Maruti Suzuki Episode: Which Road Not to Take

The latest news report on Maruti workers’ struggle is very important. In many ways it shows what is likely to be the response of trade unions in the days to come.

The Maruti violence episode is well known. Also well-known is the singular insensitivity with which Maruti management handled the workers’ agitation. The real issue was the formation of the union. The management wanted union of their choice and that too necessarily an ‘internal’ union.

Just in case the readers of this blog have not read my earlier post, I would like to reproduce a part to highlight the attitude of Maruti Suzuki.

[Quote]  Krishmurthy was the first MD of the Maruti Suzuki. He played a crucial role in establishing a union at Gurgaon plant. Mr R Bhargava who succeeded him wrote his memoirs. The book is ‘The Maruti Way.’ I am now going to quote what he wrote at page 303:
[I quote] “As a first step Krishnamurthy promoted a trade union at Maruti before political parties and outsiders could establish one. KK Datta, who was the union leader at BHEL [Please note that Krishmurthy was earlier working at BHEL] was given employment in Maruti, and became General Secretary of the Maruti Udyog Employees Union, which was affiliated to INTUC, the trade union wing of the Congress party. Workers were encouraged to become members of this union and they were told that the management would encourage union to effectively interact with it so as to best protect the interests of workers. But first credibility of the union had to be established and this was done by consulting the union and involving them in framing policies……
…..The fact that Datta knew Krishnamurthy from before and had been brought to Maruti by him, helped increase the belief that he could get workers a fair deal.”[Unquote]
Management ‘promoting,’ or let me find a better word, ‘catalysing’ union formation is nothing new. Perhaps the metaphor of catalyst is apt. A catalyst facilitates but does not react. So some may argue that it is not really bad to act as a catalyst for union formation but it transgresses permissible limits when managements interfere with the workers’ right to organise. It means selecting a union of their choice.
Bhargava tells us in the book that the workers later decided to end the affiliation with INTUC. This was when they got disillusioned with Datta’s leadership. He also talks about his discussion with ND Tiwari the then Industries Minister whom he persuaded to see the point that an unaffiliated union serves the agenda of Maruti better. The workers at this juncture wanted to have affiliation with HMS. [Unquote]
Maruti is in a bigger mess now as the alleged violence and human rights violation of workers at the Manesar plant of Maruti Suzuki will be taken up at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva next week by the International Commission for Labour Rights (ICLR).

The news report [Link] says further that “International human rights lawyer and team member Suzanne Adely said: “We will take this issue of repressing rights of Maruti workers and the state police booking them in different cases with the special rapporteur next week. We will also take up this case with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).” “This company is also planning to set up a plant in South Africa. The labour organisations there will oppose it as our team there was a member from the labour organisations of that country. If Maruti interfered with the workers’ rights to form union of their choice and terminated union members, there are serious violations of international labour norms,”  said Ashwini Sukthankar, an international labour lawyer and ICLR member.

That is a serious development. India is not a member of OECD but there is a close association. The OECD website says, “India is on the Governing Board of the OECD’s Development Centre  and it also participates as an observer in some OECD Committees and various working groups and various working groups. Indian ministers have also attended a number of Ministerial Council Meeting dialogue sessions with non-OECD countries since 2002. India also supports the OECD regionally-focused activities in Asia, hosting regional forums and workshops on issues including investment, taxation, financial education, private pensions, and development.”

It would be interesting to note here that in a recent strike at a German organisation [based in India] making components for the auto industry the workers had complained to OECD, which in turn developed pressure on the management to settle the issues.

Auto industry has been facing a lot of flak. Maruti Suzuki is not the only organisation in India which is facing a lot of issues on the labour front. Partly this is also because many auto makers, like Bajaj for instance, have failed to adopt practices which are more

democratic and inclusive. The Indian States in the northern part of this country have been accused of being ‘hand-in-glove’ with such organisations. The Government policies were never implemented well as we all know.

In Pune, ‘Shramik Ekta Mahasangh’ [a federation of unions] was formed with affiliation to IndustriALL Global Union. The international union which was in its earlier avatar was called International Metalworkers’ Federation has good presence in India.

This is only the shape of things to come. International pressures were rare, but one can expect these to be not-so-rare in future.

It is time to adopt democratic and inclusive practices at work. The time has come to recognise that we need to do this right thing for right reasons. Maruti Suzuki may learn it the hard way, but as it always happens with drivers of automobiles, they must know which road to take, and which road not to take.

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