Beware of the ‘hidden hands’ in disputes
CP Bhambhri advocates more transparency in labour-management ties in Indian companies
EVERY INDUSTRIALIST and investor expects profit from his business venture. And every business venture requires workers for production of goods and services. But the relationship between the business class and the working class is often conflict- ridden. If the employer is concerned only about profits and the working classes feel ignored or underpaid, a clash of interests between capital and labour becomes inevitable. Resolution of conflicting interests of the employer and the employee needs a strong legal framework and deft negotiation. Therefore every modern industrial country, including India, has comprehensive laws to deal with clashes of interest between employers and employees.
In India’s worst industrial strife post liberalisation, Maruti’s Manesar plant in Gurgaon on 19 July witnessed ugly scenes of union members going berserk, damaging machinery and attacking about 90 managers. One senior manager died in the fire. This incident forced the management to declare a ‘lockout’ at the plant and seek strict action against the union leaders from the Haryana government. It has also raised some important issues for a public debate into labour disputes.
It is government’s duty to hold an inquiry into the genesis of mishap to find out if something is seriously wrong between the Maruti management and its workers. It is not appropriate to pin down the sole responsibility for hooliganism on the union leadership, because long-term remedial action into the case is possible only after careful scrutiny. The government also cannot escape its responsibility of finding solutions to specific problems facing one Maruti plant or those concerning the whole industrial belt of Gurgaon-Haryana. Politically, short-term and long-term remedies have to be found if Haryana wishes to attract foreign investors.
Indians need to be reminded that the thriving textile industry of Mumbai was completely destroyed by reckless trade union leader Datta Samant, who emerged from nowhere on the labour scene in the mid-1960s, and through his unreasonable demands left thousands of textile workers unemployed and their families suffering in penury. Working class should know that their adventurism under manipulators like Samant harms its own interests. Will the story of Mumbai of the mid-1960s repeat itself in Haryana? If Mumbai is too old to remember, we can look at Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal and what the Socialist Unity Centre of India did to them in the recent past. The state is still reeling under the complete de-industrialisation and flight of capital that occurred in the aftermath of the climate of militant trade unionism that this adventurist group of Communists started in 2007.
But all this does not in any way suggest that employers can indulge in ‘illegal’ activities to exploit their employees. Industrialists are seen to violate laws governing the management-working class in collusion with politicians and bureaucracy. Hence, trade unions are an integral part of political parties. Party leaders representing trade unions can help counter political influences of powerful patrons of the industrial classes. Politics acts as a bridge with economics and for different reasons, industrialists and the trade unionists turn to politics in labour disputes.
Politicians must realise that galloping unemployment in the country provides an opportunity to employers to hire contractual labour at lower wages. Maruti isn’t the only company employing a large number of temporary and low wage contractual workers. Such labour makes a major chunk of the work force in every industry. These workers are insecure about their job and are exploited by their employers as well as the trade union leaders, who use them to armtwist each other. That they have no long-term stake in their industry makes them even more vulnerable.
IT WOULD be too simplistic to conclude that this is a union leaders versus Maruti management conflict which turned violent. Hidden hands are always at work to complicate small problems. It is common political culture where purely economic conflicts between investor and labour take a political turn and get magnified because ‘outside forces’ get involved. But it is not just politicians who fish in such troubled waters, competitors disturb the status quo to get ahead. Even rival trade union leaders play politics with internal relations to settle scores with rival leaders trade unions. There are many lessons to be learnt from the ugly events at Maruti. The employers have a responsibility to nip the conflict in the bud by following legal procedures of dealing with the demands of workers. It is wishful thinking that politics and political parties will maintain a distance from business and economic activities and the only remedy against manipulative political intervention is to strengthen the machinery of resolving labour disputes.
CP Bhambhri is former dean of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.