Gurgaon workers – damned if they do, damned if they don’t: Anumeha Yadav

Guest post by ANUMEHA YADAV

In last three weeks, over a thousand workers went on a rampage on the streets of Gurgaon in two separate incidents.  On March 19,over 2000 workers from Orient Craft, India’s largest apparel-maker and exporter, attacked the office premises pelting stones at it and set 10 vehicles on fire, including a police van. They were reacting to the news that Naseem Ahmed a worker in his 20s in the hosiery unit in Sector 34 had been stabbed in the arm with a pair of scissors by Harinder ‘Lovely’ Singh, alabour contractor at Orient Craft.

Five days later on March 24 BabuHassan, a 25 year-old worker from Badaul in UP,fell from the sixth floor of EIRO Grand Arch project’s under-construction building while trying to fit glass in a window.  Over 1000workers including from nearby construction sites gathered and attacked thecompany office,the carsparked outside, and set company dumpers and a police van on fire.

In the first incident, workers say Naseem had missed work the previous day, a Sunday, and had got into argument with the contractor over his wages being deducted. He has since changed his statement to say that he got cut when a shard of glass fell on him.In the second incident, the FIR filed by the police after Hassan’s death says the workers at the construction site turned violent when they got the news that Hassan had died at Sri Ram hospital. Workers say they watched Hassan die from the fall, that they got angry when the company’s security guards and the police tried to take his body away fearing it will be dumped and disposed of, not sent back to his home.

The police arrested 23workers at the EIRO construction site the same day and another 34 workers the next day. Most aremigrants from Bihar, Jharkhand, and UP.  In both Orient Craft and EIRO instances,the arrested workershave been charged under Sections 148, 149, 109, 114, 332, 353, 307, 435, 436, 427 of IPC, and sections 3, 4 of Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act. These are charges of rioting armed with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, abetment, mischief, assault with criminal force to deter public servants; section 307 the most serious of these charges is of attempt to murder, a non-bailable offence. The arrested workers have now been put in prison inBhondsijail, 20 kms from Gurgaon.  In the EIRO instance,the labour contractor has been chargedunder Section 304A of IPC, causing death by negligence, a bailable offence. Harinder ‘Lovely’ Singh of Orient Craft is charged under Section 323 of IPC, causing simple injury, also a bailable offence.

Hired through contractors, neither Naseem Ahmed nor Babu Hassan exists on the companies’ records.

Photos and video by Anumeha Yadav

This same month two long-drawn non-violent agitations by workers in another part of Gurgaon also reached some conclusions.  On March 1, workersat Maruti Suzuki car plant at Manesar who had a five-month standoff with the management last year over the formation of an independent union and improvement in their work-conditions declared a new union. But the leaders who had led the strike had been made to leave by the companyduring negotiations after the strike ended last October.

On March 23, Suzuki Motorcyclessuspended three employees, the main functionaries of Suzuki Motorcycle India Employees’ Unionwho had led the demand for improvement in workers’ wages and work conditions at the plant last September. A large contingent of police was deployed at the plant as a pre-cautionary measure.

How have industrial relations reached such a volatile point in Gurgaon? Does the space exist for workers and employers to negotiate this relation?

The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970 prohibits hiring workers on contract to do perennial work that goes on day to day, and work that is incidental to and necessary for the work of the factory. A board that is supposed to decide if any establishment is exempt from this regulation does not exist in Haryana. Rules say that any establishment with over 100 employees must take government permission before firing regular or permanent workers. Thus, citing reasons of efficiency, establishments subvert the law and employ nearly all their regular workers as temporary or contract workers: workers who are willing to work longer hours for lesser pay. On paper, most labour contractors have licenses to supply workers on contact for jobs such as gardening, sweeping, loading materials etc. But they illegally supply workers at lesser costs to do regular jobs such as welding, making tools, stitching garments – work central to industrial production.

Orient Craft, aRs 850 crorecompany set up in 1978 by SudhirDhingra is the biggest apparel-maker in south Asia. It has 21 plants in Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, Bhiwadiand supplies to 40 international companies including Gap, Banana Republic, Macy’s, DKNY, Marks&Spencer. NaseemAhmed is one of its 25,000 employees and among 3000 workers employed through contractor Harinder ‘Lovely’ Singh. Singh owns two thekas, in his and his wife’s name.

“I supervise 600 workers, 500 are hired on contract;most are migrants from Bengal, Bihar, some from Nepal.  Hiring workers through contractors makes dealing with workers their headache. For instance,six months back a woman whom we had asked to leave complained to the police that we had poisoned her, the contractor dealt with it,” says a supervisor from Orient Craft’s cotton floor.  “The company makes sure the workers are paid on time even if it is less than their full wages and overtime sometimes. We deposit pay for regular workers in their bank accounts and pay the contract workers through contractors but they sometimes keep part of their wages or provident fund.” He adds that he has never seen a labour inspector on his floor in the six years that he has worked at the plant.

Construction workers are in an even more tenuous position. The Building & Other Construction Workers (Regulation, Employment and Condition of Services) Act 1996 generously prescribes accommodation in rooms with ventilation for workers, drinking and sanitation facilities, crèches, safety measures and first-aid, canteen facilities, leave for women workers.  But most sites do not keep even muster rolls. “These workers are invisible in the records. The police functions like industrial establishments’ private security guards. Even after an incident like EIRO, entire documents can vanish from police records,” says RajendraPathakthe lawyer representing the workers arrested from the IERO construction site. R P Srivastava a manager from L&T – it was one of the two contractors working on the building project – and in whose name the FIR against the workers was filed refused to speak about the details of the incident.

The emasculated Labour Department hasa staff of a little over 20 officers and a handful of inspection vehicles to supervise over 10,000 factories in Gurgaon employing between eight to ten lakh workers, and for supervising the safety of thousands of workers at construction sites.

“Informalisation and fragmentation of labour is creating this wave of militancy which was last seen after the emergency, and then in 80s. The space for workers to form organizations and express their basic demands has been systematically reduced to nothing so their discontent is bound to erupt as violence. Labour officials too find it easier to make money than implement the law,” says Prof Ravi Srivastava an economist at JNU and member, National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector.

As the police rounded up and arrested workers from near the EIRO construction site, hundreds of migrant workers fledGuragon. Two days after Babu Hassan’s death, Haryana government set up an enquiry committee to look into the industrial safety violations at EIRO under R S Yadav Director Industrial Safety and Health, Deputy Director R Malik, and Deputy Labour Commissioner AnuradhaLamba – the same officials who ought to have implemented the law in the first place.

“We inspected the building site.  He must have been drunk or he could not have fallen from where he was standing,” an official who is a member of the committee spoke on the condition of anonymity. It is a finding that is not confirmed even by the government’s own post mortem report.

Having submitted a report, labour department officers got busy organizing an athletics and kabaddi competition for workers from all over Gurgaon industrial area scheduled for April 7 and 8.

*

If the violence with which the workers at Orient Craft and EIRO reacted is anarchic, the space the constitution provides workers to articulate their demand in an organized manner is nearly eclipsed. Negotiation between industry and workers’ representatives is the bedrock of peaceful industrial relations.  Trade Union Act 1926 says that with 10 percent of workers’ support, workers can form any number of unions. But the five-month long standoff last year between workers and management at MarutiSuzuki India Limited (MSIL) at Manesarmade it obvious that this is not a right Gurgaon’s industrial establishments backed with a pliant government are willing to respect.

MSIL, a subsidiary of Suzuki in Japan’s Suzuki Motor Corporation, is India’s largest automobile manufacturer and produces every second car sold in India.  Of 14 models of cars produced by MSIL, four – Swift, Swift DZire, A-star and SX4 sedan – are made at its Manesar plant 20 kms from Gurgaon, over 1000 cars a day. Last June, workers’ discontent with the stress of working without breaks on the assembly line spilled over in the form of a demand for an independent union.  They refused to continue membership in MarutiUdyogKamdar Union (MUKU), the union which has represented workers of Maruti Suzuki’s second plant at Gurgaon since 2000. MUKU did not have any elections in eleven years after its formation and Manesar workers describe it as a “hypocrite union”, co-opted by the management.

“They were imposing MUKU on us. Only an independent union would have made the management treat us more fairly. The supervisors would shout at and abuse us on the work-floor.  We were under constant mental pressure, they had made it into a 48-second line,” says a 28-year old worker who joined the Manesar plant in 2007 when it was set up. He recounts that five years back when he joined work, the assembly line- the time in which a new car is assembled – was almost twice the time.  Since then MSIL has steadily tightened the assembly-line to increase production per day.  Over the years workers have learned to work alongside robots at the workstations, in some cases in extremely high temperatures, but say they cannot be expected to have 8-hour “robot stamina.”

Manesar workers’ first application to Registrar of Unions was rejected in June on the basis that they continued to be members of MUKU, even when many had already applied to resign from its membership.  MSIL suspended 11 workers. Workers responded by occupying the plant for 13 days from 4 to 17 June. Their second attempt to apply for a union also failed. A letter from Registrar of Unions July 29 that rejected their application saying that they still had membership of MUKU, and that the department doubts their claims of having the necessary numbers and the “genuineness of documents submitted” by them.

As the dispute simmered onover 4500workers in three other Suzuki plants – Suzuki Powertrain, Suzuki Castings, and Suzuki Motorcycles – and the nearby Munjal Showa, an automobile parts plant, struck work from 12 to 16 September. At this time, the second phase of the standoff began when the company asked the workers to sign a “good conduct bond”.

The “good conduct bond” is a one-page document that states the worker is signing the bond voluntarily and agrees to be “liable to be punished as per provisions of the Certified Standing Orders.” The Maruti Suzuki Standing Orders for Workmen Section 29 lists 103 actions as misconduct violating which will be going against this bond. For any of these misconducts a worker may be fined, suspended without wages, or dismissed. The 103 misconducts include actions like “gossiping with the other workman, or singing songs”, “lack of proper personal appearance, sanitation and cleanliness including proper grooming”, and spending “longer periods of time in the toilet.” According to the Standing Orders, workers are liable to be searched at any time when within company premises during or outside working hours.

The Standing Orders are rooted in the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act 1946 which says these are to be the rules by which any industrial establishment with 100 or more workers must define the conditions of employment, and make them known to the workmen employed.  In Haryana, the Act applies to establishment with even 50employees. The procedureis that once an establishment sends a copy of the draft of standing orders to the labour department, it must forward a copy this to the trade union, if any or the workmen, or if there is no trade union, to workers’ representatives elected by workers as per rules of this act. Both employers and workers must get 15 days to understand the implications of the provisions.  Then the rules come into force.

In MSIL’s case, the labour department circuited the process meant to make it a tripartite agreement between government, employers and the workers. “Labour officials sent the MSIL workers’ copies of the final certified standing orders not to any union or workers’ representatives but to four trainees of the planton January 252007. No consultation was done. Two months later the copies of the standing orders were sent for a final nod to the management on March 25, 2007,” says Dipankar Mukherjee Secretary Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) quoting from copies of the draft Haryana labour department sent to MSIL employees around the time Manesar plant was set up.

Two months after workers at MSIL tried to resist signing the “good conduct bond” as a condition to re-enter the plant, Labour and Employment Minister MallikarjunKhargecondemned what MSIL had done. “Demanding signing of good conduct bonds from workers as per conditions before allowing them to resume work is an arbitrary act and it also amounts to unfair labour practice as given in the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947,” he said responding to a question raised in the parliament by GurudasDasgupta of CPI and GopinathMunde of BharatiyaJanata Party about MSIL’s conduct.There have been no changes since in Maruti’s Model Standing Orders.

In fact, from around this time of their strike the workers recount the only visit of Haryana Labour Commissioner-cum-Chief Inspector of Factories -cum- Director Industrial Safety Health SatwantiAhlawat to the tent where they were protesting. “She said worse things can happen to you if you don’t sign these good-conduct bonds. She said if I were your employer it is what I would have expected,” says one worker.

On 7 October, the permanent workers had occupied the plant a second time. Over 1200 temporary workers protested outside factory premises. MSIL’s market share had fallen by eight percent during the period of the strikes. The management began negotiations with the workers supervised by Haryana government at Gymkhana Club in Gurgaon on 19 October. Negotiations went on four days. Production resumed on 24 October.

As the strike by workers at Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL)’s Manesar plant ended in October, only reports of the “sell-out” and “betrayal” by the strike leaders made news. A report in the Times of India compared Sonu Gujjar the most articulate of the leaders, to Rajesh Khanna’s character in the film Namak Haram while reporting on how he had “suspiciously disappeared”. In an interview to Business Standard, Gujjar acknowledged that he, Shiv Kumar and 28 of the strike leaders had quit after accepting Rs 16 lakh, which would be their “dearness allowance, provident fund and basic salary” if they had worked at Maruti till they turned 52.

“All those who resigned after October 21 had all been part of the original application we had made to form Maruti Suzuki Employees Union, so we made a fresh application to the labour office in November. We thought of a new name and elected a committee of 12 members,” SandeepDhillon Chief Patron of the newly-registered Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union (MSWU). There are now 12 general body members leading the new union, and 22 informally appointed coordinators in each department who communicate between the leaders and workers.

More recently, the news has revolved around the double-digit wage hike the workers are going to get.

“The biggest relief we have got since is that we can drink water, or go to the toilet whenever we need to because now they allow a reliever at each work-station,” says a 26 year old worker from the vehicle inspection department. Also, they say MSIL has agreed to give them four days off every three months besides a weekly off.

Another change is physical – the 2.5 feet-high wall topped by concertina wire that runs along the MSIL plant boundary has now been increased to a height of 8 feet.

The workers say they were confused as they started getting news of their strike leaders having accepted money after the four-day negotiations between the management and our leaders got over.  “It was right here,” a worker points to the expanse of road outside the plant’s gate no. 2. “There were over 300 of us here. At 9 am, Sonu Gujjar and Shiv Kumar and a few others came and told us that the next day the plant would stay closed and work would resume the day after. But they did not say anything about accepting money from the company,” says one worker.

The leaders of the new union are quick to defend their predecessors.  “The company offered to withdraw police complaints it had got registered against them; that was a big thing. Who can fight endless court cases against such a big company?” says a member of the new general body. In the FIRs Gujjar, Kumar, and 11 other workers are charged under Section 147, 148, 323, 506 of IPC i.e., unlawful assembly, causing simple injury, and making a death threat; section 506 in non-bailable.

But workers who say they spent several days without regular meals during their sit-in inside the plant and braved monsoon rains sitting outside the plant in tents in September say they are less sure about why their colleagues gave in. “They say there was pressure but I am not clear what this pressure was. Also, I hear some of the people who were among those that resigned are still making rounds of the courts because the cases filed against them by individual supervisorswere not withdrawn,” says a 25-year old worker from the weld shop.

The workers say what happened has made them unsure about what to expect of the new union leaders. “I am not one of those krantikaris (revolutionaries),” says one worker sarcastically. Nayanjyoti ofKrantikariNaujawanSabha that organized public meetings about the strike at Delhi university and JNU says this should be looked at another way. “If the leaders had really been bought over then the management would have kept them inside the company as “second-class management” and used them to their ends. The way they saw it they finished what they had set out to do – get the company to accept the new union and take the temporary workers back,” he says. “But yes they did not have a political consciousness that they must stay organized.”

Other labour experts point out that backlash against union leaders, as in the instance of Mumbai Textile Mill Strike in 1929, again in 1982, to nowis not unusual. What is pertinent is the support the union leaders may have expected from government and other institutions then and now, and how democratic are the unions in their functioning.

The workers say they take pride in their stands like resisting signing the “good conduct bond” in September, even thoughthey gave in and signed it before they occupied the plant a second time in October. They say they are satisfied that they are now being treated with more consideration and respect by the management and supervisors.

MSIL workers met on March 18 at the CRPF camp ground to approvetheir new union’s sanwidhaan (constitution). A day later, on 19 March as the Orient Craft workers rioted and Gurgaon had erupted again.

(Anumeha Yadav is a Media fellow with National Foundation for India.)

10 thoughts on “Gurgaon workers – damned if they do, damned if they don’t: Anumeha Yadav”

  1. In the absense of any legal protection for these unions, labour class will suffer like this. Im disappointed that even police dont do anything against such Thekedars and companies. Companies makes crores of rupees because of the these people working for them but they never try to create and amicable working environment for them which lead to the loss of their lives.
    Im highly disappointed on the accidental loss of lives in these working areas but more dissappointed with the system in general which do not take any action against those who are actually responsible.

  2. Meanwhile, a similar situation is developing in Haridwar, where hundreds of workers have been out on strike for two weeks, six of which are now in hunger strike in Dehradun. Workers from other factories are also coming out to take out a rally and to join them.

  3. Thank you, Anumeha, for this lucid, detailed, closely observed account. We need more stories of this calibre from India’s automobile belt and similar disaster zones.

  4. Thanks Anumeha. Apparently, migrant labourers were regularly beaten up by contractors at the Orient Craft.

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