Trade unions must introspect on where they're going
While trade unions across the country, including at Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, have found it convenient to oppose the increasing tendency of managements to hire contract labour—the proportion of contract workers to permanent workers is 40-50% in Maruti, in line with the rest of industry—Wednesday’s murder at Maruti takes trade unionism to an altogether different level. The last time a manager was killed by rioting workers was in 2008 when the managing director of Graziano Trasmissioni India Ltd was beaten to death after a group of sacked employees turned violent. And while the rioting workers and Maruti’s management have different versions of what triggered the flare-up, the fact that more than 400 workers (to begin with) got iron rods to beat managers with and petrol to burn a part of a building housing Maruti’s managers suggests some degree of planning which the police will now investigate—that this happened at a time when the wages negotiations for the plant were going on deepens the suspicion. With one official burnt to death and another 100 in hospital, including 8 in the ICU, India’s trade unions need to do some serious introspection as to where their movement is going. If managements are hiring more workers on contracts, it is because labour laws are so stifling they provide zero flexibility to managements; if wages are not rising in the manner unions would like them to, it’s because companies need to be able to compete with imports from more competitive countries. And it is no secret that larger unions have been trying to make inroads into Maruti—when it applied to the government for recognition, the Maruti workers’ union at Manesar had put in a clause asking to be allowed to have non-Maruti workers as office bearers.
That said, Maruti’s management is not without blame either. Maruti offers among the highest wages in the industry and yet workers at Manesar have struck work thrice in the last one year with the company losing 33 days of production. While Maruti’s management may have felt thrilled that it managed to pay off union leaders like Sonu Gujjar to end the strike in November, the move looked short-sighted even then as it strengthened workers’ suspicions that the management was buying off workers. What has to be all the more alarming is that Wednesday’s murderous attack took place despite the union being a friendly one in the sense Maruti’s management helped get its recognition expedited and in getting it set up. Worrying about shifting production from Manesar which accounts for a third of Maruti’s production has to be a concern since the unit will remain closed for a while, but there are other questions to address. The worker integration that seems to have happened in Gurgaon has not taken place at Manesar—possibly getting younger workers at Manesar also meant this was a more volatile lot—and, unlike the last time around, there were no warning signs. For months before the last strike, worker productivity was suffering, the number of defective cars being produced was on the rise—this time there was a studied calm.