Indian Labour in the age of Neoliberalism : condition & struggle(Part 1) – Anjani Kumar

The government data depict that peace is prevalent in the country. However news of labour unrests coming from many parts of the country contradicts that view. The labour unrests and the spread of anger among the workers of the auto and auto parts manufacturing sector has turned to be an inevitable part of the neoliberal development while the discontent is spreading day by day.

The July 18, 2012 incident in the Maruti Suzuki plant in Manesar where a brawl between the workers and the management left one HR manager dead while 33 others including some managers and workers got injured, is the result of such discontent. Moreover, thousands of similar incidents occurred between 2008 and 2012, are clear  evidence of the global economic crisis being driven into more devastating state- precisely into a state of coma.

These incidents are direct consequence of the ongoing pattern of development that has been taking place in the country at an accelerated speed since 1985 and it has come up with such challenges, against which it is difficult to fight with the pre-existing ideas. Whereas the ruling class has been successful to fragment the working class inspite of increasing plunder of land and livelihood of the Adivasis, subjugation of Dalits and exploitation of labours. The biggest challenge the workers have been facing, is their right to form a union while unionisation is a major issue in the continuous struggle between capital and the workers.

In this article, it has been tried to understand the modes and methods of the new neoliberal form of development and the different aspects of its political, economic and social implications through a study of the workers struggle in the recent times.

  • “Workers should not be pushed so much that they will take the path such as Noida. This should be taken as a warning message for the management”. [Oscar Fernandez, Central Labour Minister (Indian Express, 24th September 2008. Delhi)].

On 22nd September, 2008, a supervisor was killed in Grazino factory compound of in Noida. Eventually 136 workers were taken into custody within 2 days of the incident.

Following the incident, all of the media houses, corporate bodies, both the ruling party and the opposition criticised the statement of the labour minister. In spite of labour minister’s clarification on the statement, he had to resign from his position.

The warning did not have any impact either on the government or on the industrialists. Labour discontent and unrests in the auto and auto parts manufacturing sector went on increasing parallel with the implementation of neo-liberal development policies.

Labour Unrests

Whereas government statisticians’s and media’s desperate effort to curtain incidents of labour unrest, the situation continues to aggravate.

Few notable incidents are: Mahindra (Nasik) May 2009, Sunbeam Auto (Gurgaon) May 2009, Bausch Chasis (Pune) July 2009, Honda Motorcycle (Manesar) August 2009, Rico Auto (Gurgaon) August 2009 (this as well includes the general strikes in the auto sector in the entire Gurgaon region), Prikol (Coimbatore) September 2009, Volvo (Hoskote, Karnataka) August 2010, MRF Tires (Chennai) October 2010 and June 2011, General Motors (Halol, Gujarat) March 2011, Maruti-Suzuki (Manesar) June-October 2011, Bausch (Bangalore) September 2011, Dunlop (Hoogly) October 2011, Coppero (Sriperumbandoor, Tamilnadu) December 2011, Dunlop (Ambattur, Tamilnadu) February 2012, Hyundai (Chennai) April and December 2011 and January 2012 etc. (Rahul Barman, Aspects of India’s Economy, June 2012).

On 13th November 2010, a manager was killed in a fight between the management and the workers of Allied Nippon Company situated in Sahibabad sector 4 while on September 2009, the striking workers of the Prikol Industries killed a manager after 35 workers were fired by the management.  It’s also to highlight that workers of the Hyundai plant in Tamilnadu conducted 20 days long strike as the management denied to acknowledge their union.

On 28th January 2012, the workers in Yanam, Puducherry attacked the plant and killed a supervisor to take revenge of the murder of their union leader and seize the entire city. Situation only came under control only after the state government deployed heavy police forces. (The Hindu, 29th January 2012).

On 28th August 2012, three management officials were injured when the workers of Everest Industries, Nasik attacked them with knife. After this incident, Nasik remained shutdown for two days. Since March 2012, workers of the Gurgaon region expressed their discontent a number of times. Workers of the Orient Craft company attacked the plant and set a police van on fire.

After the Manesar incident, a statement from Oscar Fenandez, the editor of a “progressive” magazine came out as a shocker: “A HR manager was killed in the Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant by the violent acts of the workers. There is no question of looking at this incident from any other point of view. This is a very dangerous and disturbing incident. This should be condemned in every possible manner. This brutal act cannot be justified by any means. Reading such reports makes one feel uncomfortable. The manager was burned to death because one of the workers had fractured his legs and he could not run away from the fire set by the workers. The violence done by the workers was so horrific that 33 managershave to be hospitalized. Police have arrested 91 workers for the alleged crime. The culprits should be dealt with firm hands. It should be noted that recently there has been a number of violent incidents by the workers have been reported in the auto and auto parts manufacturing sector in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt.” (The Hindu, 23rd July 2012, Delhi). The warnings goven by Oscar fernandez in 2008 was then converted to orders to take ‘violent action’ against the workers in 2012.

Context of the unrests

These incidents are results of the neoliberal mode of development which has been implemented with an accelerated speed since 1985 and came out with its brutal face by 2000. By 2000 the general masses started feeling the dangers of such imperialist capital which wasn’t felt till now.

The unionisation became a major issue in the continuous struggle between Capital and the workers. “A big section of workers involved in this class struggle are fighting for their right to form a separate union. Probably the main demand from the workers in the recent worker’s struggles was to allow them to from their own union. However the workers have not succeeded in most of such struggles. In such cases the management takes a number of routes to suppress the workers ranging from dismissing the agitating workers, implicating them in false case, by threatening them and even by beating them to death. German auto manufacturing company Bausch has succeeded in suppressing the worker’s struggle in three occasions. Hyundai, Hero Honda, Bunjin, Maruti Suzuki, Greyziano, Rico Auto everywhere the story is the same. When the 1800 workers of Dharuheda Ikai plant of Hero Honda tried to form their own union, the leadership was then implicated and charged with the Arms Act and IPC Section 307 (Attempt to Murder)” (Aspects of India’s Economy, Issue 52, Page 9).

By forcing contractual and trainee workers to work in inhuman condition, by reducing wage of permanent workers, by manipulating the provisions to form union and by restricting the workers to unionise creates such an explosive situation which the traditional and sold out unions fail to resist even after ‘trying their best’. From Special Economic Zone to the monopolistic industrial sector, efforts to prevent formation of union have come from the top authorities of the economic structure who want India to be a place of, in the words of finance minister Pranab Mukherjee (Budget Speech, 2013-2013) “a safe investment destination for the global capital”.

‘The purpose of this ‘global capital’ is to exploit the workers as much as possible. In an existing business model the first step to increase the profit is to reduce the investment cost’ (ABC of the Economic Crisis, Fred Magdof and Michael De Yitus, Page 49). The best way to the investment cost is to utilize the benefits of technology and thereby reducing the number of workers and increasing their work hours. So to achieve this, it is necessary to create such an environment where unionisation and bargaining with the employer becomes very difficult for the workers (ABC of the Economic Crisis, Fred Magdof and Michael De Yitus, Page 48) whereas the traditional trade unions are being instructed to stand with the workers in a least possible manner.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thacher coined a phrase amongst the imperialist countries that ‘there is no alternative’.  This was the new catch phrase of the imperialist capital, synonymous to the ‘save the queen’ mantra widely used in the time of the British imperialism. Later this mantra has been canged to ‘save the American empire’. Corporate policies reduce the production cost which enables ‘eligible and deserving Corporation’ to increase their market share. ‘This might be beneficial for the corporate but it may have an opposite effect on the economy as a whole because of the reduction in supply and the gradual erosion of domestic market’ (Essays in the Reconstitution of Political Economy, Amit Bhaduri, Page 23).

India’s modes of production and ways of distribution have created a special situation for the global capital. Its specialty is its way of functioning. If we took a deep look into this area, we will understand the present situation and the challenges faced by the working class which is arising due to the movement of global capital.

According to one statistics, there were around 3000 industries in Noida and Greater Noida which used to employ around 25 lakh (2.5 million) workers. There were approximately 2500 cases lodged in the labour courts. That means, on an average one case was lodged per 100 workers. In those times averaging 20 cases used to come to the notice of the labour commission department. 10% of these cases used to go to the civil courts due to delay or injustice in the labour courts. The Hindustan Times, Delhi (28th September, 2008) presented details regarding those seven cases of worker unrest which took place between November’07 and September’08. The study showed this unrest is becoming more and more violent with each passing day due to court’s inability to solve those. These cases were rooted in an incident happened in July’05 in Honda Motor Cycle and Scooter India Ltd. where the police brutally beaten up the protesting workers. While in Faridabad, there were frequent incidents of worker’s demonstrations against collaboration of police and company management.

The organized and unorganized workers of Okhla industrial area were also engaged in the legal and illegal fight against low wage and lock outs. The anger amongst the workers were visible quite clearly from the beginning of 2000 when workers were taking the streets, blocking roads and beating up company officials. These were such incidents in and around Delhi industrial area where the Graziano incident was visible as a “warning”. The headline of the editorial of The Nagarik said: “If you mess with Gurgaon then Greater Noida will also follow the path” (Issue 19, 1-15 October, 2008).

We can easily grasp management’s attitude towards the workers in those times by going through the statement of the labour minister Oscar Fernandez  published in The Hindu (24th September, 2008) “I request to the managements they should behave patiently with the workers” and “I will discuss the policy to abolish favourable appointment in the next labour congress meeting. This policy is being applied in the Public Sector Unit’s (PSU) as well. First we will deal with the PSU’s and then we will work with private sector companies.” But these issues worked against the interests of Oscar Fernandez and he had to pay for it.

Case studies :- 

Graziano Trasmissioni India 

Graziano was build up in 1998 at Noida to manufacture auto parts. The Italian company invested a total of 20 crore (200 million) which in 2008 turned into aa working capital of 400 crore (4 billion). Then a Swiss company, Ireliken acquired Graziano. Production used to continue for all across 24 hours. The workers had to work for 12 hours in two shifts. It was mandatory for any worker to work for 8+4 hours. In a total of 1000 workers, 350 were regular, 80 were trainees and 500 were contractual.

In 2005, the management officials promised a hike in the workers’ salary at par with the increase in production. However this promise was not fulfilled till 2008. During this period abuses and frequent fights between workers and management had only increased. While there was an effort to form a union in 2007, three workers were dismissed from work. The union did not get recognition due to alleged collaboration between Kanpur Labour department and the company management. A year later another 100 workers were dismissed from work. Different labour unions such as Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HIMS), All India Trade Union Congress (INTUC), Indian Trade Union Congress (ITUC), Center for Trade Union Congress (CITU) tried their own ways to interfere. The workers even tried to meet Sonia Gandhi at the Congress headquarter because of her being an Italian origin. She informed the Italian embassy leading to government’s interference and negotiation started between five representatives from the workers and the management. Following the negotiation, salary was increased gradually; increments of 1200/-, 1000/- and 800/- for regular, trainee and contractual workers respectively. However, other demands such as the recognition of union and reduction of work hours to 8 hours in three shifts did not make to the discussion.

Average salary (per month) of Graziano workers were like the following: trainee 4800, operator (regular) 7000 and contractual 3500. In fact the management wanted to remove all of the regular workers prior the salary hike so that the chance of forming a union would vanish. As soon as the negotiation got over, the management hired Bijendra Bhati, an infamous leader of local goons as a transportation contractor who worked from February’08 to September’08 in a bid to keep the workers under control. In this period he worked for the management to dismiss the workers, used to abuse them in his cabin and even beaten them with help of his accomplices. “Your transportation manager Mr. Bijendra Bhati came with his 10-15 men when the first shift got over. He along with his men started to abuse and beat the workers. They started throwing stones at the workers leaving many of them severely injured. We have registered an FIR. The workers have been sent for medical checkup’ (A snippet of the report published by Graziano workers in the CITU letterhead; 3rd June, 2008).

But instead of providing justice to the workers, 43 of them (averaging 25 years of age) were charged under IPC 107 and IPC 116. Sub-divisional magistrate, Noida granted them bail against a bond of one lakh rupees. On 6th July, CITU sent a response to the Graziano management stating, “It is only after your incitement and provocation that the implicated workers adopted a policy to work slow, to call strike and to engage in fights and destruction of property”.

However it is necessary to state that after an official was killed, a senior office bearer of the CITU said t “this ‘incident’ was the outcome of lawlessness among the workers”. The workers knocked the doors of number of other trade unions but at the same time they wanted to keep old union banner which made the other union ‘unable’ to support them. At last, on 11th July, 2008 HIMS (Hind Mazdoor Sabha) appealed to the chief minister and other concerned departments to release the arrested workers, provide safety and peaceful work environment and to reinstate the dismissed workers but the response was same as usual.

On 8th April’08, CITU sent a letter addressing to the management: “The officials are calling the workers in their chamber while they are out for toilet or water and forcing them to sign apology letters or false confessions. We demand the workers be given job cards while supervisors or shift managers should be made responsible for signing the job cards. The workers should be given two 15 minutes tea break and after the scheduled 8 hours of duty, snacks should also be provided in the extra working hours.” It should be noted here that when the above letter was being drafted the plant still had two 12 hour shifts.

Graziano management issued a letter on 9th April to one worker, stating “you and your co-workers went to canteen at 8 p.m. for dinner. As per the company rule, you are supposed to be back to your respective duties by 8.30 after your dinner was over. However it was observed that you and your co-workers did not return by that time. Your act is against the company’s stated policies”. One of the conditions of the negotiation between the workers and the management on 24th January 2008 was: ‘if any worker is asked to work on a number of machines at the same time then she/he will work with her/his full capacity on each machine. If some machine is working with a reduced capacity then the same will be applied to evaluate the daily working capacity of a worker. And no worker should organize protest, call strike, work slowly or any such things which can be termed as unconstitutional by the management for a duration of three years from signing the negotiations’.

The negotiation with the five representatives of the workers was broken from the management’s side right on the next month when Bijendra Bhati and two other contractors hired 400 ‘chosen workers’. After these 400 ‘chosen workers’ were hired, 100 contractual workers and 100 regular workers were dismissed from work.

On September, the government forced the workers to agree on deregaroty terms and asked them to get back to work. But the management was not ready to take back these workers. The workers who got back to work after signing new terms and conditions set by the management were being attacked by the newly hired ‘chosen workers’ which further resulted in new protests. Consequently a management official was killed and 136 workers were sent to jail in the process. Among them 63 were charged with murder and 74 were charged with disturbing peace. According to one worker who evaded the arrest, these newly ‘chosen workers’ were notorious goons and were called from the outskirts of Noida. These ‘chosen workers’ usually did not work and used to sit idle in the factory. The workers returning from the 22nd September strike were left stranded at the factory gate and each of the entering workers were being beaten up by the ‘chosen workers’ of Bijendra Bhati. This was actually the use of bouncers which we can clearly see in the case of Maruti.

A lot of new things emerged along with continuation of some old things in the working conditions and the subsequent struggle of the workers of Graziano Company, Noida. The workers were mainly from Uttar Pradesh, Hariyana, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The factories used to avoid hiring labours from the villages and nearby areas of Noida. The local people were involved in rent collection or in business activities with the small and medium scale factories.

The workers had problems with the chief supervisor Lalit Kumar Chaudhry (the one who died) and Bijendra Bhati but the workers had laid their hopes on the officials from Italy. They thought at least ‘They would keep their words’ but it also went wrong.

Following an assurance from the Italian officials the workers started working in two 12 hours shifts for producing high quality bearing and that resulted in multi-fold increase in the production. The workers from Italy showed their unity with the struggling workers of Graziano by supporting them. But it is difficult to say whether this unity actually converted in the struggle against capital. The Graziano workers struggled to bring unity between the contractual, apprentice & trainee and permanent workers. The Graziano workers struggle raised a number of issues, ranging from working hours, refreshment-tea breaks, lunch breaks, right to form union, recognition of worker’s representative in the absence of union, management’s behaviour, external interference, use of goons and bouncers, attitude of police, government and political parties and their unions, the nexus between the labour department and the industrialists and their open support for the industrialists, increase in the pay structure at par with the increase in the production and profit and regularization of workers.

But it only resulted in Mayawati government’s decision to appoint a special circle officer for the security of the corporate officials by placing the labour tribunal and the labour commissioner under supervision of Noida and Greater Noida administration.

Yanam struggle

In the age of imperialistic globalisation, the elected governments have either secretly or openly supported and permitted regular and brutal assault on the working class by the ruling class.

“Jobs were lost during this time. Real wages got reduced. Permanent jobs were converted into contractual jobs. The neoliberal capitalism is dependent on ever increasing profit rate whereas shrinking market space work as a dampening factor to its graph. The primary way to keep profit rate affixed at an increasing curve is to reduce labour wage which eventually results in brutal suppression of workers’ right. This is central policy of the neoliberalcapital.” (N.Basudevan, Trade Union Solidarity Committee preliminary report on Yanam incident).
The incident of Regency Ceramics factory at Yanam, Puduchery is an example of such policy. The economy of this area is dependent on fishery, small scale farming while Regency Ceramics is the biggest land owner in Yanam. It has got around 500 acres of land.

Till 1980, a number of rice mills were present in this area. During 1982-85, government of India announced it would provide subsidy up to 25% for industrialization in this area. In 1983, G.N. Naidu of Telegu Dehsam Party had collaborated with the Italian company Velko Industrial Spa to setup Regency Ceramics in Yanam. This company had already imprinted its footprints in China and as well in Italy while in India, it has got around 700 dealers. A major portion of the production is usually exported.  Shares of this company had never crossed Rs. 5 and the shareholders were never made part of the profit in spite of the company having global business. This company is one of the six biggest ceramics company in the world, still it is not listed in the stock exchange. The shareholders are mostly near and dear ones of the company management. This company evades the excise duty and electricity charges by showing reduced production and its profit money from buying and selling in overseas comes through “Hawala”.

In this period, big land owners also had set up big rice mills. There were a total of 637 factories in 2005-06. From 2004-05 to 2005-06, there was 4.67% increase in job creation while women’s participation declined 1.72%. The contractual jobs got increased by 13.17%. There were a total of 7949 people employed in chemicals and chemical production sector while 1491 among them were related to supervisory and management works. 5876 peoples were employed in garments production, while 757 of them were related to supervisory and management works.

During this period, a downfall of 7.39% in the working capital was registered whereas there was an increase of 20.13% in the fixed capital during the same time while there was a value addition of 55.27% in this fixed capital. The rate of rent extraction was 31.62%.

People of Kamma Naidu community from Andhra Pradesh were the main owners. Since the time of French colonization and until the emergence of Kamma Naidu caste, Kappu community was the ruling community of this area.

As a reaction of increasing exploitation of workers and backwards caste people by the upper caste owners, people of Yanam started to feel of being organized.     In 1975, a dalit (backward caste) intellectual Nalla Vishwamurti established ‘Dr. Ambedkar Rickshaw Worker’s Union’. Later he formed ‘Krishi Kuli Sangham’. The fishermen came up with ‘Nadi Navika Sangham’. But leadership of the dalit population collaborated with the Congress whereas other ethnic groups coming from Andhra Pradesh after 1980s along with the local jewelers joined Telegu Desham Party. A union was formed in Regency Ceramics in 1987 which was functional till 1996.

There were a total of 2000 contractual workers who used to work as sewage and cleaning workers in Yanam plant and in its subsidiaries while 970 were directly involved in production work. 85 temporary workers were involved in packaging and most of them were women. There were 20 categories of workers in the ceramic and machine work. Highest salary was 9000/- per month and lowest was 3000/-. The average salary of the workers was 5000-6000/- which was implemented only after 15 years of continuous struggle. Before this, temporary workers were paid 1800/- per month. Even the workers had to fight to get masks and boots to avoid operational accidents while working in high temperature. Though workers’ struggle resulted in a temporary win, leaders of their union were dismissed from work and these workers were not paid even after court’s order.

After 16 years of suppression, the workers and some of the officials finally orgnanised themselves in a secret union. Though by December 20110, the authority got wind up about the union and immediately transferred 11 officials to other plants which resulted in a 5 day long strike. On 25th January 2011, Regency Ceramics Officers and Workers Union was formally established and it decided to celebrate Republic Day. The union also demanded 15th August and 1st May to be declared as holiday. On 1st May, around 3000 workers took out a rally. But the next day, 54 contractual workers including 45 women were immediately dismissed from work without any prior notice.

In the last days May (2011), one of the union’s founder member, Murli Mohan was accused of theft and the management lodged a case in a bid to cancel union’s recognition. Though the local court put a stay order on this. As retaliation, around 700 workers signed in a protest signature campaign and took out a rally while around 1000 of them staged sit-in protest demonstration in front of the company gate demanding hike in their pay scale and for reinstatement of 5 dismissed officers. On 4th January the workers took out a cycle rally which had an unprecedented participation from locals. But the situation took a violent turn when Murli Mohan along with 50 other workers were attacked by company hired goons and plain dress police leaving Mohan in a critically injured condition. The police did not take him to hospital even after repeated request from the workers and he died on the same day in the police station.

This created enough discontent among the locals and a huge mass participated in solidarity with the worker’s struggle against the brutal murder of their leader. Angry protesters took out a rally and blocked the police station while the police opened fire on them leaving nine protestors injured. “More than 500 rioters got mixed with the protesting workers and entered the factory premises” (The Times of India, 28 January 2012, Hyderabad). The protesters set 150 vehicles on fire and killing one manager in the process. According to management officials, the protesters had also looted company property while other factories owned by Regency Ceramic owner were also under attack.

Local administration tried to calm down the protestors by lodging a case on Murli’s ‘suspicious death’ under IPC 176 and 51 people were taken into custody. Out of a population of 60,000 in Yanam, around 10,000 were depended on Regency Ceramics whereas in context of the protest, factory owner decided to shut down the plant temporarily. But during this time companies from Italy and Germany were invited to take control of the plant. Now it depends upon these companies and the government to decide whether to start production again or not.

In 2012, the unrest erupted as a result of organised efforts from both the workers and locals and since then Regency company has been hiring the locals either as only temporary or as contractual workers in order to avoid any untoward incident again.

But such an organized struggle in Yanam has put an end to the casteism which was deliberately practiced by the company and has brought a huge population of locality under its influence.

  • The tag line of the Regency company is: ‘The best way to lead life’. This tag line may fit for the company owners and the management but it makes a mockery of the workers’ and majority population’s livelihood. For a population of 9 lakh in Puducherry, there are more than 30 higher education institutes. In the coastal areas of Godavari, some big construction companies from Hyderabad had illegally acquired big chunks of land and as its consequence, not only the fishermen community but also middle class section of the locality experienced suppression. An internal conflict among the ruling class also got exposed which was clearly visible in the stance of the ruling party and the inquiry commission which was assigned to investigate this land grab.

Illegal acquisition of land by Regency company, giving preferences in hiring to a particular caste from Andhra Pradesh, opening private schools, providing secondary jobs to local people and hiring them only as temporary or contractual labour, depriving them even from minimum facilities and employing them as a very little salary are exactly the same corporate policy which has a little difference than that of Noida and Guragaon region.

In order to sustain this process of profit extortion and capital investments, G. N. Naidu takes help from people of his own caste and community and formed nexus with the ruling party, administration and judiciary and invests the profit earned by these factories in different sectors. Today this process has been provided with greater security from the state in the name of SEZ (Special Economic Zone). 

continued in Part 2…

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