Chandrika Radhakrishnan is an IT engineer and an editorial member of Thozhilalar Koodam (tnlabour.in), a blog committed to documenting and analysing labour issues in Tamil Nadu.
The Honda MotorCycles and Scooters India (HMSI)’s factory, established in 2011 in Tapukara, Rajasthan, has a production capacity of over 5000 vehicles per day. The plant employs over 3600 workers, mostly ITI trained. 466 workers are permanent and over 3000 workers are in contractual employment. While the plant is substantially automated, production of over 5000 vehicles daily still translates to high work pressure and compulsory overtime for the workers. The wages are low ranging from Rs 10000 for contract workers to Rs 22000 for permanent workers. All the permanent workers had initially worked as trainees for 3 years and were then put on probation for 6 months, during which they saw even more adverse working conditions. They had stayed on with the hope that a permanent position would make their lives better. However, work pressure, domination of supervisors at the shop floor and safety hazards have remained the same.
In 2015, the workers, permanent and contract, organized themselves to form a union and negotiate for better wage and working conditions. In the months after the workers submitted their registration, employment of four workers including the president and secretary of the union were terminated and five workers were suspended. The conflict between labour and management escalated when a supervisor abused a contract worker who had refused to work overtime four days consecutively. Over 2000 permanent and contract workers went on a flash sit-in strike in February, 2016. They were brutally assaulted by police and were thrown out of their employment by unrelenting management. Fabricated charges were piled on a number of permanent workers who were accused of attacking the police.
The repression by Honda management on the workers is not an isolated incident in recent history between labour and capital, In Sriperumbudur, an industrial enclave near Chennai, Tamilnadu, , the scenario has been repeated much earlier in Hyundai, one of the earliest automobile MNCs to setup a manufacturing plant in India. Established in 1996, workers in the factory have fought for right to unionization since 2007. Like Honda, the state and the management initiated repressive tactics including transfer of workers across the country, termination of employment of union leaders and imprisonment of workers. The management has also propped up a pro management union, with which it has continued to negotiate, while it refuses to recognize a union through any democratic means such as secret ballot.
India’s foray into liberalized market economy, its economic growth and subsequent integration of India’s manufacturing base into global production network has been in tandem with deplorable working conditions and repression of workers’ rights in the industrializing states of Tamil Nadu (Hyundai, Pricol, Foxconn), Rajasthan (Sriram, Honda Tapukera), Haryana (Maruti, Honda), Gujarat(Tata). Low wages, increased contractualization of labour force, flexible hire and fire policies, intense work pressure have marked the life experience of workers at the shop floor. Workers have tried to resist these exploitative conditions by organizing themselves to collectively counter and assert their rights.
Right to unionization is a fundamental right for workers, guaranteed under Article 19 of India’s constitution. The Trade Union Act and Industrial Disputes Act were enacted to allow workers to unionize and be protected from unfair labour practices. Yet, workers all over India, are finding themselves increasingly disenfranchised by both management and the state in their efforts to organize and unionize. The Indian Government, Industrial lobbies and corporatized media have constantly portrayed unionization and labour protection laws as rigid and as an impediment to the economic development of India. As we will see via case studies and examples, the existence of such laws have not impeded the capital from exploiting labour using both legal and coercive measures. These forms of repression have created new challenges for unions to organize and fight capital even while creating a militant working class as seen in Maruti, Pricol and Bangalore.
How to evade the law – the corporate style?
Most of the Indian Labour Laws regulating workplace interactions between employers and workers are applicable to a small section of Indian workforce comprising of public sector and formal manufacturing sector workers. Over 92% of the working class is excluded from protection either due to the nature of employment or due to exclusions provided by the laws themselves. The industrial capital has now found new ways to circumvent the protective measures for formal workers.
One such mechanism is by way of increased contractualization of the industrial workforce, in direct violation to the Contract Labour (Abolition and Regulation) Act. The intent of the act was to abolish use of contract labour in formal sectors. Towards this, the act forbids employers from using contract labour force in occupations of perennial nature or in core production. While the intention is laudable, the bill is silent or vague on definitions and enforcements. What is perennial or core production process is not defined by the State but by the Industries. Consider mobile vendor Nokia in Nokia SEZ of Sriperumbudur, which employed over 14000 workers in its peak with over 20% of the work force in contract position. While Nokia has stated the it does not employ contract workers in core production, activists have questioned the definitions that Nokia employs stating that the work done by contract workers is integral to part of Nokia’s business.
Nokia’s own suppliers employed contract labour in core production, This has been increasingly possible by the exemptions provided by the State Governments[i], thus allowing Industries to employ workers in core production. According to various studies, the permanent workforce has decreased from over 68% in 1995 to 52% 2010 while contract labour has increased from 10.5% to over 25% in the same period. Over 50% of workforce in large companies employing more than 5000 workers are reported to be contractual. Maruti Suzuki plant in Manesar, which has had a turbulent industrial relation and militant shop floor conflicts had employed, at one time, over 80% of workers as contract workers .
The Industrial Disputes Act allows protection for workers from indiscriminate termination and provides disputes resolution using tripartite negotiation involving workers, State and the management. The act is applicable to all workers who have worked for more than 240 days in a factory. However, instead of using factory inspections and other monitoring tools to ensure worker employment record, the burden is shifted to workers to prove their employment with a factory. Over 75% of workers do not have a valid contract thus presenting a challenge for workers to assert their legal right. The inherent bias towards allowing employers to violate the Contract Labour Act and Industrial Disputes Act, while the burden falls on the workers to prove their violation, is indicative of the lack of protection guaranteed to workers under these laws. When Nokia and Foxconn closed their factories in Tamil Nadu in 2014, the first to go were the contract workers who were not provided any compensation for retrenchment.
In addition to the contractualization, new forms of labour categories are being used in shop floor which allow for appropriation of labour while denying them the status of workers. Gone are the days when a worker would enter a production process on a probationary period of 3 to 6 months and would be made permanent after this. Today workers enter into a production process as trainees, a nomenclature not to be found in the Labour Laws. According to the industries which employ trainees for upto 3 years, trainees are not workers and are not entitled to wages even though they work alongside their permanent and contract worker comrades.
By employing such ambiguous technicalities, the employers are able to get away with providing any rights for the workforce as proscribed by the law. Minimum wages, unionizing and legal protection are not allowed for these workers, as was evinced in the case of the protest by trainees of Lucas TVS, Chennai in 2015. Over 2000 trainees and apprentices went on a flash strike demanding better wages and decent food and were thrown out of the workplace after an ineffectual Labour Department did nothing to help the workers. Instead of challenging these new and arbitrary forms of labour categorization, the State is facilitating it by allowing apprentices in shop floor via Skill Development Programs, which is nothing but euphemism for subsidizing the industries.
When law is a sieve, workers lose
As was seen in Contract Labour Act and Industrial Disputes Act, labour laws have been created with enough loopholes allowing the industries to violate workers’ rights with impunity. The Trade Union Act does not mandate that the management recognize the union as a valid representative of workers at workplace and negotiate with them. While some states have rules that enforce this, most states including Tamil Nadu do not mandate this rule. Managements use this to evade negotiating with the unions, as can be seen from the episode of Foxconn. Foxconn, a Taiwanese multinational is well known for its labour violations in China where it produces Apple Iphones. In 2010, workers of Foxconn India Pvt Ltd, a supplier to Nokia, struck work for 37 days. The workers had unionized under Labour Progressive Front (LPF), a union affiliated to DMK party in Tamil Nadu. The workers felt that LPF represented the interests of the management rather than themselves and decided to affiliate with CPM’s CITU union. Instead of conducting elections to identify genuine workers’ representatives, Foxconn recognized and negotiated a wage agreement with LPF and asked workers to sign a pledge not to join any union. The workers pursued the issue via a legal case. By the time (2014), Madras High Court ruled in favor of the workers and ordered Foxconn to conduct secret ballot to decide the union representing the workers, Foxconn was on its way to close the factory.
Refusing to recognize the union is the easiest way by which companies evade negotiation with workers’ representatives. Failing that, several companies prop up their own union or invite unions which will represent their interests, as was shown earlier in the case of Hyundai. When managements use such underhanded tactics, workers have no recourse but to appeal to Labour Department or judiciary or strike.
Workers can raise a dispute with Labour Department under Industrial Disputes Act, either by way of petitioning or by giving strike notice. However, State Labour Departments do not have any legislative authority for coercing the management into entering the negotiation process and enforce the outcome of such negotiation. More often than not, management may either delay or not even attend such proceedings and hence, labour conciliation processes take as long as many months. Even if this process is just a delaying tactic, the workers must go through before they can even pursue other legal options such as labour tribunal or judiciary.
The judicial process has become increasingly anti labour. Nowhere did it more evident than when bail applications of 148 Maruti workers (who were arrested on charges of riots and murder at the Maruti Manesar Plant in 2012) were refused by Chandigarh High Court. The decision was not based on the validity of the case, but on the perceived impact on foreign investment. Similar attitudes have also been seen in the persecution of Pricol workers who have been arrested on the death of a HR manager in the factory. In Tamil Nadu, a semiconductor company was able to get a restraining order against its workers protesting within 100 meters of the company premises, thus effectively decreasing the effect of any strikes that workers can use.
In 2003, Supreme Court upheld dismissal of more than 1.5 lakh government employees by Tamil Nadu Government under Chief Minister Jayalalitha. The State Government employees and teachers had struck on various demands including wage benefits and pension schemes. Thousands of union leaders were arrested and lakhs of employees were dismissed under the pretext of violation of Essential Services Maintenance Act, which curbs the right of public sector workers to strike severely. Under this act, the unions will have to provide a six week notice period before the strike and will not be allowed to strike if the labour department initiates a conciliation. The Supreme Court, on upholding the law had said that strike is not a fundamental right of Government Employees. This has a bearing for formal sector workers, as States have resorted to bring private sector enterprises under the ambit of this law. Tamil Nadu has granted industrial zones such as SEZs and specifically Automobile Sector, the status of public utilities, which makes flash strikes illegal in these sectors. This limits the workers’ options for better bargain at shop floor, limiting them to conciliation under Labour Department that continues to works in favor of capital.
Are strikes law and order problem? Repression and repercussions
As can be seen from the Honda strike, State Governments have chosen to treat strikes and workers protests not as an exercise of rights but as law and order problems to be suppressed by any means possible. Increasingly, police and private bouncers are being used in public and in factory sites to silence the workers. Maruti Manesar plant was reported to have had bouncers in the factory at the height of its labour strife in 2012. Asian Paints Workers striking in Tamil Nadu in 2013 and 2014 were barred from factory gates by private bouncers. Workers and activists have been attacked by bouncers in Rajasthan’s Sriram Piston Factories when they tried to distribute pamphlets around the area.
If bouncers enforce private security, police have been used to repress workers protests, often brutally, in public places and at factory gates. In 2005, protesting Honda workers in Manesar were lathicharged, killing one worker and severely injuring several workers. After the Maruti riots in 2012, Haryana Government has brought entire Manesar belt under Section 144 which, to date, forbids groups associating in public places. Use of police force and arrest of workers have become the normal reaction to protests and strikes in private sector. Workers protesting in Hyundai & Foxconn (Tamil Nadu), Tata (Gujarat), Sriram Piston & Honda (Rajasthan), Maruti & Honda (Manesar) and countless other factories have been detained, arrested and even remanded for protesting.
While the State has actively aided the corporates in suppressing any collective activities of workers, industrial managements have also unleashed repression on thousands of workers trying to organize at shop floor by dismissing, suspending or transferring them to remote locations. Managements have even resorted to psychological torture, as is being experienced by worker leaders in Comstar, an automobile parts manufacturer. Workers suspected of leading unionization were moved to a separate location performing menial tasks and have been repeatedly persuaded, sometimes with the help of bouncers, to ‘voluntarily retire’, which they have steadfastly refused to do.
The repression by the State and Capital has found its expression in increased militancy in labour conflicts. The recent episode that caught every one’s attention was the riot in Maruti Manesar plant in July 2012. Prior to the episode, permanent and contract workers of the factory had been systematically repressed in their efforts to unionize. The conflict escalated when a Dalit permanent worker was suspended after he retaliated against a supervisor for abusing him. As the management refused to take back the worker, a riot unfolded at the factory premise resulting in a fire at the factory and death of a HR manager. This led to further victimization when thousands of workers were dismissed from their employment and 148 workers were arrested on murder charges. Over 30 workers still continue to languish in jail. As has been stated before, the Court fears reprisal from foreign investors if the workers are given bail. Militancy and increased expression of anger has also manifested in the National General Strikes which have been organized by Central Trade Unions in opposition to neo-liberal agenda of the State and quite recently, in the garment workers protest, when lakhs of women garment workers stopped Bangalore from functioning for two days .
The latest in the use of increased military complex to suppress labour militancy is the use of Central Industrial Security Force in private sector. The CISF, comprising of armed personnel, used ostensibly for protection of public industrial undertakings, was in news in 2014, when an armed CISF security killed a contract worker in Neyveli Lignite Corporation . The use of CISF in private sector for the likes of Reliance can only escalate the antagonisms faced by the labour and the anger of the working class.
Challenges before unions
The protection afforded by labour laws, while ineffectively implemented, nevertheless provided leverage for unions to organize workers and fight for their space in the shop floor. Unions have relied on the law for protecting the workers in organizing and have used strike as an effective tool bringing down the production for collective bargaining. The legal protection provided by the Industrial Labour Laws has meant that the unionization has been mostly confined to public and formal sector. Unionization has remained low in India even while growing from over 2% in 1980 to 6.3% in 2002. As legislative process is increasingly curtailed against workers, the number of registered trade unions has seen a sharp decline after 2005.
(Data Source: https://data.gov.in/catalog/number-registered-trade-unions)
The new forms of labour arrangement in the factory – permanent, contract and trainees – not only has allowed the employers to increase the surplus value generated from the worker but has allowed them to divide the workers from collectivizing. With increased contractualization, the unions and permanent workers, who are the most protected under the laws, are no longer willing or unable to bring the contract work force under the same union (even though there are no legal barriers to do so), or to articulate concerns of the contract work force. This comes from excess reliance on the state and judiciary to resolve industrial relations. The permanent workers are automatically covered under Industrial Disputes Act but the contract workers have to prove their employment status. For the permanent workers, this additional burden only seems to decrease their chance of an economic gain. This tactic is used as a divisive tool by managements, who are willing to engage with the smaller permanent workforce, while leaving the contractual workforce outside of union’s control. The contract workers thus being vulnerable to the ineffectiveness of the legal strategy, do not see value in the union. In Asian Paints Permanent Employees Union, the leadership changed from AICCTU to INTUC. According to informal discussions with industrial workers, one of the reasons was that the permanent workers were concerned that the leadership was supporting the rights of contract workers in the factory. The permanent workers, in their goal towards securing better economic demands, have also tended towards unions which are able to play a mediator role between the workers and management. The statistics show that BMS and INTUC are the leading central trade unions[ii] and they are affiliated to BJP and Congress respectively, two pro-corporate neo-liberal parties.
In this, the permanent workers and left unions organizing only the permanent workers may be short sighted, as production in factories are no longer impacted as severely when workers go on strike. With a contract work force at 50% of a factory strength, factories are able to keep production going, which limits the effectiveness of the strike. Countless examples of permanent workers striking for more than a month as was seen in Foxconn and other factories such as SPEL, Diamond Engineering in Tamil Nadu, have been defeated as the production was able to continue with contract labour. Increased capital intensive technology at shop floor also means the factories do not have to invest lot of time in skilling a new worker for production. This allows factories to ensure that long term contract is not needed at shop floors for employment and contract labour and other precarious labour can be turned over, bringing in new labour at cheaper rate and keeping the unionization more challenging. In this scenario, it has become much more important to ensure the security of employment for all workers. There are several successful examples of workers being organized across these divisions, the most recent example being Honda workers at HMSI. In Honda, the permanent workers expressed, with acuity, the need for organizing workers across these segmentations.
The globalised production network has become increasingly complex and mobile. Most of the manufacturing work is outsourced via supply chain manufacturers both locally and globally. For example, Apple, which produces iphones, does not have a single manufacturing facility but outsources its product manufacturing to Foxconn. Dismantling and setting up new manufacturing facilities has become easy and viable. This increasing complexity and mobility that has been brought out by capital have not been matched by a similar network emerging in the trade union movement both nationally and internationally. When Nokia and its supply chains shutdown their operations, the resistance was at factory level and coordinated action among various factories was absent.
India has over 12 central trade unions and thousands of independent unions which are competing at factory sites to organize workers. Fragmentation of working class among multiple central trade unions and the political interference, as most of these unions are affiliated to political parties, have also come under criticism for the failure of the unions. There is a need for more strategic alliances across sectors and regions so that strikes can be coordinated and used effectively for bringing capital to the bargaining table. While there has been a move towards alliances among Central Trade Unions and coordinated national action, the regional and sectoral solidarities are still missing in action.
The study by International Labour Organization (ILO) on political growth and decline of trade unionism also throws an interesting light on the representation of trade unions in political parties. According to the study, the number of parliamentary and legislative representatives at the central and state level from trade union movement have decreased. The study suggests the declining importance of working class movements in left—even communist electoral politics. Decrease in union members due to the impediments to unionization may be a reason why political parties do not see the need for accommodating the representation of working class even while seemingly to articulate the needs of the working class. This can only be seen as an alarming trend. The importance of working class movement in the left politics cannot be overemphasized and has to be given due space in the fight against existing political order and construction of alternate agenda. The onslaught on material conditions of workers can only be countered by political fight both at the factory level and at much broader level. The failure of the union does not necessarily translate to failure of working class.
As industrial workers grapple with new forms of repression at shop floor, the assault on working class continues in the action for deregulation of labour laws, further dismantling the meager protection afforded to workers. Successive governments have called for labour reforms which will allow industries to hire and fire workers flexibly based on the needs of the capital (what industry is concerned about is firing more than hiring), lesser inspection with self-certification of good labour conduct and less or no role for union at the factory. The State Governments and Industrial Lobbies in collusion with mainstream media have said that existing labour regime is a hurdle towards India’s economic growth and gainful employment for a large youth workforce that India will have in next 25 years. This articulation has created an illusion of contradiction between two basic needs of productive population, one of employment and the other of protection from exploitation.
However, various studies have shown that the economic growth of over 8% in the past two decades has not favoured the labour force in terms of employment. The technological progress and falling prices of capital goods have enabled high level of automation in Indian manufacturing sector. While manufacturing sector has grown annually by 8.4% between 2000 and 2010, employment in manufacturing sector has shown an annual growth of mere 1.8%. These data also show that most of the manufacturing employment has been in creation of informal work force in formal sector and growth of informal enterprises who are already marginalized from the protection of labour laws. The perceptions of rigid labour structures, lack of trained work force in need of skilling as hurdles to development are nothing but smoke screens to feed the capital’s greed for further accumulation.
The precariousness of work force in industrial manufacturing has been on rise. Increased automation has brought impossible production pressures. The definition of worker is being erased by use of trainees and apprentices in factories. Young workers are finding themselves ‘retired’ in their 20s and 30s. Increased casualization has exposed the workers to the vulnerability from increasing inequality and recession of economic cycles. Segmentation of workers along social (migrants, gender, caste) and shop floor hierarchies are used to divide the workers from organizing. Yet, that the working class has seen to this obfuscation, is shown in the increased participation and militancy expressed in the recent National Strikes. It is up to the leadership of the working class to seize the moment and go beyond the existing legal framework to lead the working class in the sharpening labour-capital conflict.
 Deregulating Capital, Regulating Labour, http://www.epw.in/journal/2014/26-27/special-articles/deregulating-capital-regulating-labour.html
 Workers strike thrice in five months, How Maruti Suzuki lost connect with them, http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-10-17/news/30290122_1_manesar-plant-maruti-suzuki-s-manesar-maruti-s-manesar/5
 Conversation with a worker
 All Out Crackdown on the Working Class in Noida, http://www.epw.in/journal/2013/09/web-exclusives/all-out-crackdown-working-class-noida.html
 Post-26/11, big private firms choose CISF to provide security cover, http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-11-27/news/30444752_1_cisf-men-central-industrial-security-force-private-sector
 Where have all the workers gone? The puzzle of declining labour intensity in Organized Indian Manufacturing, http://www.seed.manchester.ac.uk/medialibrary/IDPM/working_papers/depp/depp-wp36.pdf
 Explaining Employment Trends in the Indian Economy: 1993-94 to 2011-12, http://www.epw.in/journal/2014/32/special-articles/explaining-employment-trends-indian-economy-1993-94-2011-12.html
 The growth and decline of political unionism in India: The need for paradigm shift, International Labour Organization http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—asia/—ro-bangkok/—sro-bangkok/documents/publication/wcms_143481.pdf
 Is Apple cleaning up its act on labour rights?, http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/apple-act-on-labour-right
[i] Labour being in concurrent list, States have a right to change the Central Labour Laws
[ii] Central Trade Unions are large unions with presence in multiple states and sectors and have atleast 5 lakh union membership.
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