Speed and Control at Manesar: Why is the Maruti-Suzuki Management Keeping Workers Out of Its Factory
Manesar is an emerging industrial hub roughly fifty kilometers from Delhi. Factories rise along the co-ordinates of a neat grid, overshadowed by the rocky Aravallis. The world is made here – cars, bikes, semiconductors, automotive parts, electronics, telecommunications equipment. Manesar has a little bit of everything. Even a bomb data analysis centre and a brain research lab and a military school and a heritage hotel. On a Maruti Swift, speeding down National Highway 8 towards Jaipur, you could make it to Manesar from Delhi, through Gurgaon, in less than an hour. Maruti’s ads are all about speed and control. Speed and control will cruise you to Manesar.
Really, it isn’t that far. But you could be forgiven for not knowing that an industrial dispute is brewing (once again) at this not-very-distant factory. The management of India’s leading automobile manufacturer has decided not to let its workers into their factory if they do not sign a ‘good conduct’ bond. Since last Monday, the 29th of August, thousands of workers are at the gate. Reports say that four hundred policemen were despatched into the factory on the night of Sunday the 28th of August. The Government of Haryana and the Maruti Suzuki management are using the total police powers of the state to enforce an undeclared lockout. And the newspapers give us ‘good news’ of Maruti production ‘restarting’ at Manesar.
The Automobile Industry in India is extremely competitive. You can get almost as many varieties of cars as ice cream flavours these days. Maruti-Suzuki is the market leader and has accumulated gigantic super-profits due to its dominance over the market. This dominance is being dented by several new auto-makers who have entered the scene, but it has not been effectively challenged yet. Maruti-Suzuki has responded to this situation, not by rewarding its workers for the contributions they have made to its profits, but by ramping up production targets, introducing new models and by sharply increasing the workload on every worker, particularly in its new plant at Manesar.
It takes less than an hour to get to Manesar from Delhi. Television camera crews and newspaper reporters from Delhi are despatched much further into Haryana, Rajasthan and UP on a daily basis for less. But for in-depth news of a major dispute unfolding at the heart of Capital in Northern India we have to listen to phone-ins from the Maruti Suzuki management and rely on their press releases. Somehow, when it comes to an industrial dispute, the much valued ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’ of mainstream news goes for a toss. There is no question of getting the perspective of the ‘other side’. There is no ‘other side’.
A few scattered reports appeared over the last days. Somewhere at the back inside pages of the last section of a newspaper, there might have been a small box item about production ‘restarting’ at Manesar. As if it was ever ‘stopped’ by the workers. As if its ‘restarting’ were not a euphemism for the busing in of scabs under police cover in the dead of the night. Maruti is all about speed and control, like the ads say. To that we could add stealth and influence. Speed, stealth, control, influence.
Inside Maruti’s sprawling new factory in Manesar, its all about speed and control too. Maruti’s ads talk about ‘Class Power’. Inside the Manesar factory, class power means something very specific. It means what it always does in factories – speed and control.
Videos or images of what a Maruti Factory looks like from the inside are hard to come by on the internet. Not because there are no images of them. Every inch of a Maruti factory is photographed and recorded by surveillance cameras. Cameras keep a precise record of how long a worker takes to complete a task. How long they take breaks for. Do they talk to each other sometimes? Do they breathe more than necessary? There are even cameras in the washrooms. Speed and control win over privacy, anytime. That’s class power. Ultimately, the power that capital has over labour is a matter of speed and control.
No, we don’t have a video of the interior of the Manesar factory. But you don’t need to see a video from the inside of the factory. All you need to do is to see a clip from Modern Times, by Charlie Chaplin on Youtube. If you talk to the young workers who are now standing outside the factory gate at Manesar, unwilling to sign the ‘good conduct’ bond that the management has imposed as a condition for letting them back in, you could be forgiven for thinking that Charlie Chaplin was a young worker in the Maruti factory at Manesar.
Most workers at the Maruti Manesar plant are young, ITI trained, in their early twenties. For many, a job at Maruti, the premier automobile manufacturer in this part of the world, was a hard won dream. In the great hinterland of north and central India, a factory job means respect. It means hope for a steady income, with some benefits. Maruti-Suzuki promotes itself to its workers, and to the public, as a way of life. Picture the public relations material – neat, well designed uniforms, yellow hard hats, sleek cars. Its just that at Manesar, this way of life, once it goes back into the real world from photoshop, has also become a kiss of death.
A worker at Manesar plant spends on an average 45 seconds on every car in the assembly line. On the Marut-Suzuki website, you can see an explanation of the production process. According to this website, it takes 12.5 hours to make car from a set of rolled up metal sheets. Currently, according to Maruti-Suzuki’s website, one Maruti vehicle rolls off the assembly line every 23 seconds. Profit maximization requires that even this time be reduced, either by employing the same number of workers, or ideally, accompanied by a parallel reduction in manpower.
The production targets set by the management ratchet the number of cars that each worker handles up to six hundred per shift. Six hundred cars multiplied by forty five seconds, makes twenty seven thousand seconds, or four hundred and fifty minutes, or seven and a half hours. In an eight hour working day, with a twenty minute lunch break (in a canteen that is a distance from the main plant) and a seven minute tea break, the respite from continuous control and speed (control over movements, speed of operations) that an average worker gets is something ilke three minutes. One hundred and eighty seconds of breathing space stolen from twenty seven thousand seconds of labour. If we distribute these one hundred and eighty instants across these twenty seven thousand moments of labour, we get a figure that looks like this. In each second, a worker in the Maruti Suzuki Manesar Plant gets to move like a human being for something like one hundred and fiftieth of that second. That is his time. The rest of each second, each minute, each hour belongs to Maruti-Suzuki. That’s class power. That’s control and speed. In one of its ads, Maruti tells its customers – ‘You’re the Fuel’. That’s the kind of tag line that always sounds good in an ad. Sounds hot, sounds cool. But what is really burning up is the life of every young worker at Manesar.
At the end of each day, each week, each month, a worker takes home with him, along with the money he earns (in the region of roughly ten to twelve thousand rupees if he is permanent at the Manesar plant, seven thousand if he is a trainee, four to five thousand if he is a contract worker) exhaustion, depression, sickness.
Visits to the factory dispensary end with the regulation issue of a tablet of combiflam, and the command to get back to work. Tea breaks, say the workers, feature the absurd sight of workers at urinals, unzipped, with a cup of hot tea in one hand and a snack in the other, multitasking between peeing, drinking and eating at the same time, because to be late by a minute, means having half days wages cut off. If a worker falls sick, and takes leave, or has a family emergency and takes casual leave for a day, one thousand five hundred rupees get deducted from the salary. Two days leave means a loss of three thousand rupees. That can mean a little less than half the take home pay for a contract worker. Needless to say, there are more contract workers than permanent workers at the plant. And the company refuses to hire more workers, and sometimes reduces the number of contract workers in a shift, which means that the workload on the regular, permanent workers increases. Overtime can be made impossible to refuse. Forty five seconds per car at the assembly line, can be ratcheted up to forty seconds, even thirty eight. Often, there is even less time to breathe.
The wages that a worker at Manesar gets are far less than what a worker gets for the same work at the Maruti main plant at Gurgaon, and the speed at which work is extracted is much higher. Every paise, every second, every breath is accounted for on the shop floor. And the workers at the Manesar plant are short-changed at each instant. At Manesar, this is what the Maruti Way of Life amounts to.
Since June this year, perhaps even earlier, discontent at the Maruti-Suzuki plant has peaked. June saw the eruption of a wildcat strike and a momentary occupation of the factory. Eleven ‘ring leaders’ were suspended. The issue that led to the strike was the appalling intensity of work conditions. The media and the management were content to report it as a dispute over union formation. Yes, the workers at Manesar had wanted to form an independent union. And yes, the management wanted them to remain under the umbrella of MUKU (Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union – the ‘Company’ union – which has remained an effective tool of management control over workers). But the reason that led the workers to express a desire to form their own union – The Maruti-Suzuki Employees Union (which is their constitutional right, by the way) was the ineffectiveness of the company union in addressing their complaints about the increasing intensification of control and speed at the factory. Working at the Manesar plant was becoming torturous and attrition was at an all time high.
The twelve day long strike in June did not end in attention being paid to the workers demands about working conditions. The eleven suspended workers were re-instated, pending enquiries. This was translated as a ‘victory’ for the workers by their newly formed (and still unrecognized independent union), even though all the workers had to agree to a penalty of a cut in two days wages for the transgression of their strike. The work conditions stayed exactly as before. According to some, things got worse.
Then, there was another dispute in July, and again some of the people identified as ‘ring leaders’ were suspended. Management claims that workers resorted to ‘go-slows’ after this, and some even indulged in sabotage. Workers, especially those associated with the independent union, claim that on 23rd August, some of them went in a delegation to attend Anna Hazare’s campaign against corruption at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi. On returning to Manesar the following day, they say that they were harassed and intimidated by the management for having done this, and they were threatened with dire consequences if they tried to emulate Hazare’s tactic of going on a public hunger strike in support of their demands. This situation snowballed into the events of Sunday, August 28th. Police entered the factory. The majority of workers were left outside. Twenty one workers were suspended and the management said that the rest of them would be let in, only if they signed a ‘good conduct’ bond specifying that they would not resort to ‘go-slow’ under any conditions. The management further declared that those workers who did not sign would be deemed as being on strike, and would suffer severances in their pay for being on strike.
The workers decided to hold a public meeting at the factory gate on 4:00 pm of Thursday, 1st September to highlight their grievances. Around five to six thousand workers from all over the Gurgaon-Manesar region gathered in support of the workers of the Maruti-Suzuki-Manesar plant. Several trade union leaders were in attendance. The workers underscored their commitment to rejoin work, declared that they were not on strike and that they had no intention of going on strike. That they wanted the situation to be peaceful and calm.
When asked about the management’s claim about sabotage, some workers (who asked to remain anonymous) replied – “There are cameras everywhere in the factory, even in the toilets. If they think there is sabotage by some of us, they should just show the world the evidence in their footage and take the necessary action. We believe that some defects were introduced into some of the cars at the management’s behest by their stooges to discredit our struggle. We do not see why we should sign the ‘good conduct’ bond, because we have done nothing wrong. We are only asking for what is ours by right.”
Even if one were to not take the suggestion that sabotage was carried out at the instigation of the management, it is difficult to refute the point being made about surveillance footage. if there is claim being made for sabotage, there must be evidence for it, and that evidence cannot not have been recorded by the ubiquitous company cameras. The fact that the management is not prepared to press charges about specific instances of sabotage (even after having listed them in detail in the letter containing the ‘good conduct’ bond) indicates that the management does not in fact have any concrete evidence against any of the disaffected workers. Yet this point of view (about the surveillance footage) has not had any airing in any of the media reporting of the events.
In repeated public pronouncements during the meeting of the 1st of September, the workers stated that they did not want to respond to the provocation of a heavy police presence inside the factory and a the gates, and appealed to the media to take their voices to the outside world. So far these hopes have not been fulfilled in any real measure. I hope it does not take a stupid and avoidable tragedy like the police firing at the Hero Factory (and the consequent loss of life) some years ago for the mainstream media to wake up to what is going on in Manesar.
On the afternoon of the Ist of September I counted a scattering of TV crews, mainly local (Haryana based) channels, but did see the log of a couple of big news channels on a few microphones.
Shiv Kumar, the young secretary of the ‘independent’ union, spoke to one of these TV crews about how he felt inspired by Anna Hazare’s fight against corruption, and saw the worker’s struggle at Maruti-Suzuki as a part of that struggle because they were being cheated of their humanity by the work conditions operational at the factory. Shiv Kumar is an articulate, good looking young man, and the stuff that he was saying, especially his invocation of Hazare, is exactly the kind of stuff that you would expect Television to lap up in the current climate. But I did not see his testimony make it to prime time television. I did not see visuals of an impressive gathering of five thousand workers, I did not hear cheers that greeted each wave of workers from neighboring factories when they joined the gathering. I do not know if the event was even adequately reported, or reported at all, or buried under a pile of the debris of breaking news.
In my last posting, I had talked of three ‘cases’ of corruption. Denying workers their dignity out of a desire for profits and competitiveness seems to me to be an ideal candidate for what I had identified as corruption of the second kind. Shiv Kumar, the union secretary said that he and his comrades would write to Anna. I do not know whether this intended correspondence has occurred, or if it has, whether Shri Hazare or the leading anti-corruption crusaders around him have found it possible to respond to the workers of Manesar. It would be interesting to find out if they have.
There was something strangely uncanny about witnessing what could happen if the Anna Hazare phenomenon were indeed to be confronted by a demand (Inspired by its own example) for justice at the workplace within days of speculating about precisely such a possibility. I had written, ‘when they talk about bribes, we will whisper about wages’.
It appears that the ‘whispering’ about wages, about the corruption at the heart of how the pace and intensity of laboring is fashioned in Industrial Capitalism, about the theft of time and life from the body of the worker, has begun in Manesar. The workers at Manesar are educated, articulate and have mobile phones in their hands. They know what youtube is. They may begin to upload videos of their struggle. A Facebook group calling itself Citizens Front in Support of the Maruti-Suzuki Workers’ Struggle at Manesar has gone live, and is gathering members. Word is spreading, even if it is not yet making it to ‘breaking news’ (except for occasionally as a black and white ‘union vs management’ tussle.
In the coming days, it will be interesting to see how far this whisper spreads, and whether or not it brings forth a roar in its wake.