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BW Businessworld

Dangerous Escalation

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The strike at Maruti Suzuki's (MSIL) plant at Manesar entered its eighth day on Friday, and nobody seems to know how to break the gridlock. After a truce initialled by the unions and the company on 1 October, the plant was again paralysed from 7 October over the issue of 1,200 contract workers being kept out (see ‘Shaky Truce', BW, 17 October).

The situation has been hurtling towards disaster. The sit-down strike has spread to the other Suzuki factories — Suzuki Powertrain Company, Suzuki Motorcycle and Suzuki Castings. With the supply of diesel engines and gear transmissions shutting down, Maruti Suzuki's main Gurgaon plant has also ground to a halt. Between its Manesar and Gurgaon plants, MSIL is losing roughly Rs 90 crore a day. The workers have collectively foregone Rs 5 crore in wages so far. Vendors supplying Maruti parts have also lost about Rs 300 crore so far.

A negotiated end to the impasse is clearly not on the agenda. Company spokesperson K.D. Singh told BW: "We will only begin talks with the unions after the workers vacate our factories." He added that the initiative had shifted from the management to the Haryana government to resolve the strike. "The Hissar by-polls are over, and we expect things will move now."

With trade union militancy spreading in India's Detroit, the state government has changed tack from being a neutral ‘facilitator' to ensuring that the Maruti unions are brought to heel. In a series of quick-fire moves, the strike has been declared ‘illegal' and the Manesar workers have been given notice for breach of the 1 October agreement. The Suzuki Powertrain and Motorcycle unions have been simultaneously asked to ‘show cause' why they should not have their registrations cancelled.

What has precipitated this latest round of hostilities? According to MSIL's  Singh, the employment of contract workers was never an issue. "We had made it clear that all the contract workers would be employed in phases by 14 October. The leaders used this to press their main demand for taking back 44 dismissed and suspended workers."

Rakhi Sehgal of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), who is coordinating support action for the Maruti workers, refutes the company's stand: "MSIL violated the agreement by keeping the 1,200 contract workers out. The permanent workers were also provoked by being sent to different stations to work when they came in. It will take them a month to learn the new jobs."

It is obvious that the devil is in the ambiguous agreement the Haryana government brokered between MSIL and the unions. The settlement was ambivalent about the fate of the 44 suspended and dismissed workers. The future of the contract workers too was not defined. If the company intended to bring in the contract workers in phases, it should have been set out in black and white. An ill-defined compromise has turned out to be a prescription for disaster.

To add to the confusion, on 13 October, the Punjab and Haryana High Court directed the workers to vacate the factory, but asked the police commissioner to designate an area for the unions to carry on their peaceful protest. This could put pressure on the unions to move out. Says Shiv Kumar, general secretary of the Manesar Maruti Suzuki Employees Union (MSEU): "We are holding a peaceful dharna in the plant, but we do not want to do anything against the high court order. We are studying the order. We will take a decision in the next couple of days." How will the Haryana police interpret the court order? Kumar says a 1,000-strong police posse had been moved to the factories. At the time of going to press, the police had entered the compound and were asking the workers to vacate. Tension was running high.  

With the media closely monitoring the events in Manesar, the Haryana government is still in sixes and sevens on how to deal with this new rise of labour militancy.