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A senior general manager in Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant was killed and several managers were injured in a violent confrontation between the workers and the management, an incident that prompted national dailies to speak of the “bad old days of militant trade unionism.” Yet, industrial unrest is at historic lows in terms of the numbers of incidents and man-days lost. During 1973-74, nearly 3,00,000 strikes were called prior to the Emergency; in 2010, just 429 such incidents occurred, according to data from the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute.

What accounts for this shift? Has the Indian factory become a safer, better-paid and more secure workplace?

Data suggests the opposite: Today, Indian workers are paid less in real terms than they were fifteen years ago, have less job security, and yet are less likely to strike. The incident at Maruti Manesar signals the end of the all-powerful union capable of controlling the factory floor, rather than its return. Instead, industry’s reliance on casual workers has created informal leaderless networks that operate outside the framework of strikes and settlements that undergird union activity.

“The shop floor is divided into those who work and those who make them work,” said Bhupen Singh*, who spent 20 years in a tool factory at Faridabad. “Workers and supervisors have an inherently antagonistic relationship.” In his time, unions and managements worked to bridge this divide. The unions presented worker demands to the management and also enforced discipline on the shop floor.

In the aftermath of the strikes of the 1970s, data from the Annual Survey of Industries — calculated by economist C.P. Chandrasekhar — show that real, inflation-adjusted wages for workers increased by nearly 40 per cent in 15 years, from 1981-82 to 1994-95, and then fell 15 percent in the next 15 years.

Wage payments, as a percentage of the net value created by firms, have dropped from 30.3 per cent to 11.6 per cent over 30 years, as profits have increased from 23.4 per cent of the net value to 56.2 percent, suggesting that firms have become more efficient, but wages have not risen in proportion with profits. The rise of cheap casual labour — stripped of health benefits, provident funds and pensions — could explain this trend.

…In 2011-12, “India Inc.” owed its workers at least Rs. 711 crore in unpaid wages, according to Lok Sabha data. This doesn’t include “off-roll” workers or instances wherein the matter never reached a labour court. Workers say they almost never approach courts because they rarely get justice. Bhupen Singh, the retired tool worker, has been fighting for his arrears since 1997; last year, labour courts had a backlog of 13,527 cases, which rose to 13,642 this year.

…The industrial action at Lakhani is not an isolated incident; worker broadsheets like Mazdoor Samachar detail several instances of broad-based, leaderless protests for wages and better working conditions. This activity is very hard to quantify as it falls outside the classification of ‘disputes,’ ‘unrest,’ ‘strike’ or ‘lockout.’ At times, such activity is not easy to direct or control as in Maruti, where the union had no control over its members because the company had dismissed its leaders.

…After a summer of strikes last year, Maruti agreed to let its permanent workers at Manesar form a union of their own, but dismissed those who led the agitation. In November last year, an anonymous worker contributed a prescient analysis of the future of operations of the plan in a local newspaper. “Sahibs don’t understand the situation… In these last few months, a handful of workers had risen to the position where they could control the workers … By dismissing exactly those men, the management has thrown away a valuable tool.”

Read full article: Down and out on India’s shop floor

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