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    Posted on 14 October 2011

    The high drama and anticipation continue at Manesar

    Striking workers continue to protest peacefully, with police standing guard, reports Janani Ganesan

    The water supply inside the plant has been cut off. The workers on strike pose with bottles of urine.

    Photos: Shailendra Pandey

    “The required number of policemen has been deployed at the Maruti Suzuki India Limited plant at Manesar,” said the Joint Commissioner of Police (JCP), Gurgaon. He is not willing to put a number to the men in khaki crawling across the factory premises, invisible to outsiders. The striking workers claim that there are about 2000. It is difficult to decipher the truth from behind the barbed fences. As Maruti tries to keep the media away by covering the gaps in the compound wall with tent cloth, the workers raise the platforms made of stone to facilitate as much truth gathering as can be done from the periphery. It was a day of high drama and anticipation at Manesar.

    The workers inside the factory sit for days not only to defy but also to establish foul play

    After a High Court notice that came last night asking the workers to leave the factory premises, police locked the gates of the factory. Nobody can enter the premises. Not to give water, not to give food. “High Court’s order will be complied with,” said the JCP. When asked about what action will be taken to get the protesting workers outside the factory, he repeated, “High Court’s order will be complied with.” As the night grows longer, the workers can only wait with their throats going dry with thirst and their stomachs growling with hunger.

    Striking workers inside pose with bottles of urine with no water to drink. The water supply inside the plant has been cut off. The food preparation that was on at a celebratory pace outside the factory has been forced to shut down.

    The striking workers are determined to stay put till their demands are met. Their demand: 1200 contract workers, who were not reinstated to their jobs after the first round of strike, should be taken back. Also, the suspension order of 44 employees should to be cancelled. Well, 43. One has been missing since Thursday night.

    Sushil, a resident of Bilaspur, Haryana, was allegedly picked up by the Bilaspur police post midnight on Thursday. Sushil made a frantic call to his friends at the factory to inform them about police jumping over his compound wall, before his phone went off. Sushil has remained unreachable since then. Why should a worker be picked up in the middle of the night by the police and be kept in secrecy? Is he that dangerous? The lawyer representing the workers filed a complaint has been lodged with the National Human Rights Commission, the Commissioner of Police, the Home Secretary of Haryana and the Prime Minister.

    The workers inside the factory sit for days not only to defy but also to establish foul play. “The case is on at the Gurgaon Court. Maruti cannot approach the High Court for the same case. This is illegal according to Section 11 of the CrPC,” explained Rajendran Patak, the lawyer arguing the workers’ case to form a union. Also, the HC asked them to stay 100 m away from the factory premises. About 60 m across the road are other factories. The workers can’t maintain the 100 m order unless they are conveniently far away from the factory.

    The story so far

    While the strikers await justice, newspapers continue to scream the same headlines, “The strike enters eighth day as Maruti workers defy Court order.” The struggle is much older.

    The workers at the Maruti Suzuki plant at Manesar went on strike in August demanding their right to form a union on their own rather than the one recognised by the company. The only present union till date, the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU), is a union under the control of the management, claim the workers. Their evidence – the union had not had an election in a decade, until June 2011, when it suddenly decided to organise elections. Maruti shot down the demands for another union by not allowing the new trade union to register and by suspending, and even terminating, those involved in the agitation. The Labour Department of the Haryana Government finally decided to step in on 30 September, as a ‘broker’ – after all, the number of cars being rolled out of the factories was drastically falling. With the Labour Department as witness, the company signed an agreement with the workers.

    But truce documents have broken nations and unleashed wars. This was no different.

    On 3 October, when the workers finally resumed working they were surprised to find some of their colleagues sacked. The 1200 contract labourers were not given back their jobs. The contractual labourers, who were not “officially” part of the truce, were to be taken back in a phased manner by the company, claims Maruti. After months of the factory coming to a standstill, it is rather strange that the company did not need all the labour force it could use to kickstart production again. “The agreement clearly states that the deal is between the company and the permanent workers. The temporary workers don’t come into the picture at all,” said a spokesperson with Maruti.

    When the contract workers were not allowed to enter the factory at Manesar on 3 October, a misunderstanding could have cropped up between the temporary workers and the permanent workers. To ensure this rift, the contractors tried to fire the temporary workers. They announced that the permanent workers had abandoned them. The contractors don’t have any obvious reasons to do so, unless they are encouraged by someone who would benefit from a divided labour force.

    This is a story that needs to be told, not because it is a classic case of divide and rule, but because the classic trick failed. The permanent workers, reinstated in their jobs on 3 October after two months of strike, decided to give it all up for their colleagues. Since 7 October, the permanent workers have been on strike along with the casual labourers, demanding the reinstatement of the contract labourers. Workers from three other Maruti plants in the region have joined the strike as well.

    However, that’s not all. Even the permanent workers who resumed work did not have it all handed down to them in a silver platter. When they resumed work, they found themselves pushed on a ‘training schedule’ instead of a normal work routine. Their departments had been changed. The company claims that for “smooth manufacturing at shop-floors, the company can always change work stations or place people in other departments. This is an established practice in any organisation.” But why did the company have to suddenly change departments in such a volatile situation? Manoj Yadav, leader of Suzuki Powetrain Employees’ Union, gives a shot at explaining, “Some of us have been working in our respective departments for years now. How can you suddenly remove somebody from welding and put him in painting? Then the company will claim that we are purposely bringing down production. It will take at least a month for the workers to learn in a new department.”

    Having felt cheated by Maruti, the workers went back on strike on 7 October, demanding that the contract workers be allowed to work as well and all of them be put back in their own departments. The 44 workers who were to remain suspended according to the previous agreement should be reinstated as well.

    Maruti’s claims

    Maruti alleges that the workers violated the agreement by asking them to reinstate the suspended workers, conveniently forgetting, or ignoring, the events that took place between 1 and 7 October. Who violated the agreement first has become more difficult to find an answer to than the chicken and the egg riddle. While production at the Maruti does continue to fall, politics seems to have overridden economics.

    Maruti claims the striking workers have caused damage to property and even beaten up co-workers who refused to be a part of the strike. But even the police stand testimony to the fact that the protest has been largely peaceful. The Manesar police station has not filed any FIRs in this regard and the police on duty at the plant vouch for the fact that the workers who did not want to be a part of the strike were allowed to leave the premises without any trouble from the striking workers.

    This is Maruti’s version of the “attack”: “First set of attacks was on the evening of 7th Oct on the co-workers. The second attack was in the morning of 8th October when the three executives of maintenance wing were on a routine visit to shopfloor, they were attacked and beaten up with belt. The striking workers continued to beat up co-workers who did not want to be part of the strike. They were rescued by the police. In all, 500 workers were rescued over two days. Many of them had sustained injuries after being beaten up by the striking workers. Damaging the CCTV cameras was one of the first things they did after they went on strike on 7 October.” However, Maruti had no explanation to offer on the police’s denial of violence on the factory premises.

    Meanwhile, the Haryana Labour Ministry has resurfaced and sent a breech of agreement notice to the workers on 12 October. Where was this Labour Ministry when the workers toiled in an Orwellian Big Brother set-up? The some wrong and many non-existent phone numbers listed on the ministry’s website are of no help. And so isn’t the increasing number of unanswered calls to police officers at the factory site as the night grows. Last heard, the workers left the campus and continue to protest outside the factory. The situation remains peaceful, as the strikers plan their next move to secure justice.

    Janani Ganesan is a Trainee Correspondent with Tehelka.
    [email protected]

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    Posted on 14 October 2011



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