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The Lives Of 25,000 People Rest On This One Court Verdict

Posted by Abhishek Jha in Business and Economy
March 9, 2017

Khushi Ram was 25, a permanent worker with no criminal record at Maruti’s Manesar plant when violence broke out at the multinational company. Now 30, he has a case registered against him, with charges of rioting, criminal intimidation, etc. He has been detained by police on different occasions since then.

What happened at Maruti on July 18, 2012, literally changed Ram’s life. One amongst the over 500 permanent workers dismissed from the plant following the incident, he has been working endlessly for the last 5 years handling the workers’ cases.

After a trial that ran for nearly five years, Gurgaon’s district court will pronounce its judgment on March 10 on the violence that broke at automobile major Maruti’s Manesar plant in 2012.

A total of 148 workers of the company are being prosecuted for the incident in which Maruti’s general manager (HR) Awanish Kumar Dev was burned to death during the violence at the plant. Dev was burnt beyond recognition while 100 people were injured.

The judgement, however, isn’t just a ‘moment of truth’ for Ram and his ilk. Workers from around the country have been closely following the case. For them, the judgement isn’t just about Maruti, but represents something bigger. On March 7, 20 different unions representing approximately 25 thousand workers employed in factories like Maruti, Bellsonica, Honda, Rico, Bajaj and Daikin pledged to reiterate their demand for the release of workers imprisoned in the case. All these factories are located in either the Manesar-Bawal region of Haryana or the Khushkhera-Bhiwadi-Neemrana region in Rajasthan, both earmarked as automobile and auto component investment regions of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC).

For them, it is the harbinger of the course the labour rights movement will take in the country. Just why they are so interested in this case is not very difficult to understand, if one looks closely at the Maruti case and what has been happening in this automobile manufacturing region in the last few years.

Questions Maruti Case Raises

To reprise a well-worn story, of the 148 workers charged in the Maruti case, the 9 who have spent nearly 5 years in jail now without bail are all union body members. It was only in October last year that four members were granted bail. This is despite multiple loopholes pointed in the prosecution’s case by the defence lawyers. There are glaring discrepancies in the list of accused produced by witnesses, for instance. The weapons of offence that the police claimed to have found in workers’ apartments don’t match the description of the weapons in the FIR. That they were recovered a week later after the workers’ arrest also casts doubts over the authenticity of the evidence.

This is not limited to just Maruti. Activists think that portraying workers as criminals has become a general phenomenon, one that’s also happening throughout the DMIC. It is one of the reasons why workers from other factories too are closely following the March 10 judgment.

A group of men marching on the raod with red flags and a banner.
July 18, 2016: Workers march in Gurgaon in solidarity with Maruti workers in jail since 2012. Photo credit: Abhishek Jha

“We expect the court to give a judgment that helps maintain peace in the country. We are not asking for a judgment in our favour. We are asking for a just judgment,” says Ajmer Singh, Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union president.

Why does he think the judgment will not be just? “Because for the past four and a half years, the workers have not even been granted bail. They are still in jail,” he says. He goes on to cite the facts of the case.

Amit Akash, a labour activist, thinks that even if the Maruti judgment is in the favour of workers, it will raise questions as to how the lives of workers were destroyed in prison without any proper evidence. “Despite what has happened in the legal process, it is possible that a stronger exemplary punishment is awarded for others to see,” he adds.

“You Will Be Jailed Like Maruti Workers”

The prolonged imprisonment of those in leadership roles makes workers allege “a conspiracy” to break the union. The incident has also therefore, become a “reference point”, according to Akash. He says the judgement will help settle this issue in the region.

Already, there are signs that companies don’t want workers to form unions. Says Manmohan, a worker who was terminated from the Neemrana plant of Daikin during its union formation process, “They don’t say it directly but they do say ‘If an incident like Maruti happens then factories will shut down, you won’t get employment. Where will you work then?’ Or ‘You will be jailed like Maruti workers. Nobody is going to listen to you. So leave this business of unionising'”. Workers at Daikin have been unable to form a union on account of a stay order imposed in 2013.

People with placards in a police bus
September 23, 2016: Protesters supporting Honda workers being taken to Parliament Street Police Station from Bikaner House. Photo credit: Abhishek Jha

Workers not aware of the Maruti case became aware of it when they got into a struggle to form their own union. Sonu Sandhu, Vice President of a proposed union at HMSI’s (Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India Pvt. Ltd) Tapukara plant in Khushkhera, explains, “We understood that with the money they have, the management can do anything it wants”. The 3,000 contract workers and 150 permanent workers, dismissed after a strike in February 2016, carried out a hunger-strike later last year, but have not managed to get their union registered. After the Deputy Labour Commissioner of Alwar allowed the sacking of workers, they have now appealed in the Rajasthan High Court. Sandhu and 72 others are also fighting a criminal case like Maruti’s since February 2016, although all of them were granted bail after spending some time in jail.

The Police Arrive Immediately”

Akash says that the tactic of lathicharge and criminal case in HMSI Tapukara was faster than in the case of Maruti, which suggests an increasing criminalisation of workers. “Instead of engaging with the severe exploitation, insecurity, how the ground for social unrest is being created, they are trying to isolate some workers and criminalise them and present it as a law and order problem,” he explains.

Commissioner Gurgaon claimed that relations between companies and workers have vastly improved in Manesar. However, when asked about the frequency of police intervention in industrial areas, he said, “At my level, interventions are required very rarely. But at the level of police stations, interventions are required maybe once a week, twice a week. Small incidents keep happening.”

This can be seen even at the policy level. The Haryana government, for instance, decided last year to set up police stations and industrial intelligence units in industrial areas as part of its “labour reforms” agenda. When asked whether there are any developments in this direction, a Manesar police official told YKA that there is a second police station under construction in Sector 7 of the Industrial Model Township, Manesar.

In Neemrana too, Manmohan says, there is a police post right opposite the gates of Daikin’s factory. “The police arrive immediately. So on a psychological level there is a pressure that there will be lathicharge,” he told YKA. However, he says there hasn’t been any police case at Daikin because they haven’t stopped production for long recently. “The police will take action when the production in the factory is being affected. They try to suppress that more (instead of rallies), because if there is lathicharge, then production will automatically stop, right?” he explains.

“This Is The Structure Of The Movement”

According to Akash, what is happening in the area reveals that as far as workers’ rights are concerned, domination and not consensus, is the key. To pre-empt unionization, companies are increasingly employing contract workers.

September 23, 2016: Protesters march to demand reinstatement of Honda workers. Photo credit: Abhishek Jha

In Maruti, this has meant an increase in the number of temporary employees over the years. They aren’t employed through contractors but their working conditions are far worse than regular employees. For instance, they earn around Rs. 14,000 a month, way less than the permanent workers.

“A company temp will normally be a fresh recruit. He serves for a fixed tenure and then he can come back later, depending on what is his record, and what is his performance. So he is invited again to come after a period of 2-6 months,” a Maruti official told YKA on the condition of anonymity. While he defended this system, citing the chain of demand and supply, the uncertainty of employment is something unions all over the country have been fighting against. As they get dismissed after a small period, they have little time to unionise and negotiate their working conditions.

The fight over these points of contention is likely to continue even after the Maruti judgment. Khushi Ram doesn’t see his work ending even after the judgment. “This is the structure of the movement. This is a case in the eyes of the court. We don’t even consider this as a case. With the kinds of problems we face, we will have to continue this. We cannot say when this will end, how long it will take. Only time will tell.”