India: Auto workers fight for union rights, freedom for activists

Protest in support of Maruti Suzuki on January 27 in Rohtak, Haryana. Photo by Suzanne Adely.

If Bangladesh represents the worst of exploitation in clothing factories, India is home to the most rapacious conditions for auto workers.

Auto workers and union supporters in Manesar, India, launched an indefinite dharna (sit-in and hunger strike) on July 18. They demanded the release of jailed co-workers.

A staggering 147 workers have spent a year in jail on trumped-up criminal charges after a company-provoked altercation led to the death of a human resources manager who supported the union. Hundreds have pledged to take part in the dharna.

However, the government responded by banning public assembly anywhere in Manesar. It has created a militarised perimeter around the factory.

Two thousand people showed up for a rally on July 18 despite the restriction, but were surrounded by battalions of police.

Maruti Suzuki’s modern assembly line in Manesar is one of two plants in the Gurgaon industrial belt, 25 miles southwest of New Delhi. Maruti Suzuki is India’s largest auto manufacturer. The subsidiary, which produces cars for the Indian, southeast Asian, and southern African markets, is Suzuki’s most profitable subsidiary in the world.

Last year, police raids of workers’ homes led to the jailing of 147 workers, who face possible murder charges, and the firing of more than 2400 permanent and contract workers. The raids came after workers formed the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union (MSWU).

The MSWU Provisional Working Committee has demanded the government release all arrested workers and activists. The MSWU also demanded reinstatement of the workers fired by Maruti Suzuki, as well as workers dismissed at Suzuki Powertrain India and Suzuki Motorcycles India, and an independent impartial inquiry into the incident on July 18 last year.

Until the government responds, workers said, they will continue their indefinite sit-in and hunger strike outside the plant in Manesar.

The Maruti workers had built support for their struggle in the face of employer lockouts and two sit-down strikes. They began organising in early 2011 to challenge the tiered wage system and oppressive conditions.

Workers sought to equalise wages and conditions between permanent and informal workers, who receive low wages and are frequently sacked.

The workers rejected management’s effort to impose a company union that fails to represent workers, demanding an independent union free of employer domination. MSWU is one of many independent unions proliferating in India, as the traditional unions decline fast.

US, European and Japanese corporations are investing in manufacturing in India on the condition that independent unions are eradicated. The dramatic growth in foreign investment in India’s industrial belts, and the liberalisation of the country’s economy, comes at the expense of human rights violations of its urban workers.

An international delegation by the International Consortium for Labor Rights in June found that Maruti Suzuki pegs pay to productivity rather than set wages. The company pays far less than other auto producers — barely enough for basic necessities. Workers are deprived of break time, and typically work two hours overtime each day.

Contract workers, who perform the same functions as permanent workers without job security or benefits, are 75% of the workforce.

Since the state fails to enforce its own labour laws, workers in the major industrial belts are organising independent unions to improve wages and conditions.

That MSWU dared to contest the disparity in wages and the lack of job security for contract workers has unified employer opposition throughout India. Contract and temporary workers represent a majority of workers in India's manufacturing sector, keeping wages down and expanding profits.

Auto manufacturers have the unequivocal support of government authorities in fending off unions. Police arrest workers who mobilise; judges in the state courts keep them in jail.

After an illegal lockout, Maruti Suzuki workers began a 33-day sit-down strike in August 2011 — the third major worker campaign that year at the Manesar plant.

The action ended in a compromise. But when permanent workers learned that casual workers would be sacked, they began another sit-down inside the factory. Casual workers maintained their sit-in outside the plant gates.

The workers sustained the sit-down even when management hired private security personnel to attack them. Through the resilience of the workers, all casual workers were soon reinstated.

MSWU requested the official registration of their fledgling union with the Haryana state Department of Labour in May last year. Maruti Suzuki management responded fiercely, initiating an unprecedented campaign of intimidation, terror, and violence with the active support of Haryana authorities and the complicity of the Indian government.

Two months after MSWU’s official founding on July 18, the company dispatched bouncers to the plant to intimidate and attack rank-and-file activists.

The human resources department was set on fire, leading to the asphyxiation of the only human resources manager who supported the new union.

Workers had already left the plant when the fire was started. But Haryana state police arrested hundreds of workers, seeking to charge them with murder.

For more than a year, no independent investigation has been conducted. As well as the 147 workers held without charges, 66 are in hiding.

To create a compliant workforce, Maruti Suzuki permanently replaced all the workers, terminating 546 permanent and 1800 contract workers.

On May 18, one day before protesters were promised a meeting with the Haryana industries minister, police violently attacked and arrested more than 100 supporters who were conducting a peaceful two-month dharna.

Police dispersed the protest by attacking with batons, water cannon, and tear gas.

Since the situation remains tense in the plant, the Haryana state police maintain a station inside the factory.

Haryana, like several other Indian states, is trying to attract foreign investment by repressing labour. In a recent bail hearing decision, workers were denied bail based on the logic that unions inhibit foreign investment.

On May 22, the Punjab and Haryana High Court said: “Foreign investors are not likely to invest the money in India out of fear of labour unrest.”

Growing solidarity with the MSWU — throughout India and globally — is drawing attention to the ways corporations profit from exploitation in the global South. But the formation and tactics of the MSWU show how the working class in India is organising independently.

[Abridged from Labor Notes. To send a letter of support for the Maruti Suzuki workers, go here.]

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