Factories kill people. Occasionally, those who die belong to the management. Usually, they are workers.
On the first of May, (International Labour Day) 2009, several workers at the Lakhani Shoe Factory in Faridabad, Haryana, were struck by a ball of fire, which engulfed them before they could run to save their lives. The fire, caused by willful neglect of elementary safety procedures, did not result in criminal charges being framed against the management or proprietors of the Lakhani Vardaan Group, which owns the Lakhani Shoes Factory.
A report in the Gurgaon Workers News (No.9/18) has this account of the fire –
“On 1st of May 2009 the Lakhani Shoes factory, plot 122 in Faridabad Sector 24 caught fire, the newspapers first wrote of six, then of ten, then of fifteen dead workers. Lakhani is said to be the country’s largest maker and exporter of canvas and vulcanised shoes, has two dozen units in the district. A younger worker who is employed in a neighbouring factory came to Faridabad Majdoor Library three days later. He said that it is more than likely that 50 – 100 or more workers have been killed. A boiler on the first floor exploded, the floor collapsed and buried many workers who were waiting for their over-time payment in the basement. He said that he saw at least 100 burnt bicycles outside the factory. He met a landlord in industrial village Mujesar who said that his three tenants, employed at Lakhani haven’t returned. He met an older woman whose son is still missing. Most of these workers were not officially employed, their names were not on the Lakhani pay-roll. Many of them were from Nepal and single, meaning that they were not immediately reported missing by their families. From the reported 38 workers who were brought to various hospitals – in Faridabad there is no hospital for severe burn treatment – only one worker had an official ESI health insurance number. The rest is unknown.”
Bodies burnt to cinders are difficult to identify, unless they leave behind distinct identifying objects, like gold teeth. DNA matches are possible to do if there are records of relatives. None of the workers at the Lakhani fire had gold teeth. Many of them were contract workers, nobody knew who their relatives were. They were incinerated without trace.
On the 20th of July 2012, a charred body found at the site of an incident of alleged mob violence the evening before (19th July) by the workers of Maruti Suzuki India Limited’s Manesar plant was identified as that of Awanish Kumar Dev, a manager in the Human Resources department of the Maruti Suzuki Manesar Plant. Mr. Dev had a gold tooth. DNA samples were also taken and these proved his identity when matched with DNA samples taken from his immediate family. His family’s agony, while waiting for confirmation of the identity of the deceased, can not be imagined. Imagine the agony of the relatives of some of the evaporated workers of Lakhani shoes.
Several posts in Kafila have gone into the background of the tragic incident of Mr. Dev’s death in Manesar in some detail. We have guest-posts from the Maruti Suzuki Employees Union and Anumeha Yadav, a post from Aditya Nigam, and kafialite Aman Sethi has written in The Hindu. Each of these has been useful in thinking through this thorny and intractable issue. In the interests of economy, I will try and not repeat what they have said already. My concern is death, and the meaning of death, especially when it happens in and around a factory.
Since the day of the confirmation of the unfortunate and condemnable death of Awanish Kumar Dev, a sad casualty of the ongoing class conflict in north Indian Industrial heartland of Haryana, we have witnessed tsunami of rage from those who view the killing of a manager in a factory as a calamity. Regrettably, sometimes the most terrible of tragedies (and the death of Mr. Dev is no doubt a profound human tragedy for his family and friends) becomes an instrument for larger and more impersonal agendas.
When a fire engulfs a factory, the body of those trapped inside burns in the same way, regardless of who they are. Suffocation due to smoke does the same things to the lungs, regardless of whether the lungs belong to a worker or a manager. When the results of an inferno are the same, we need to think about why the consequences of two fires are so different ? What makes the victim of an alleged act of arson more worthy of mourning than the victims of an instance of willful neglect? We have heard a lot about one fire in Manesar in the past few days. Why have we heard so little about another fire in Faridabad over the last three years?
As I write, ninety one workers of the Maruti-Suzuki factory in Manesar have been sent into judicial custody and are currently in Bhondsi Jail. The Haryana police are looking for five hundred unnamed others.
The magistrate, in an unusual departure from procedure, delivered her decision to send the workers into judicial custody in a police station. The accused in any case are supposed to be presented before magistrates so that they can record their statements without fear or coercion, thereby enabling the magistrate to take a clear preliminary view of their culpability. Here, since it was a manager in a company as important as Maruti Suzuki that had died, it seems that the magistrate, police, and the Haryana government found it fit that normal procedure be kept in abeyance. Ministers (of the government of Haryana and the centre) made statements. Narendra Modi (as befits a prime minister in waiting) went to Japan and invited Suzuki Corporation to sup at his table. Editorial writers polished their turns of phrase. Captains of industry called for ruthless measures. Notwithstanding the Maoists’ well known contempt for the industrial proletariat, The ministry of home affairs hinted at the involvement of Maoists. Angry, righteous and right-wing bloggers and television commentators found a made-to-order opportunity to ventilate their well honed class-hatred against workers. Everyone who mattered, seemed to want to scrap labour laws.
Meanwhile, a lawyer representing the accused in a communication to me yesterday said that many of the young workers who are currently being held in Bhondsi jail were not even in the factory at the time that the unfortunate incidents of violence occurred, as their shift had not yet started. The matter of timing and presence, so crucial as evidence in an ordinary criminal trial is a minor and dispensable detail in this extraordinary case. What matters is that ninety one young workers are in jail, currently being persuaded by the Haryana Police to implicate themselves in this tragedy, so that the angry bloggers, captains of industry, editorial writers and the good and the great of this land can have their moment of outrage. Perhaps a Maoist or two or three will be discovered amongst them by the Ministry of Home Affairs, with the same diligence with which it has recently found Maoist spirits lurking within the bodies of dead children in Cchatisgarh.
The Haryana Police is combing the country side around Manesar, and further afield. The Haryana Police is not known for its gentle investigative procedures. It is going to the tenements that workers (many of them migrant) live in, in the villages around Manesar, in Rohtak and Jhajjhar. They are threatening anyone they can. Families are being told that unless they give up their sons, they will be held responsible, and that the police will not hold themselves responsible for what they do to make them give up their sons.
This one sad, unnecessary and unfortunate death has set back the gains of more than a year of a non-violent, disciplined intelligent and militant workers struggle at Maruti-Suzuki by decades. It will take time to know what exactly happened. Perhaps it will take an eternity. Who lit the fire? What angry words were said? What provocations, if any, were present that made the workers lose their careful and disciplined resolve (that was so visible throughout last year) not to give in to the temptation of violence? Were there, as has been alleged by some workers, agent-provocateurs brought in by the management who lit the first spark? Why is it being said that those who started the fight did not recognize known leaders of the union? Did someone from the management pull a gun? Or is this all idle rumor mongering? Perhaps we will never know the exact truth. The truth is most likely to be the first thing that will be buried under the mountain of ‘statements’ and ‘confessions’ that will now be harvested by the ‘brave-hearts’ of the Haryana Police in Bhondsi Jail.
But one thing can be said for certain. The exemplary solidarity between permanent, contracted (thekedari) and casual workers at the Maruti Plant at Manesar stands threatened today by the climate of fear that the state and the management will use to divide the workers of Manesar at every step from now onwards. In situations of class war, as in chess, the fall of a piece need not mean victory for the opposing side. A manager is dead, and workers are check-mated in Manesar. Factories kill people, especially those who enter their gates in search of a living. Sometimes they kill suddenly, sometimes, they take their time.
A living wage is harder to come by than death on the cheap.
Three years ago, in October 2009, a twenty six year old worker called Ajit Yadav was killed in cold blood by police and thugs hired by the management at a picket outside the F.C.C Rico Factory, also in Manesar.
There had been a dispute. When is there not a dispute? Workers were picketing the factory, legally, in support of their demands, and had won a judicial order that allowed them to set up their protest at a distance of 50 metros from the factory gate. The management decided to use force to lift the picket. Ajit Yadav died. At first the police refused to file an FIR. Eventually, an FIR was filed, but the time of its filing was changed, and another complaint was inserted at the behest of the management that made it out that workers attacked the management. The management’s complaint could be given priority.
One hundred thousand workers from the Gurgaon Manesar industrial belt went on strike. Two people were arrested, but workers allege that not a single person actually associated with the crime was detained. Some workers were also held on general charges of rioting. But nothing happened about Ajit Yadav’s killing. No one from the management was even questioned. The case dragged on in court. Witnesses turned hostile. Money changed hands. The management, which had heaped abuse at Ajit Yadav only days before, offered ‘compensation’ and ‘condolences’ to his family. An agreement was reached, brokered by the labour department. Peace returned to the Rico Factory, over the dead body of Ajit Yadav. Reportedly, The HR manager and the police officers associated with this case have all been promoted. There were no pious editorials. No angry blog posts calling for hanging the culprits of Ajit Yadav’s death. The captains of industry were on Diwali vacation. No minister made a statement. It did not make breaking news. Ajit Yadav was not Awanish Kumar Dev.
Ajit Yadav is not the only other casualty in the roster of workers and those who have acted in workers interests who have fallen to management’s moves. We could add the names of M. Murali Mohan, a worker and labour organizer at Regency Ceramics, Yanam, (an enclave of Puducherry in Andhra Pradesh) who was killed while being on a picket outside his factory by police that acted at the behest of management. Workers retaliated by rioting, which led to the death of a manager. A key pawn was taken, and a knight sacrificed. Capital played its next move.
We could add the name of Sunil Pal, labour activist, close to CPI (ML – Liberation) in the mining industry who was shot dead by ‘ unknown miscreants’ in Haripur, Burdwan, West Bengal, allegedly by CPI(M) cadre. We could add the names of popular theatre artist and CPI(M) activist Safdar Hashmi and CITU member Ram Bahadur, whose Congress Party linked killers were convicted fourteen long years after the death of Hashmi and Bahadur in Sahibabad, UP. Other well known ‘cold cases’ include the assassinations of independent trade union leaders Datta Samant and Shankar Guha Niyogi. In none of these cases was the involvement of management interests ever probed in any great detail. In the Shankar Guha Niyogi, case, despite overwhelming evidence, the industrialists suspected of conspiring to kill him were acquitted, only Paltan Mallah, the lone hired killer who pulled the trigger at their bidding is doing time in jail. There have been police firings on peaceful workers protests in Faridabad (the infamous Neelam Chowk firing of 1979) and massacre of workers of the Swadeshi Cotton Mills in Kanpur (1977), or more recent incidents like the harsh assaults like the attack by police on striking Honda workers in 2005, but the memory of these incidents never stains the commentariat’s angry denunciation of working class behavior.
Even Maruti’s own history is marred by an earlier episode of violence where the victims were clearly workers, not management. During the strike in the Maruti factory in Gurgaon in 2000, two workers – water pump operator, Chander Bhan, fifty six, and Rajesh Kumar, a twenty year old apprentice died mysteriously on the same day, (October 18th) while a third , thirty nine year old draftsman Anand Singh Bohra, was committed to a psychiatric ward in a hospital the following day. All three workers had been forcibly detaine (along with several others) within the factory premises for several days in order to continue production while the strike continued. Chander Bhan was declared dead on arrival in the hospital and Rajesh’s dead body was found ten kilometers away from the factory. The union was denied access to post mortem reports and no member of the management was ever investigated for these mysterious deaths.
Death does not come to the factory riding only bullets and the lethal blows of police lathis. It comes casually, with the accident, or in solitude, with suicide. Across the world, there is a growing incidence of workplace deaths.
China leads the world in work place suicides. Closely followed by Japan and South Korea. The US recorded 5,734 workplace deaths due to traumatic injuries in 2005 while in the same year, there were 1097 workplace deaths in Canada. An average of 1,376 people die each year in industrial or workplace accidents in Italy. In India, the government figure of 668 total workplace fatalities (last recorded for 2009) seems to be a strong case of under-reporting, especially as the majority of workers are not permanent and so do not show up on records. ILO estimates suggest that the gross under-reporting of Industrial accidents in India actually hides some of the highest industrial accident fatality figures in the world. According to “Decent Work – Safe Work, ILO Introductory Report to the XVIIth World Congress on Safety and Health at Work”, released in September 2005, India could have as many as 40,000 deaths per year due to industrial accidents alone.
Devastating fires, like the one at the Lakhani factory in Faridabad, which (officially )killed 15 workers on the 1st of May 2009 are far more frequent than they need to be.
Let us look at one ‘accidental’ death. Mohammad Rabban, a garment worker employed at the Medolama Factory, in Gurgaon died an utterly unnecessary death on the 17th of January, 2011 . Here is an excerpt from a report in the Gurgaon Workers News of January 2011. This death was referred to in an earlier Kafila post – ‘The Republic of Exploitation‘ uploaded by Sunalini Kumar on January 27, 2011.
“At around 3am on the morning of 16th January or, the 15th night’s overtime, 17 and-a-half hours into continuous sewing and stitching for the 21hour shift, sitting on his iron stool, Md. Rabban, died instantly of electrocution through one of the live wires protruding out of the production line in the garment factory, Modelama Exports in Plot no.105-106, Phase 1, Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon.
Md. Rabban, who had been working, sampling, stitching, sewing, washing, ironing and producing clothes for Modelama, for the past more than 7 years and in the 105 unit since its production started three and-half years back, hailed from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, and was paid the measly minimum wage of Rs.4200 (after the cuts for ESI, PF, and the ‘breaks’, from Rs. 4800). As usual, on 15 January also, Rabban reached in the morning 9.30 am shift to start his day on the production line to work till 6.30am the next day, to resume work again at 9.30am. There were two breaks of half-hour each at 1.30-2pm, and then again at 6.30-7 (which workers pay for themselves, and for which wage is deducted from the workers themselves), a dinner break from 8.30-9.30pm (tasteless stale food in the canteen, for which the company pays a mere Rs.20), and then a next chai break at 2.30-3am. Ten minutes later into resuming work, at around 3.10am, in the overtime and already 17 hours into work, one of the live wires protruding out in front of his machine, electrocuted Rabban as his hand was caught in between the line. A number of complaints were regularly made about the safety conditions and specially about the leak in the current in the electric machines in the production line, and nothing as would cost the company was done about it. The usual thing that does get done in such situations by the management is the ‘management’ of the body, i.e. to wipe it out of sight, as workers recall earlier incidents of the sweeper in the morning sweeping out litres of blood on occasions of the death of workers due to over-work, clash with management etc. However, before any such ‘cleansing’ attempt, the around 80 workers in the production line who witnessed the incident, made an uproar, and tried to help their saathi/work-mate. There was a cry for immediately taking Rabban to the hospital, and because the company had neither doctors nor an ambulance for such (frequently occuring) situation, and was also unwilling to spare its own cars, the workers offered to take him themselves to the hospital in a hired car in front of the company and were pooling in the Rs.1500 required for the transport. Sensing the workers reaction, the management (the supervisor and other staff) shut production immediately, took possession of the body, and took him to the hospital where he was declared brought dead, and then to the morgue after post-mortem, and with an rapidity which only came later, also took the body to the Nizamuddin cemetry and buried him. The police was informed and an F.I.R registered under Sec.304-A which declared it a freak ‘accident’.
Meanwhile the workers of the production line, were joined by those coming in for the morning shift, and anger erupted outside the closed gates of the factory, with over a thousand workers pelting stones and breaking the sleek glass front of the company. The low pay, the single overtime, the non-payment of back wages, the no-offs strictness, the continued and regular harassment in the form of abuse and even slaps and beatings, the strong surveillance in the from of finger-print/biometric entry and the CCTV cameras at every nook and line with the suspicion of workers-as-thieves while clearly it is the other way round, all took form in this solidarity action. Workers of other companies in the area going for their morning shifts also joined in to express their solidarity and anger. Police was employed to control the anger, and disperse the angry workers who demanded justice for Rabban.
The company however came out much later, and made an oral statement about the promised payment of Rs. 1lakh to the family of the deceased. And by around 2pm on the 16th, the spontaneous wave of anger was stifled with the threat of police, targetting-and-possible-suspension and management-through-the-family. The next day’s newspapers reported in an insignificant column, an accident in the Modelama company which was resolved. Work remained suspended on the 16th. /on the 17th morning, when workers got back to the company, after some initial tension at the gates, work was resumed. however soon after, in many departments, many workers again took up the previous day’s incident and its sham resolution in a general uproar, which the management stifled with selective representation of some workers, and a promised 50-50 joint-fund of workers and the company’s contribution which will be paid to the family of Rabban. That it was a direct case of negligence of the company was skirted and work was resumed again, not after a fire broke out (it was unclear how, or by whom) in one of the departments which took some time to be doused.
The Modelama Exports unit situated in plot 105-106 in Phase 1, has around 4500 workers, and it is one of its several units in operation in Haryana, Delhi and Chennai. (Plot nos. 105, 106, 184, 200, 201, 204 in Udyog Vihar, Phase-I, 660 in Phase-II, plot nos. 5, 7, 18, 89 in IMT Manesar, one each in Sonipat and Rewari, two- B-33 and B-57 in Okhla Phase-I, and one in Chennai). Selling “the mystifying aura of fashion”, it is a big name in the ready-made garment industry besides expanding into home furnishing, jewellery, energy and real estate. Its chairman, Lalit Gulati was the president of the owners’s association, Apparel Exporters and Manufacturers’ Association. Its production units cover 400,000 sq. feet area, and has a production capacity of 6 million garments per year and a turn over of US $ 60 million. Its ‘vision’ statement says that it seeks to maintain a balance between “ethical values and corporate objectives” and that it “takes pride in the human resource” that it has. It counts its buyers from the US, UK, Canada, Europe and Australia, among them being big corporate players like Gap, Banana Republic, Marks &Spencer, Abercrombie &Fitch, and Country Road.”
How can we include accidents under the casualties of a class war?
The majority of industrial accidents in India are attributable to poor health and safety conditions in factories, toxic materials, absence of protective clothing and equipment, lack of training or awareness on safety issues, and overwork, exhaustion and stress – all of which lead to lack of concentration on the job. An apology for Health and Safety standards, reasonable hours and workload are stipulated in the ineffectual labour laws that those so angry at worker discontent want to do away with.
Random Checks by factory inspectors from the Labour Commissioner’s office have been seen as a source of corruption because apparently factory managements were being forced to cough up bribes in exchange of certificates of compliance with health and safety norms. The solution successfully argued for by managements to this predicament is not a reform of procedures aimed at making extortion by ‘inspectors’ more difficult, but an abolition of all ‘inspections’ altogether. Now managements, in Haryana, for instance are required to make ‘voluntary’ disclosures of their health and safety standards. Naturally, few factories ever find their own safety standards wanting, and so, if injuries, or even fatal accidents occur, the fault is seen to lie with the worker’s poor work-performance rather than with a hazardous work environment or process.
Injuries to contract workers are never recorded, fatalities are hushed up, and even permanent workers, when injured on the job are never sure of getting the medical attention they need because employers rarely fulfill their obligations towards the ESI funds meant to act as a safety net for the medical expenses of injured or sick workers. In an award winning series of reports on health and safety issues in the workplace in Mint, journalist Maitreyee Handique points out that according to the Directorate General, Factory Advice Service and Labour Instiutes (DGFASLI) in 2008 alone, Haryana reported 74 fatal injuries and 112 non fatal injuries in the work place. ESIC figures, says Handique, indicate that “companies owe nearly Rs800 crore to ESIC in payments…the organization’s 2007-08 annual report says 18,248 payment cases are pending.”
Pending ESIC payments translate into an injured or diseased worker who is not able get proper medical attention, and is therefore made unable to earn, he/she grows more vulnerable, gets hurt and sick, and gets deeper in debt.
Injury, stress, disease, mounting loans due to expenditure on medical bills and other expenses is also leading to a growing epidemic of suicide amongst the industrial working class in India, While there has been some media attention on the spate of suicides by migrant Indian workers in the Gulf, there is a growing recognition that suicide is not only a ‘gulf’ problem as far as Industrial workers are concerned. Work related stress leading to suicide is increasingly being reported for Textile workers in Tirupur, workers in the Diamond industry in Gujarat, Transport and ex-Jute Mill workers in West Bengal.
But it is not only marginalized and unorganized workers who are committing suicide. In a recent study of suicide amongst workers in Central India, the anthropologist Jonathan Parry has indicated that “there are good grounds for supposing that—at least in certain pockets—the urban suicide rate is as high, if not higher (than ‘farmer suicides’ in rural India). In the industrial area around steel town of Bhilai, this has risen dramatically over the last 20 years and it is the aristocracy of public sector labour that is significantly most susceptible. This is ultimately attributable to the liberalisation of the economy and the consequent downsizing of this workforce, which has led to a crisis in the reproduction of class status. Such workers are privileged; think of themselves as different from the informal sector ‘labour class’ and fear sinking into it. Suicides are significantly under-reported and the official statistics are systematically inflected by fear of the police and the law, which encourage both concealment and the deliberate obfuscation of likely motives, and almost certainly increase the ‘lethal probabilities’ of suicide attempts.”
Once again, the shadow of suicide has not left Maruti Suzuki alone.
Consider this report (‘Maruti Strike Affected his Salary, Wife Committed Suicide‘) on the NDTV website on the 11th of October, 2011
“A call centre manager, whose husband is an officer with auto makers Suzuki, committed suicide allegedly after a fight over domestic finances. Her husband was apparently not getting his salary in the wake of the continuing strike in Maruti Suzuki India Ltd’s Manesar plant, (in October 2011) police said.
Ritu Sharma, 27, was working with GE Money. She allegedly consumed a poisonous substance, police said. She has left a suicide note blaming no one for her extreme step.
Ritu, associate manager with a BPO, was living with her husband Vikram in a rented accommodation in Sector 40 of this Haryana town, a suburb of Delhi.
Ritu’s parents stay in Delhi’s Sagarpur area, while Vikram belongs to Haryana’s Bhiwani district. He works in one of the three plants of Suzuki in Gurgaon as assistant manager sales (planning).
“Vikram was without salary possibly due to the on-going strike in Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) Manesar plant,” said Rakesh, a relative.
Anil Munjal, vice president Suzuki Motorcycles, the employer company, refused to comment on the issue.”
Or, consider this report (‘Japanese National Hangs Himself in Gurgaon’) in the Times of India of September 20, 2011
“A Japanese national committed suicide by hanging himself in Gurgaon’s DLF Phase II area early on Sunday morning. Though no suicide note has been found, police have ruled out any foul play in the incident.
The deceased, identified as Kishi Takahiro, 27, had come to India 15 days ago from Japan on an official assignment. He worked with a Japanese company, Kansai, which supplies paints and chemicals to Maruti’s plant in Gurgaon.
According to the police, Takahiro tore his uniform and used it to hang himself from the bathroom’s ceiling of his flat in DLF Phase II. He was living in the flat, C-111, Beverly Park, along with two colleagues. The incident was discovered when Takahiro did not come out of the room at the time of breakfast on Sunday morning. Confirming the incident, a corporate communication executive of Maruti Suzuki India Ltd (MSIL), said : “The company has nothing to do with the incident. The man’s family has been informed about the incident by the local official of Kansai and his father is planning to fly to India soon to take the body back to Japan.”
Worker, Manager, Migrant, Local, Jat, Gujar, Indian, Japanese, Man, Woman – Death treats everyone with exemplary equity, in the end, after the fire in the factory has cooled, there are only ashes, it is only life, and the wage that makes life possible that maintains the fiction of inequality, and looks for gold teeth in the debris.
Day after day, as the names slide off the ESI registers and muster rolls, a legion of ghosts gathers on the shop-floor. Mortality statistics keep pace with production figures. Post-Mortem reports elope with missing salary slips as the shy compliance reports of health and safety measures look on wistfully. The risque, robust dance of the seemingly inevitable trio of death, taxes and wage-slavery pauses, straining to listen for the music of the machines on the assembly line. It hears silence instead.
Could it be that a spectre is haunting our factories ?