The Maruti Suzuki plant in Manesar is back on the boil. According to reports yesterday, a casteist remark by a supervisor aimed at a worker fuelled tensions in the plant resulting in a violent conflagration, with one person charred to death and close to 40 sustaining injuries and being hospitalised. To those who have been following the tensions between the workers and the management in the company for the past couple of years, this denouement will not be surprising, albeit it was a tragic consequence of a prolonged betrayal of worker demands for independent unionisation in the plant. A betrayal for which both the Maruti Suzuki management and the Haryana state government were equally responsible.
What lay at the heart of the worker discontent though? This Aman Sethi article in The Hindu that reported about working conditions from the heart of the assembly line actually gave some interesting pointers. It is more easier to explain the difficulty of working conditions by means of visuals and images than by words. We shall take the help of Charlie Chaplin here. The pressures and difficulties of working on a 50 second assembly line – the amount of time required for the fitting and letting out of a brand new Maruti Suzuki car – is best explained by this tragicomic display of effort by one of the world's greatest ever satirists. Except truth is "stronger" than fiction.
"On most days in this industrial suburb of Delhi, a phalanx of robotic arms weld sheets of pressed steel into silvery monocoque body shells that emerge from the paint shop in shades of arctic pearl white, glistening grey, blazing red and midnight black. A conveyor belt pulls the candy-coloured shells past 369 workstations, where men armed with whirring tools install engines, doors, windshields, and wiring.
An assembly line is a complex manifestation of the man-hour-work problems encountered in high school mathematics. Workers stand at stations in a giant covered shed as partially built cars glide by on a moving conveyor; workers step onto the conveyor, fit a specific part, step off and walk back to the front of the workspace to wait for the next car.
The automobile industry produces cars in ‘levelled lots', meaning the cars come in repeating patterns of different models and variants. “Work content is not fixed across models,” said Mr. Roy, “In one model it may take a worker only 40 seconds to fit a particular part… in another model it could take more time.” In a 50 second line, cars arrive in mathematically determined lots where cars that need more than 50 seconds per task are offset by cars that need less."…
In Manesar, Maruti produces about 180 variants of three basic models: the 2011 Swift hatchback, the SX4 sedan, the low-end A Star hatchback and its European variant called the Nissan Pixo. When a car rolls in, the worker looks at a large matrix pasted on the vehicle that indicates if the car is a left or right hand drive, powered by petrol, diesel or compressed natural gas engines intended for the domestic, European or general export market. Depending on his work station he chooses from 32 different upholstered seats, 90 tyre and wheel assemblies, and innumerable kinds of wire-harnesses, air conditioning tubes, steering wheels, dashboard trims, gearboxes, switches, locks, and door trims, in an average time of 50 seconds per car.
For parts like air conditioning tubes, the worker stands between a set of parts racks. As a particular car variant rolls in, a light above the corresponding parts rack blinks with increasing urgency as the worker runs to it, grabs a part and pulls a cord to acknowledge he has chosen the right part. He then steps onto the conveyor belt, fits the part and rushes back to match the next car to the next blinking parts rack before an alarm rings.
If the line halts, signboards across the shop floor light up – flashing the number of the workstation where the line has stopped and the duration of the stoppage. Another board displays the total time ‘lost' during the shift; a scrolling ticker lists the production targets at a given time of the day, the actual cars produced and the variance.
For every fault, the feedback is recorded and the worker has to sign against it… it goes into his record,” said a worker, speaking on condition of anonymity as every Maruti worker must sign ‘Standing Orders' that, among 100 other conditions, bar them from slowing down work, singing, gossiping, spreading rumours and making derogatory statements against the company and management. The work record is examined during yearly appraisals.
[Prior to the worker occupation] we were under intense pressure to withdraw our application for the union… the line was moving too fast… there were no relieving workers,” said Pradeep Foggat, a Maruti worker and one of the leaders of the proposed Maruti Suzuki Employees Union, adding that a Maruti worker spends 8 hours on the assembly, and breaks twice for a 7.5 minute tea break and once for a 30 minute lunch break. Those who arrive a minute after the shift's scheduled commencement are fined half a day's salary.
It is no wonder that the workers of the Maruti Suzuki plant have – unlike Chaplin who loses his mind and becomes as much a nut in the assembly line – taken up cudgels to protest against these dehumanising conditions in which they have been made to work. Alienation is not a consequence only of lack of adequate wages alone. Working conditions of this kind that the Maruti Suzuki management has imposed, has clearly forced them to say enough is enough. This Newsclick video – the images were surreptitiously taped by workers using their cellphone cameras as they were undertaking a fortnight long "tool down" strike to demand unionisation – shows their angst and their determination in no uncertain terms.
Watch from 09:40 mark in the video here –
A series of confabulations leading to adjusted demands by workers, threats by the management, state government involvement and later compromise followed. But the peace was tenuous. Conditions surely haven't changed much and the independent unionisation demand remained unfulfilled, as this rather critical EPW commentary by Maya John pointed out. Blaming the "Janus faced" nature of Indian labour law and the bourgeois friendly state government as responsible for the betrayal of worker demands, the commentary also identifies weaknesses in the "ossified" trade union movement in the area which has not been to complete the promise of working class unity in the region.
But weaknesses and betrayals apart, the tenuousness of managed peace meant that the situation was bound to go into a new spiral of unrest very soon. Can the working class movement now work upon its weaknesses that were clear in last year's round of agitations and manage to get their demand of independent unionisation passed? Will the bourgeois friendly government in Haryana go beyond its remit and character and ensure that the just demands of the workers are brought to the fore atleast in this round? Chances of such a thing happening is minimal.
Already the devious Maruti Suzuki management has, played its role in character to a T. Recriminations for yesterday's conflagration are already underway, as this report points out. Soon workers will be under pressure to protect their jobs as the Damocles sword of the accusation of criminality will weigh upon them. And the Maruti Suzuki management will continue to adopt a strategy of vindictiveness as much as possible to prevent any measure leading to the fructification of the independent unionisation demand.
That enjoins us, as writers, activists, and concerned citizenry to raise voices against this high stakes game played out by the Maruti Suzuki management.
Charlie Chaplin in the Great Dictator –
"We have developed speed but we have shut ourselves in:
machinery that gives abundance has left us in want.
Our knowledge has made us cynical,
our cleverness hard and unkind.
We think too much and feel too little:
More than machinery we need humanity;
More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.
Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me I say "Do not despair".
The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress: the hate of men will pass and dictators die and the power they took from the people, will return to the people and so long as men die [now] liberty will never perish. . .
Soldiers: don't give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel, who drill you, diet you, treat you as cattle, as cannon fodder.
Don't give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts. You are not machines. You are not cattle. You are men. You have the love of humanity in your hearts. You don't hate, only the unloved hate. Only the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers: don't fight for slavery, fight for liberty.
You the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy let's use that power, let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age and security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie. They do not fulfil their promise, they never will. Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfil that promise. Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness.
Soldiers! In the name of democracy: let us all unite!