– By Artika Ashdhir There has been a spate of industrial action in the auto manufacturing sector in India, including a well-publicised dispute at Maruti Suzuki. Here is an interesting demand and struggle of workers from yet another automobile company i …

Walton Pantland

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– By Artika Ashdhir

There has been a spate of industrial action in the auto manufacturing sector in India, including a well-publicised dispute at Maruti Suzuki. Here is an interesting demand and struggle of workers from yet another automobile company in India – Bajaj Auto.

The Kaizen culture introduced by the Japanese automobile industry should be given a serious thought rather than blindly following it. Yet another example proving that is the workers struggle in one of India’s biggest automobile company Bajaj Auto.

Bajaj Auto like Maruti Suzuki is a well known and reliable brand of automobiles in India. It dominates the market in two wheeler automobiles and is the most trusted brand. 3 out of 4 factories of Bajaj Auto are based in the state of Maharashtra, western India and one in the state of Uttarakhand, northern India. This plant has been in news for the last one and a half month because of the workers struggle that has been going on against the extremely exploitative management.

The struggle started in the Chakan (state of Maharashtra) plant of Bajaj Auto and has shifted its base to the city of Pune, where the main factory of the company and headquarters is located.

History of the Union

The union in the Chakan plant of Bajaj Auto was formed in 2010. This was in response to the excessive workload, arbitrary changes in shift timings, low yearly increments. 900 permanent workers got involved in the union and signed a 9 year settlement agreement with the company’s management regarding increments and working conditions. Usually a 9 year agreement gives a lot of space to the managements to revert on their promises. It also further weakens the collective bargaining powers of the workers, since the wage increments are not in sync to the inflation in the economy and thus there is a great risk of lower real wages. This is exactly what happened.

Why did the struggle start?

The workers of the Uttarakhand plant of Bajaj Auto, which is a relatively new plant demanded to form a union. The workers union of the Chakan plant supported them and even gave them membership in their union. This sent the company for a toss, and they started the harassment of the workers at the Chakan plant. The workers were illegally dismissed; they were given suspensions pending enquiry and show-cause notices. Mr. Dilip Pawar the union leader informed that the management would assign additional workforce to achieve higher targets and then remove the manpower and demand for the same impossible targets.

The management then finally refused to give increments as per the agreement in 2010, this led the union to call off the agreement citing termination of a clause and the management moved to the court against the union for this decision.

The agreement between the union and the management is full of clauses that would encourage the harassment of the workers and pressurize them to leave the company. One example: the clause which says that workmen will continue to give targeted production and rate of output for a fixed period; however, the targets are moved expediently by the company, which ultimately shows that the workmen have underperformed.

Unique Demand

It was then the union came up with a demand that would solve all the pay problems once and for all without having to bargain constantly for it: all workers should be given the shares of the company at Re.1 per share. They are basically asking for Rs.9 – 10 lakh worth of shares for Rs.500. This was a very innovative demand because the returns on the company’s shares are good and consistent. This does not only show the fact that today’s labour force is well educated and well informed but also that creativity among labour unions is certainly not dead.

The struggle

The workers have been on strike for 42 days (started June 25th 2013). More than 1000 workers gather everyday at a community hall near the factory in the city of Pune. The union has made arrangements for providing food to the striking workers, they are addressed by a lot of influential union leaders from the city, state and other parts of the country and after every speech they applaud the speaker with the same enthusiasm as it was on day one. The average age of the striking workers is 26 years, they are graduates from the Industrial Training Institutes, and they are socially very active and are not willing to tolerate any form of injustice.

The community hall has a notice board which carries all the news items regarding their strike to inform the workers that their struggle is not confined only to city but the whole country. The workers are educated and motivated to not give up.

The union has also made calculations that the if the company sells one Bajaj Motor cycle for Rs.70,000, the labour cost that the company bears for it is only Rs.300. The management also claims that the total labour cost of the company is only 3 percent of the total sales. This shows how lowly the workforce of such massive manufacturing companies is treated.

Way ahead

The chairman of the company Mr. Rahul Bajaj announced an ultimatum on Monday. He said even if the plant remains closed for the next 500 days, the management would not succumb to the demands of the union. He has asked the union to fix the problem within the week, otherwise he would move the board of directors to shift the production out to other plants.

The union responded to this by saying that they were glad for the time given, however they feared that right information is not reaching the chairman and also that the company can’t run from workers. That’s the spirit!

Similarities and Dissimilarities between the Maruti Suzuki workers struggle and Bajaj Auto workers struggle

The main similarities between both the struggles are:

  • Young and educated workforce
  • Increased work pressure led to the struggle
  • Denied the right to form union/denied collective bargaining power
  • Contract workers in core jobs working side by side with permanent workers at lower wages creating tension

The main dissimilarities:

  • Bajaj workers struggle is very organized
  • The union VKKS (Vishwa Kalyan Kamgar Sangathana) has managed to keep the workers united and motivated
  • Good leadership of the union in the Bajaj auto workers struggle

Conclusion

Many are asking the question whether this is the return of trade unionism in the country. My respond would be, if you choose to ignore something for long it doesn’t exist for you, but that doesn’t mean it really doesn’t exist. The media for a long time chose to ignore the labour uprisings. A very good example of this is the struggle of workers of Maruti Suzuki in the year 2000 – 2001. A huge rally of more than 500 people was organized in the city of New Delhi by the labour union of Maruti Suzuki Gurgaon Plant against the incentive scheme imposed by the company and attacks by management on the workers in which 1 worker got killed. Usually whenever more than 500 people are gathered in one place, whatever the issue may be, it gets media coverage, however this time, there was not a single piece of information available on this protest.

This struggle got full page coverage in a big Mumbai city newspaper and that too pro labour union. So does that mean media and times are changing? Yes, in a small way but still a long way to go.

Trade unionism never died in this country, it was just neglected and now since labour issues are worse than ever, such uprisings are expected more in the future. The workers struggles have been isolated and lacked a connect with the general population, its time it gets more united and people understand the true reasons behind these struggles rather than blatantly accusing the workers/unions as culprits.

– Artika Ashdhir is Assistant Coordinator for the IUF in India


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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