The Hooter Marks Time

Each morning, factory hooters call out to India’s 50 million industrial workers, many of whom stand by their stations and repeat a single set of tasks with unerring regularity until the hooter sounds again to signal the end of the first shift and the start of another.  Manufacturing provides employment to just 11 percent of India’s workforce, but the sector and its workers are seen as a bellwether for the economy as a whole.

Last week, a senior general manager in Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant was killed and several managers injured in a violent confrontation between workers and management, prompting national dailies to speak of the “bad old days of militant trade unionism”.   Yet, industrial unrest is at historic lows in terms of numbers of incidents and man-days lost. In 1973-74, nearly 3,00,000 strikes were called just prior to the Emergency; 2010 saw just 429 such incidents, according to data from the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute.

What accounts for this shift? Has the Indian factory become a safer, better-paid and more secure workplace?

Data suggests the opposite: Today, Indian workers are paid less in real terms than they were fifteen years ago, have less job security, and yet are less likely to strike. Workers in Haryana’s industrial belt suggest that the incident at Maruti Manesar signals the end of the all-powerful union capable of controlling the factory floor, rather than its return. Instead, industry’s reliance on casual workers has created informal leaderless networks that operate outside the framework of strikes and settlements that undergird union activity. Read more

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