court with the policemen briskly leading them. Some smile back at him. He comments on one of the workers’ change in hairstyle, long hair tied into a ponytail.

Satish is standing a little away from the court’s entrance, his eyes scanning for Ram Meher and Sarabjeet. Sarabjeet has lost weight, he says, as he spots him. Ram Meher sees him and gives a wide smile. Satish runs after Ram Meher to snatch a few seconds of conversation.

~This article is from our latest quarterly issue Labour and its Discontents (March 2015).

~Anumeha Yadav is a reporter based in Delhi.

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