Devoid of rights, Manesar's contract workers caught in management-union crossfire


There is dismay in a white three-storey building a few hundred metres from Maruti Suzuki India’s Manesar factory. Many of the 90 small rooms lie empty; the coir clotheslines hang mostly bare; and the corridors, stained with chewed betel, are not crowded.

The occupants, usually four to a room, have left since violence at the factory on July 18. The subsequent lockout meant a few hundred of the 1,500 or so Maruti Suzuki contract workers who lived here moved out. At least 40 per cent of the Indian automobile workforce is comprised of contract workers. At Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant, they were about 50 per cent of the total hands.

Now, many men here from north India, mostly Bihar and UP, have begun packing their bags. Their employer, Suzuki Powertrain India, a joint venture between Maruti Suzuki India and Suzuki Motor Corporation, they claim, has told them their services will not be required beyond July.

S Y Siddiqui, Maruti Suzuki India’s chief operating officer (administration), explains that may be a result of low demand for engines after car-making operations were halted.

Manoj Kumar, 22, a worker from UP’s Ballia district, says, “A few days ago, I was told there was less work and I didn’t need to go to the factory. I’m waiting to see if I’m called back.” The wait is expensive on a monthly salary of Rs 7,500 — the full amount paid only if a worker attends every working day.

“There are no holidays,” claims Kumar. “We work through the week. We are fined Rs 950 for every day we are absent. After six months, we get a week’s stand-down.”

A day at Manesar, the men describe, involves an eight or nine-hour shift, with a 30-minute meal interval and two seven-and-a-half-minute tea breaks. “Those on the production lines are the worst off. On the dispatch yard, things are better,” says Manish Verma, a contract worker at the company’s Gurgaon plant. “All the laborious work is given to contract workers.”

Permanent workers are paid more than twice what the contract workers get. “We get all the heavy work, which they (permanent workers) don’t. Still, they impose their authority on us,” says Kumar. So, when the unions of permanent employees — the only ones allowed at Maruti Suzuki — call a strike, contract workers find themselves stuck between obeying their colleagues and the management.

“They have a bus (to commute), holidays, medical benefits — they have everything. We have none of those,” says Suresh Pathak from Bihar’s Arrah district, a contract worker at Suzuki Powertrain.

Madan Yadav claims he was two days late in returning from home, in UP’s Mau district, after a week’s stand-down at the Suzuki Powertrain factory. “My gate pass, originally valid for seven months, was cancelled and now I’m here since June, waiting to see if they’ll take me back,” the 20-year-old says.

The men here have many tales of workers sacked for missing a day’s work. There are no concessions for illness or any unproductive absence. Neither are there any channels to communicate with the management. The contractor is the only point of contact, they say.

Siddiqui says there is interaction between the management and workers. Yet, from the building near the blighted factory, the message is unequivocal: The contract workers who contribute heavily to India Inc’s balance sheets have very few rights. The right to silently suffer is one such.

(The names of contract workers have been changed to protect their identity)