On Violence, Assault on HR Managers and Maruti Suzuki
HR Managers, their associations, Unions and Journalists have written volumes about the latest Maruti Suzuki case of violence leading to death of their HR Manager. Petitions have been circulated, signature campaigns done and interviews were given on TV shows by all concerned.
So you might ask me, “Do you have anything new to tell the world?”
Sure, Sir. A valid question! The answer is that I have experienced violence first hand and not watched from side-lines. [Several Personnel Managers were assaulted in yesteryears – why are they silent?] Here is an experience and my conclusions, no doubt personal conclusions they are, presented to you which, I hope will, provide a different perspective on the issues at micro level.
Nobody [usually] hits another employee without being ‘instructed!’
There are reasons for this behaviour. Let us understand that workers are not a different breed. They behave not-too-differently from managers. They would not touch any fellow manager or employee. But when they are told that they are fighting the larger cause of workers’ benefit, fighting for a ’cause,’ the situation changes. The attitude changes.
Following the strike at our plant, I was assaulted inside Labour Court building at Thane in May 1986 as I was running to save myself from assailants and entered the office of Mr Muzumdar, Presiding Officer of Labour Court. The assailant hit me while I was inside his chamber. Fortunately it was only a hard blow without any weapon, but resulting in eye injury that required two days of hospitalization. Who hit me? Were they from my organization? No they were not. I had seen the assailants, they were not our employees. The assailants were hired from a certain ‘Shakha.’
How did I know? Sir, if you are doing a plant job, you develop your own network which feeds you with remarkably accurate information. Trust me. At least a dozen veterans of seventies and eighties will readily testify!
Like any Plant Personnel Manager I had my friends among workmen. Many of them called me up at home, felt concerned about the assault. These were not crocodile tears.
Then what explains the assault? It is easy [and I know this to be true!], it was arranged by non-workmen among the union office-bearers.
In another case where a workman assaulted the Factory Manager, the enquiry was completed after three years, and the workman was about to be dismissed. At this juncture the workman took an unusual step. He approached the Factory Manager at his home, confessed his wrong-doing, asked for pardon and explained how as a young man he was ‘instructed’ to assault.
I would like to believe that an ordinary workman is prone to be misguided like any other young man. In Maruti Suzuki there were plenty of young men who could be misguided particularly in the light of the strikes of 2011 in the same factory, and when emotions were running high on an issue.
The point I wish to make is that this is, in my opinion, more a work of external agents than spontaneous reaction of workmen. And I also would like to say that instigation by external agents does not mitigate the offence of killing Awanish. Those who killed Awanish must be punished, but punish we must those who instigated it.
The powerless is a sitting duck in a conflict; the real leader must come in the forefront.
The local Maruti management is perceived as helpless bystander, notwithstanding its MD who is Japanese. It is widely believed that when Maruti management was negotiating with workers in the previous strike, they had to take instructions constantly through video conferencing from their HQ in Japan. Their HQ actually made press statements about the strike. It is believed that the local management, following the 2011 strike, was perceived as a powerless entity and a puppet in the hands of HQ, by workmen.
What happens when a powerless tries to show ‘who is in control.’ He invites great apathy and anger.
This coupled with the fact that the MD of Maruti Suzuki made statements that showed that the organization believed in ‘controlling’ workmen [See my blog post] and their unions can only enrage an ‘adversary.’ Nobody wants to lose control of the workplace. The Japanese elsewhere had shown that they had gone a long way to build relations. But not in Maruti Suzuki.
It takes enormous energy and a strong will to rebuild relations.
Did you ever read about any specific efforts of Maruti Suzuki of building bridges with employees or workers in particular after the 2011 strikes? The press was covering Maruti story constantly and watching it like a doctor watches a patient in ICU; they never reported any positive step. It would have made an excellent story of ‘let bygones be bygones.’ It could have served as a model for other employers. But the press savvy Maruti never took that step. What will you say about an organization that experiences turmoil but does not address the sentient issues concerning it? Will you say that it is culpable? Yes Sir, in my eyes it surely is.
Let me also give you an extreme story. But one that shows the way. When some employees made very adverse remarks in employee engagement survey about a Director of a management institute at Pune, he took a step which might read shocking and unbelievable, but I can swear that it is true. The Director [for whom many of his students are willing to die] actually prostrated before those employees and said something to this effect ‘I have a vision of creating this as one of the greatest institutions; I might have gone wrong in some ways and hurt you, please pardon me. But please be with me in my journey, I need your support.’ I repeat that this is a true story.
I am not suggesting that we go to the extreme to which the Director went. But we have to appreciate that it takes open heart and mind to make a proactive step to rebuild relations.
Building relations, this example tells us, requires exposing yourself. We know that it is ‘disclosures’ or an open admission of feelings, acknowledgement of failures that go a long way in building relations, particularly in re-building relations. Rebuilding is possible if we drop our defenses and show that we are, like the other party, very fallible.
Building sensitivity to people issues within organisation requires a determined effort, a concerted effort. Very often with the emotions running high among fellow managers, the task of an HR Manager to re-build sensitivity and relations is next to impossible if the top management does not effectively champion it. While remarks of the Toyota Kirloskar MD [see my blog-post mentioned above] show that the organisation had done collective introspection, there is nothing to that effect in Maruti Suzuki.
Do we want to fight battles, win war against external unions and impose employer-sponsored internal unions? Or do we want to take employees with us on the journey to fulfil the mission? These are the questions to be answered. The textile mill owners in Mumbai and Maruti Suzuki in Manesar unfortunately provided a common answer in their actions.
Even if the Government does not amend the Contract Labour Act, can we proactively define policies for engagement of contract labour in our organisations?
The fact is that HR managers do not give contracts or control award of contract for certain jobs. Contractors are appointed by line managers and the HR managers have often bad case on their hand. In many organisations both contract workers and permanent workers work on the same jobs. Instances are not unknown when they work in shifts relieving each other. Such situations arise because there are no stance taken at organisational level on when and where to appoint contract labour and otherwise. The solution lies in developing and communicating an internal policy on the issue of employment of contract labour.
Very often the employees [managers included] respond to fairness and not so much to ‘legalities’ because some cases can be obvious breach of law but in many instances are ‘arguable’ cases. Even unions are aware of it. There are unions [in the principle employer’s establishment] which have brought about settlement between a contractor and his employees to secure better service conditions. They know that contract labour is required for an organisation in certain cases and there is no point in taking a very dogmatic view. Go to Pune, the new industrial manufacturing hub, if you want to see some such settlements.
The problem is that if we want to retain our influence over our employees, we will have to loosen control.
And that does not come easily to some employers. That is my take on this unfortunate episode.
Very interesting one sir. coincidentally laid my hand on Outlook yesterday and this was the cover story. Even they raised a similar point on how the management is driving things from japan without any sense of resolving the root cause and are continuing to drive their own agenda of controlling the workmen despite so many strikes in recent past. It also argues that Maruti was supposed to be one of the best places to work in India in the 80s and 90s but after the Japanese control, it started going bad to worse.
But in the first few paragraphs of this post, you raised a very important issue of workmen being "directed" to assault. I have seen smaller factories in my family and can say from the limited experience that workmen, unionised or not, would never in their own will and power assault a manager. And the outlook article also says that the presence of some political forces within the factory could also be a cause, which concurs with the point you raised here.
Having known you personally and having had the good fortune of working with you, I for a moment in last few days did wonder as to what would be your views be on "The issue" ( I just did not pick up the phone and call ;). And here you go as articulate as ever; mixing your own personal experience to substantiate and still staying objective on the matter at large.I would agree with all your observations. Even though my experience at the Plants were not as huge as veterans like you,I have seen the tendency that workers do not unnecessarily think of inflicting damages to their employers(Supervisors).If a particular Manager comes repeatedly in the line of workmen's angst, one needs to examine the personality in question.The office bearers of the Union also have many a times failed to influence their workmen, depending upon how seriously they look at their roles of balancing the two parties. They too run the risk of getting sidelined if seen ineffective or someone who only thrives as an informer to the Personnel Manager. I maintain that workmen issues cannot but mirror the society at large. In that respect sitting at Jantar Mantar for a strong Lok Pal is not more nobler than protesting for an unfair labour practices outside a factory Gate. When things become unmanageable, and lead to an unfortunate deadlock as seen in Maruti, we start getting into root cause for a emotional flare-up. We r also getting into a newly found " Peaceful Candle Light" protest weapon fad, while our heart cries for hanging the culprit (one of the most un-peaceful acts in the planet). In a world behest with dichotomies and connected 24/7, its not unusual to find a large support for either of the means. What gets sidelined is the large "systemic issues" like the one you talked about. Hoping to see real HR leaders emerge to take an Objective stance. This would happen only when they are tired of collecting awards in forums built in their own back yards or when done with publishing success of their "program management skills " in daily news columns : )
Not to comment on this specific issue but in my very first job I was actually rescued by the union leaders when the workers turned violent and started beating me up in the canteen because of some issue there. They could control and tell the workmen that this was not the way. My take even on the comparisons of the violence then and now is that the contexts are different. In the seventies and eighties the unions and the workmen were struggling to find an identity, seeking a balance of power at least in the larger Organizations and there was also a fair amount of inter union rivalry.I think the enforcement of labour laws was stricter, the government and judiciary was more active on labour issues which highlighted a lot of the ills.
With liberalisation and a industry representation I think the oversight is much less and the exploitation is now probably more. Even in the worst of those days, contract labour was not over 15 % or so of your workforce. Today, 60 to 70% contract labour may not be uncommon. And the government labour machinery is not as active. I also feel that HR heads inadvertently connive to such practices by not opposing them strongly. This huge pressure to be recognised as successful business partners has made us forget that we are also employee champions. Added to that the huge salaries that HR leaders get and the lack of awareness of the sensitivity of Industrial Relations has numbed us into accepting what the business wants us to do. We are becoming willing Or unwilling pawns in becoming the front facing people and not fighting the basic injustice that could be the cause of such outbursts. That is why the HR people are targetted. At such times, the business leaders choose not to partner in this with HR leaving us to face the consequences.I think we as a community and as individual HR leaders must deeply reflect on why we are allowing such situations to arise. VJRao
Thanks Aditya, Naveen and VJ.
HR organizations are a nuisance!
I agree with you Mr. Rao, I see 3 points raised by you here:
a. Exploitation_ Contract Labor being hired: Sir, with limited exposure both in career and life, I feel that using contract labor is a necessity in organizations with the current laws we have to run with. When a HR manager compares industries with his peer set (IT, Consulting, FMCG sales), he sees a different set of stakeholders ( i am kind of comparing apples and oranges) and see that they are replaceable (by means of firing and hiring a new one instead). We hire people for their skill set and a willingness to work and share a common objective. When the latter is not demonstrated and an apathy is shown, an employer may be given a choice to hire a suitable person and still keep his headcount intact. Contract labour gives the person also an opportunity to gain skill set and move upwards on the grade level.
But with all said and done, a discrimination and tendency to exploit as they are step sons, if is followed may lead to what we see in Manesar. As the once on contract work side by side and there is a brother hood both emotional and by blood.
2. HR playing along with Business and not doing what they need to do: Be a trusted Business Adviser and an Employee Champion. In all senses I agree to you, we have done miserably for ourselves at all level there.
3. I wonder why an HR manager is targeted when neither they are involved directly in the decision making nor have a direct control on how things will work. May be the role that we were to do, around the connect & then correction/ enforcement is something we have directly squeezed to the latter. When there is no connect with the set of employees (and this is with both apples and oranges), any suggestion may be taken otherwise.
Please let me know if my thought process and perspective on things are in the right direction.
Anant, a student of Vivek Sir.
Excellent observation, please elaborate a bit. Will help you garner my support.
Thanks for your perspective on violence at the Maruti Factory. You have really linked well your own experience as a seasoned HR person who understands the psyche of union members. It reminded me of my days at Hoechst factory when we dealt with Datta Samant's potential entry as a result of a faction of workmen losing faith in the internal union. It was a trying period which ended with my ex-boss and now a very good friend Ashok Lad getting severely assaulted by outside goons.
I have a question on mind. Would I be right in saying that police are generally reluctant to get fully involved in managing violence associated with labour management strife? If so, I wonder why! I believe, there is a degree of indifference, may be because, they think, ultimately the management and union will come together, so why get involved! Or, probably because they experience certain manipulation from both management and union. This is what I experienced during my stint at Sandoz and Hoechst. May be you can throw some light on this. Thanks also for uploading the ND TV video on what happened at Maruti. It is quite revealing.
Finally, the untimely violent death of one of professional colleagues is what I feel terrible about! I also see this as a reminder to HR professionals. Speaking for myself, for the last over two decades, I had taken the industrial peace post 1991, almost for granted…Thanks again.