An international panel of labour right lawyers and activists has warned it would bring a lingering labour dispute at India’s largest automobile company, Maruti Suzuki India Limited, to international statutory forums, if the company fails to resolve it to the satisfaction of the hundreds of workers affected. The New York-based International Commission for Labour Rights (ICLR) has also slammed the company, which is a subsidiary of Suzuki, a Japanese auto major, for violating the workers’ rights along internationally recognised benchmarks. The ICLR has also criticised the labour department of the Haryana state, where the company’s factory with the running dispute is located, for its failure to intervene proactively on behalf of the workers.
“We believe that there is a basis to invoke international mechanisms if domestic mechanisms continue to fail to protect the rights of the workers in all regards,” ICLR president Jeanne Mirrer told TEHELKA in New Delhi on Thursday ahead of the release of an exhaustive report on the dispute it has prepared after weeks of investigation. The report, an advance copy of which has been exclusively made available to TEHELKA, categorically says the labour department “failed in its duty to serve as an impartial and effective administrative and adjudicators’ body regarding labour matters”.
On 18 July last year, at a Maruti factory in Manesar in Haryana, one of contemporary India’s most violent industrial clashes took place, in which the HR manager of Maruti Suzuki, Avinash Dev was charred to death. Ninety-three managers were injured along with nine policemen. Since that day, 147 workers from the Manesar plant were arrested and charged with murder and 2,000 workers from Manesar were dismissed. The ICLR, with its ear to the dismissed labour, has brought forward unanswered questions about what really happened at Maruti’s Manesar plant that day. For instance, workers claim disagreements over the dismissal of one of their own – Jia Lal began at 8:30am and Maruti’s management called the police which arrived by 2pm. However, they claim, the police was made to wait outside the premises, allegedly kept at bay by Maruti’s Vigilance Manager – Deepak Anand. Instead, the premises was populated with bouncers in Maruti uniforms who claimed they were new recruits, that the report claims were brought in “specifically to foment conflict, and to give management a pretext for further repression of the union.” Once a large part of the violence was over, at 7pm, is when the police were finally let in. In addition, workers told the ICLR that CCTV cameras within the premises were not damaged as the management claims, but switched off after 11am. And further, that smoke detector systems that were fitted with massive water jets attached as safety mechanisms did not go off when the fire broke out. The whereabouts of two fire brigades normally on standby within the premises were also not clear. Workers claim this was all part of a sinister conspiracy by the management that had for long been looking for an opportunity to frame them.
Maruti’s version of events is of course exactly the opposite. Officially, their spokesperson wrote back in response to TEHELKA’s list of questions about 18 July with the following: “We would not like to participate in the story please.” But piecing together what they have said on record over the year, the whole affair was the culmination of a worker driven conspiracy to force the company into a crisis to get what they wanted. According to them, the CCTV hard drives were damaged along with much else at the plant once the workers that formed a mob went on a rampage. There is no official version available on what happened to the water jets. Or of whether they had indeed called in the police at 2pm but kept them at bay until 7. When TEHELKA spoke with ACP Ravinder Tomar who was on duty that day, he refused to comment, saying he is not authorised to speak to the press.
Either way, the ICLR now says that justice should really be done. And for that, if many of the 147 workers say they weren’t even on duty that day, then there needs to be a fresh and independent investigation to sift the guilty from the many potentially innocent workers in jail.
One year on, charges are yet to be framed, but the arrested workers’ application for bail has been rejected by the High Court in Chandigarh in May. In the same month, a large scale protest of Maruti and accompanying workers and activists in Kaithal in Haryana was put down with police batons, over a 100 workers and activists were arrested after Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code for “unlawful assembly” was imposed, making the strike illegal. In addition, 11 of those arrested were charged with the attempt to murder. All of this taken together has now led the ICLR to argue that the state government of Haryana and the police clearly support one side of the Maruti story – the management.
It is in fact the role of the state, even more than that of Maruti that opens the story up to much more universal questions. Where can workers go to if they want their rights protected and their side of the story heard? The Deputy Labour Commissioner’s answer to this question is perhaps part of the problem. J P Mann told TEHELKA that his principle job is arbitration. As for the rights of workers in jail who say they weren’t even on the shift that day, he said; “That is the job of the police.”
Mann’s response matches what members of the ICLR got from their conversation with the Joint Labour Commissioner for Haryana, Anupam Malik, who termed the Manesar workers’ resistance to join the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union formed in Gurgaon as “immature,” despite admitting alongside that this union was “nurtured and developed by the management.”
The Labour commission’s reactions and that of Maruti’s management prompted the ICLR to declare that “the Labour Department failed in its duty to serve as an impartial and effective administrative and adjudicatory body regarding labor matters.”
The ICLR was set up in 2002 and has a slew of successful activist-lawyers from across the world on its panels. Over the years it has investigated labour disputes and workers’ conditions inside the United States and globally, such as in Colombia. In several cases it has made representations to global forums like the International Labour Organisation, a UN affiliate.
But even if we regard the ICLR as an international body with no jurisdiction over India, their outlining of the problem is similar to a report published by FICCI. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry brought out a report on Industrial Relations and Contract Labour In India written by its Senior Director, B P Pant. It holds the shift towards contract labour in India as a “key reason for labour unrest in India.” It says many attempts have been made by successive governments from the year 2000 on, to amend contract labour laws. To make it illegal for companies to hire contract workers to do the job of permanent workers for lower salaries. But the government, for all its demonstrated goodwill actually employs more contract labour than the private sector in India. Not surprisingly, no consensus has been reached.
Indeed, the genesis of what happened at Maruti was salaries of contract workers. The Maruti story in many ways mirrors the metamorphosis of India’s manufacturing sector once the economy was liberalised in 1991. Maruti Suzuki was set up a decade before that in 1981 as an Indian government venture in partnership with Japan’s Suzuki Motors. Its first small car, Maruti 800, was a huge technological jump at the time and quickly became a national icon. By 2007, the Indian government had sold its entire equity to Suzuki, which now owns the subsidiary. Although the 800 has since ceased production, Maruti Suzuki now sells some 15 types of mini and compact cars, sedans, vans and SUVs, and accounts for more than one in every three cars sold in India. But it has also seen increasing labour unrest since the year 2000 when workers’ agitations spiralled as the business model shifted from hiring permanent workers to being increasingly dependent on contract workers with much lower wages and benefits.
Ironically, the violence of July 2012 did eventually lead to a revision of wages at Maruti’s Manesar plant in September. While the crux of the problem remains Maruti’s refusal to make more of their workers permanent; wages have more or less met the union’s demands. Those that fought hard for this however are now either in jail or out of work. And the precarious nature of contract work – which according to the ICLR still forms 75% of Maruti’s work force – is the source of simmering discontent even when their union is mostly in jail. Embedded in the unanswered questions of what really happened at Maruti, the ICLR says, are much more universal truths. Of the predicament of 3.6 crore contract workers with increasingly violent means of protest up against a deaf management and the pressing need for both sides to meet.