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Written by Jörg Nowak.

The strikes and riots at India´s biggest passenger car producer Maruti Suzuki in 2011 and 2012 sent shockwaves throughout the automobile industry. 148 workers were imprisoned under the charge of murder, one manager died in the flames of a factory set on fire, and scores of managers and workers were hospitalised and severely injured in the uprising on July 18, 2012.  The arbitrary imprisonment of such a large number of workers for more than three years (portions of workers were released since spring 2015), is a landmark in the history of the Indian legal system.

Almost five years after the uprising, the final court verdict acquitted 117 of the 148 workers. 13 of the workers, including all twelve office holders of the union, were charged with murder and were sentenced to life on March 18, 2017.  In response to the verdict, about 100.000 workers in the Gurgaon industrial cluster responded with a 1 hour tool-down strike, and a larger walkout was announced for March 23.

The causes of the conflict in one of the assembly plants of the company – controlled by Japanese multinational Suzuki – were the high amount of contract workers representing 75% of the workforce, the demand for a high work speed and a harsh work regime. It was the fact that the 7 and a half minute tea break was routinely cut short by supervisors that led to the outburst of workers’ rage in the summer of 2012.

The industrial city of Gurgaon, south of New Delhi, has seen an upsurge in factory struggles since 2005. Earlier conflicts at auto parts and motorcycle factories have seen police violence against workers. The broader context is a steep increase of contract work and a 25 per cent decline in real wages since 2000.

The conflict at Maruti broke out in a new factory that was established in 2007. 75 per cent of labour in this factory consisted of contract workers from 60 different contractors, which at the time totalled to 2700 contract workers, plus several hundred trainees and apprentices (there were approximately 900 permanent workers). The contract workers earned about half of the wage (9000 Euros – 100 Euro) of the permanent workers in 2011 (18000 Rupees).

In this new model factory a three month-long conflict broke out in June 2011. Workers were forced to join the trade union MUKU (Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union) that was controlled by management. The independent union MSWU (Maruti Suzuki Workers Union) was denied registration by the state. In response, 2000 workers organised a sit-in strike for two weeks. A few months later, only the permanent workers were allowed to enter and around 1100 contract workers were denied entry. The contract workers asked the permanent workers to show their solidarity and on the 7th of October the factory was occupied. On the same day, three nearby plants of Suzuki were also occupied by the workers employed there and more than twenty plants in the area staged solidarity strikes. After the conflict, one important change was the speed of the conveyer belt was reduced to produce one new car every 60 seconds, instead of every 45 seconds.

What scared employers about these strikes and occupations was the fact that permanent and contract workers organised joint actions. The earlier strikes in the late 2000s saw a huge rift between both categories of workers, and trade unions often negotiated better wages for the permanent workforce, while contract workers did not see any wage hikes. Contract workers in India are usually laid off after six months, and can then only apply again at the company after a six months break. Many go back and forth between company employment and seasonal jobs for years. Contract workers are not allowed to join the same trade unions as permanent workers, and can be laid off immediately when they get organised. In most cases, the contractors are comprised of local elites and the big companies deny any responsibility for the situation of contract workers, although they now form the majority of the work force in all bigger companies.

In the course of spring 2012, the trade union MSWU was finally allowed to register, but its demands pertaining to wage hikes and the integration of contract workers as permanent staff were rejected by management. The mood among workers got worse. On July 18 2012, a worker was insulted and slapped by a supervisor and subsequently dismissed. Representations by the union did not yield any results and violence broke out. The exact circumstances of what happened that day are still under dispute, but there are many hints that the escalation of violence was provoked by management. In India, violence initiated by security forces, paid for by management, is a widespread method in order to get rid of organised workers, because subsequently the blame will be put on them. But initiating or provoking violence contains risks for management as the situation might get out of control as it did in this case. In the course of the unrest a fire broke out in the plant, killing one manager.

After the incidents of July 18, the factory remained closed for one month, and 546 permanent workers and 1800 contract workers were arbitrarily dismissed. In September 2012, wage hikes were introduced, but they widened the gap between permanent and contract workers. In the weeks after the unrest, police arrested 147 workers, many of which had not been in the factory on July 18. The entire former trade union body was also jailed, but the trade union managed to organise around 600 workers of the present workforce in the factory. Since 2015, most of the workers have been gradually released.

The results of the conflict were met with diverging views. Many of the dismissed workers thought it was good to send a signal of discontent, despite their individual situation. They also thought that the uprising spread fear among many CEOs and hoped that labour relations might improve. In fact, many car factories hiked wages in Gurgaon after the conflict in Maruti in 2012, hoping to prevent labour unrest.

The companies in the auto industry in India have seen considerable growth in the last 15 years, tripled the output of passenger cars and increased the use of contract labour – it is this strategy of increased exploitation that led to labour unrest. The foundation of a trade union is the first way that workers can unite and experience collective struggles. But this traditional way of organising often does not lead to improvements in the material conditions of work. It seems to be necessary that workers organise along the lines of supply. The production of a car does not just take place inside of one factory, and production sites are dispersed to a high number of workplaces. It is the structural power embedded into this type of dispersed production that remains to be used in full scale by organised workers.

Jörg Nowak holds a PhD in Political Sciences and is a Visiting Professor at City University of Hong Kong. He works on strikes in India and Brazil, and on Chinese investment in BRICS countries. This post is a shortened form of the argument made here (that is currently free to view).

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