Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Labour Rights’ Category

Why gymmers should swap roles with workers

In Labour Rights, Lifestyle, Satire, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:52 pm

In his memoir of running, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami lists the advantages of running versus other kinds of sport: “First of all, you don’t need anybody else to do it, and no need for special equipment. You don’t have to go to any special place to do it. As long as you have running shoes and a good road you can run to your heart’s content.”

Evidently, Murakami, who runs a marathon every year, has never tried running in India. If he had, he would have known that there are cities where you do have to go to a special place to run (a park or a ground or a gym) because the roads are too crowded and too polluted.

So going for a run outdoors is not easy if you’re in an Indian city. I can say this with some assurance because I’ve run in most of the Indian metros. I began running on a regular basis as a student in Hyderabad. I lived in a big, green campus where there was no dearth of running tracks. My only problem was getting up early. If I woke up late, it would be too hot to run. In the evenings, it remained too warm to run even till 7 or 8 pm.

During vacation time I’d go home to Chennai, and try to keep up my running schedule. But invariably I would fail, and have to start again with lazy, temperamental muscles when I got back to the university. The problem: Chennai’s street dogs. Running isn’t much fun if you keep getting chased by a bunch of half-starved animals barking their guts out and snapping at your heels.

One of the better cities for running has been Pune. In the late nineties, it was ideal – clean air, not much traffic, lots of greenery. Those were my best running years, in terms of timing, distances, and sustained fitness level. The gentle slopes added variety. But precisely because it was such a great place to run, I pushed myself too hard, and the tarmac almost killed my knees.

I console myself with the thought that in this regard I’m in good company – the great Shoaib Akhtar also ruined his knees running on city streets, and was a goner before he played his first match for Pakistan. That he still managed to make an impact just goes to show what an extraordinary athlete he was.

After Pune ruined my knees, I quit running. It took almost a year of physiotherapy and some very expensive footwear before I could hit the streets again. But I had to mix my road-running with ‘softer’ runs on a treadmill.

But I get quickly bored on a treadmill – it’s the same scene in front of you from the time you get on the machine till you get off. You’re either looking at your own mug in the mirror or at a fogged up window.

Most people try to ward off the boredom with headphones. But whether it’s music you’re plugged into or Emily Dickinson, it cuts you off from your immediate physical environment. Which of course is no big deal considering that a treadmill is itself a form of withdrawal – from the very ground beneath your feet, and you bounce instead on a rolling belt of ground-substitute.

With most public recreational spaces either swallowed up by construction or usurped by private parties, Indian cities are not runner-friendly. So the well-heeled, those for whom running is a part of their daily fitness routine, end up going to a gym. When I see all these grim, sweating faces I can’t help but wonder what a criminal waste it is – all these people huffing and puffing, consuming energy (the treadmills in most high-end gyms run on electricity) in order to expend energy.

What if all those calories being burnt can somehow be captured and channeled to some power station which would then convert it into electricity? Wouldn’t that light up a few thousand villages at least? In fact, Gurgaon, which is facing an acute power crisis and also has several up-market gyms, should seriously explore this.
I’m serious, this isn’t as dumb an idea as it seems. At least no dumber than the way we live. On the one hand you have millions of people who are forced to do hard, manual labour to save themselves from starvation; and on the other, another million or so engage in intense physical exertion that consumes a lot of energy (their own and those produced from power plants) and produces nothing but sweat.

What if everyone who has to work out and is currently paying a gym for this privilege, volunteered to do hard manual labour (for example, by carrying cement at a construction site) for as much time every day as their exercise time, say 30-60 minutes? Or maybe put in some time at a factory in Manesar or Faridabad?
This would be a win-win for everyone concerned. You are happy – you get your workout for free and stay fit. The workers are happy to let someone relieve them for an hour or so. And your gym owner is happy because he can do some cost-cutting by switching the treadmills off and reducing his power bills. To top it all, it would also better acquaint India’s gymming class with the life of the working class. Now that’s a ‘labour reform’ and a healthcare masterstroke rolled into one. Are Santa and Banta listening?
G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi.He’s reachable at

Can India Inc. face the truth about the Manesar violence?

In Business, Labour Rights, Management, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on July 29, 2012 at 2:20 pm

It would be sad if the ghastly violence at Maruti Suzuki’s (MSIL) Manesar plant on July 18, 2012, in which a HR manager died, were to be understood simply as a ‘murderous workers’ vs ‘rational management’ kind of an incident. There is a history and a context to this violence, and how that is understood, and acknowledged, by India Inc. will indicate how serious we are about preventing such incidents in the future.

First of all, let’s begin with a game of call-a-spade-a-spade. When your profits go up by 2,200% over nine years (MSIL’s from 2001-02 to 2010-11), when your CEO’s pay goes up by 419% over four years (MSIL CEO’s from 2007-08 to 2010-11), when you get a 400% increase in productivity with just a 65% increase in your workforce (from 1992-2000), when your workers’ real wages increase by just 5.5% when the consumer price index rose by 50% (2007-11) (figures as reported by the researchers Prasenjit Bose and Sourindra Ghosh in The Hindu), when a worker can lose nearly half his salary for taking a couple of days leave in a month – you have a situation that free market economists are programmed not to register: extreme exploitation.

As per media reports, about 65% of MSIL’s workers in its Manesar campus are non-permanent – contract labour, apprentices, trainees, what have you. While the permanent worker gets a maximum of Rs17000 per month, the contract worker gets a maximum of Rs7000. The CEO gets a little more, about Rs.2.45 crore per annum (and this is a 2010-11 figure). And unlike the worker, who gets only two 7.5 minute tea/toilet breaks during an eight-hour shift, and has to run 150 metres to pick up his tea and snack, run another 400 metres to the toilet, drink tea and piss at the same time, holding his cup in one hand and you-know-what in the other, and run back to the assembly line before the seven minutes are up (as otherwise he could end up losing half a day’s pay), the top management does not, I think, get penalised if they spend more than 7.5 minutes at a time flooding the toilet.

The backstory

Apart from the physical and economic exploitation, what the workers were reacting to on July 18 was the sustained assault on their dignity. In 2011, there had been at least three confrontations – in June, September and October — between the workers and the management. All were totally non-violent. The workers had been agitating for an independent union in place of the ineffective ‘company union’ – the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU). After a lot of struggle, they registered the Maruti Suzuki Employees’ Union (MSEU) in October last year. But in the same month, the management reportedly got rid of the troublesome leadership of this union by offering them a VRS-type settlement.

The workers then formed a new union, the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union (MSWU) with a new set of committee members. It was this union which had been negotiating with the management through 2012 – for wage increases, for transportation facilities, slowing down the robotic pace of work, and regularisation of leave benefits.

But with the MSWU apparently making little headway in the negotiations, discontent was simmering among the workers. And on July 18, when a floor supervisor allegedly misbehaved with a Dalit worker (Jiyalal), and instead of the supervisor getting pulled up, the worker got suspended, the new union was expected to deliver – to get Jiyalal reinstated. And when it began to look like they wouldn’t be able to, violence broke out.

The management has said that the workers unleashed the violence. The workers say that the management instigated it by getting hundreds of bouncers to attack the workers, who responded to that attack. But nobody seems to know what exactly happened. The truth might be closer to what a labour activist describes as a combination of karna, karwana and hone dena.

The permanently temporary worker

At the heart of this whole mess is India Inc.’s love for contract labour. My research tells me that manufacturing cars is not a seasonal enterprise – it happens round the year; nor is assembling a car in a factory incidental to the making of a car – it is not like gardening or mopping the factory floor; nor is it something that can be done with a few dozen workers. According to the law of the land – the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, and Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Central Rules, 1971, it is illegal to employ contract labour where “work is perennial and must go on from day to day”, “where the work is necessary for the work of the factory”, and “where the work is sufficient to employ considerable number of whole time workmen.”

It is the employer’s responsibility to follow the law, and the government’s responsibility to ensure that it is not violated. Not even the MSIL management can deny that they have been using temporary workers for permanent, core, production work. And this is not something that happens in this one plant of Maruti Suzuki. In the entire NCR region – in Manesar, Gurgaon, Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Noida – where there are thousands of factories of all sizes that carry out manufacturing work round the year, the average percentage of permanent workers in the total workforce is 15%. About 85% of the workforce is made up of non-permanent labour. And non-permanent labour includes contract workers, apprentices, trainees, etc. — add all of them and the percentage of temporary workers becomes as high as 95% in many factories. And these workers remain ‘temporary’ for years and years. I guess you could say that corporate India’s favourite worker is the permanently temporary one.

It wasn’t always this bad. The percentage of contract labour as a proportion of the total workforce doing core manufacturing work has been steadily rising since 1991, the year liberalisation began, and today, the informalisation and fragmentation of what used to be formal or organised labour has reached absurd levels. What this means, in human terms, for the workers, is exploitation of a kind that is not much different from slave labour.

To take a simple example, many factories have what is called the ‘night shift’ and the ‘full night shift’. The ‘night shift’ is from 9am to 1am and the ‘full night shift’ is from 9am to 5 am, resuming again at 9am. Yes, 16-hour and 20-hour shifts are pretty common in the NCR, about as common as the rampant violation of labour laws. And yet, we never hear about the appalling condition of India’s working class, or about how India Inc. routinely breaks the nation’s labour laws with impunity and gets away with it. Or is it possible that this is how we want most of our fellow Indians to live? We seem to care more about one Indian winning an Olympic gold than 700 million Indians living like insects in a drain. All we hear, instead, is how ‘labour law reforms’ are necessary to improve the ‘investment climate’.

Before and after Manesar

Such extreme exploitation is bound to trigger unrest at some point, and the Manesar violence is only the latest in a long series of worker conflagrations that we have seen in the past decade – in Honda Motors, Rico Auto, Orient Craft, EIRO, Pricol and many others. And they are not exclusive to NCR – similar unrest has been seen in other parts of the country as well, and they are only set to spread even more. There are four simple take-aways from all of this:

One: the growing irrelevance of the union. The workers’ unions can only represent the permanent workers. The vast majority of the workers are temporary ones, and the union means little to them, as it does not represent them. The union has traditionally been a management tool to control the workers. But in this scenario, where the union has little leverage, the management either has to play it straight (pay fair wages, give decent working conditions and benefits) or call bouncers and goons to control the workers.

Two: there is a clear nexus between the state and the corporate managements. The two have come together to maximize the exploitation of the worker. Haryana, where Manesar is located, has not even bothered to constitute the legally mandated board that is supposed to oversee the enforcement of the Contract Labour Act. The labour department is conveniently understaffed, and the cops, like cops everywhere, protect the exploiter from the exploited.

According to the workers, not just cops, but also bouncers, local goons, private security agencies, intelligence agencies (take a wild guess who put out the story about the ‘Naxal hand’ in the incident), and even the local village headmen (many of whom are huge beneficiaries of the recent industrialisation of the area – having made money from selling part of their land holdings, from renting out accommodation to workers, from getting into the transportation business, ferrying goods and material to and from the factories, as labour contractors, and other kinds of ‘middleman’ services) have been enlisted to ‘fix’ the ‘troublesome’ workers.

Three: the average factory worker in the NCR today, particularly in Manesar, is a new breed. Corporate India is very clear what it wants: absolute control over the Indian worker. But factory workers of today are not like those workers of 20-30 years ago. They are mostly ITI-trained diploma holders, young, in their twenties, mobile-savvy, net-savvy, and don’t have the time for good old ‘Down with Capitalism’ kind of sloganeering. They don’t care for the ‘communist’ stuff any more than your standard issue MBA. Though they have been hired as contract labour, unlike, say, construction workers, they are not from dirt poor backgrounds. Many are from lower-middle or middle-middle class families; they are exposed to the mall-bound luxuries of Shining India, and they want their rightful share of the GDP they busted their ass to produce. And: they care about their dignity more than they care about their jobs, and that’s easy, because they don’t really have a job anyway – they are temporary workers hired by a contractor, see?

And when such a worker is pushed to breaking point – not just worked to the bone, but taunted and humiliated, he is liable to lash out blindly. And when that happens, you get what happened at MSIL’s Manesar plant last week. It is not a rational or premeditated action – they gained nothing from it. Such violence serves no purpose. In fact, most of them are now busy hiding from the cops. But that is the nature of a rebellion – it is not calculated, it is not rational. And that is how we must understand the Manesar eruption: as a workers’ revolt.

Four: Capitalism is not sustainable without an independent union. If you look at the so-called golden period of capitalism in the 20th century, the US after the New Deal, up to the time Reagan and Thatcher came on the scene, it was a period marked by strong independent unions that managed to get the workers a decent standard of living, and Capital was forced to keep its ‘social contract’, as it were, with Labour. But then, this period, from the 1940s to the early 1980s, was also the period when communism had to be kept at bay; it was the period when capitalists had to show the world that capitalism is a better system for everyone (and not just capitalists) than any other system.

But today, of course, there is no alternative to capitalism, or so the masters of the universe want us to believe. And they also want us to believe there is no need for an independent union because they have a right to squeeze the worker as much as they want, and can. But history – and countless management studies – has shown time and again that a union which enjoys the confidence of the workers is the best tool that management can ever have to ‘control’ the workers. Hire temporary workers, take the union out of the picture – well, you’ll rake in super-profits for a while, but you’re going to have to pay a heavy price later in terms of worker unrest, and the kind of incident we saw at Manesar last week.

Yes, it is true that India’s labour legislation right now is a total mess. We have about 55 central labour laws and more than a 100 state laws, and they are all mostly observed in the breach. It is also argued that these laws make it unreasonably difficult to lay off a worker, and this is cited as the reason why employers want to keep their permanent workers to the bare minimum. The legislation in question here is the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, which requires companies employing more than 100 workers to seek government approval before firing anybody or closing down.

While this provision should be debated, with equal participation from all the stakeholders, India Inc. needs to look at it less as an unpleasant provision to be eliminated or circumvented, and more as a necessary reminder that a business enterprise always has a social dimension that is as important as profit, and which it ignores at its own peril. Trample on workers’ livelihood and dignity, and your profit is basically blood money – it won’t say so in the balance sheet or the P&L statement, but it will show up somewhere, later, if not sooner. It could be the money you pay to bouncers and private security agencies; or the money you spend on surveillance equipment; it could be an expensive lockout; or it could be the brain tumour caused by all the curses of your downsized workforce; or it could even be the death of one of your managers.

Instead of shedding crocodile tears about the worsening ‘investment climate’, the oligarchs who make up Indian Inc. and their MBA underlings would do well to engage in some soul-searching. For a change, they can ask themselves: Should I continue to treat the Indian worker simply as a cost factor that has to be reduced to zero, or can I treat them with a little more respect, so that they too can live, and work, with dignity?


G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi. He is reachable at

Book review: A Free Man

In Book Reviews, Culture and Society, Labour Rights, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 9:54 am

Published: Sunday, Aug 14, 2011, 14:00 IST | Updated: Sunday, Aug 14, 2011, 0:37 IST 
By G Sampath | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Book: A Free Man
Aman Sethi
Random House
224 pages
If newspapers and magazines were all that you read, you could end up thinking your city was built by builders, run by administrators, and inhabited only by people who work in offices and live in ‘societies’.
This is to be expected in a culture dominated by advertising-funded mass media, where telling stories about the bottom 30% of the population is not a commercially viable proposition. As a result, India’s vast working class — mistrysbeldarskarigarsmazdoor, rickshaw-pullers, plumbers — has largely been rendered invisible. They are everywhere you see, and yet, nowhere seen.
In A Free Man, Aman Sethi illuminates the lives of a few of these invisible men. As he does so, he doesn’t try to keep himself in the shadows either. The light falls where it will, without the forced pretensions of ‘journalistic objectivity’.
The main subject of this remarkable work of reportage is Mohammed Ashraf, a 40-year-old safediwallah (painter) and construction worker. Sethi, a journalist with The Hindu, first encounters Ashraf while working on a story about construction workers. Subsequently, when he needed a labourer for a research project he’d taken up on “the life of the labourer”, he goes back to Ashraf.
Sethi’s narrative is held together by his attempts to interview Ashraf. Over a period of time, he forms a bond with Ashraf and his labourer friends — the crazy Lalloo, the muscular Rehaan, the dying Satish, Kaka the tea seller, and many others. He smokes with them, drinks with them, gets stoned with them, and becomes more involved in the lives of his subjects than a journalist might be expected to, something that is impossible to avoid when professional interest develops into a human relationship.
Sethi, a South Delhi youth on his way to an American university, wants Ashraf to tell him everything about his life — when and where he was born, who his parents were, where he grew up, how he ended up as a daily wage worker in Delhi. But Ashraf is too ebullient a character to comply meekly with his demands. Sethi wants to pin Ashraf’s life story down with a ‘timeline’. But the ‘free man’ of the story is as elusive as a butterfly, and refuses to be fitted into the reporter’s notebook.
What we get instead are revealing vignettes of a daily wager’s life — from the secret pockets stitched into their clothes, to their unconventional banking arrangements, to their vulnerability to the kidney mafia.
In what is perhaps the most surreal section in the book, Sethi describes his encounter with Sharmaji, a raiding officer for the Department of Social Welfare. Sharmaji’s job is to catch beggars and have them tried and punished at the Beggars Court in north Delhi. And he is under a lot of work pressure because his department has to make Delhi “beggar free in time for the Commonwealth Games in 2010.”
Sharmaji is proud of his department’s latest acquisition in biometric technology, the Beggar Information System or BIS 2.1. The machine will store the details of every beggar ever arrested by him — name, place of birth, fingerprints, etc — so that “recidivists will no longer fool the judge by claiming that they got off a train in Delhi, were robbed of all their possessions, and were begging to get enough money to go back home.”
But sadly, the BIS 2.1 has some serious flaws, such as its scanner, which, “as befitting any high-tech gadget — was extraordinarily sensitive to dust.” It worked best when recording images of clean thumbs. “‘But these beggars,’ the exasperation in Sharmaji’s voice is palpable, ‘their hands are so dirty, so filthy, that the scanner just cannot pick up the image.’” So they started washing their hands before registering and fingerprinting them. But that took too long. “The department also tried bathing them — but, after a bath, the beggars look ‘just like anyone else’. How then can the judge make the decision?”
It might come as a surprise to many, but Ashraf, ‘just’ a construction worker, has all the complexity of a character in a Henry James novel. He has had a troubled past, doesn’t always know what he wants, and works against his own interest on the few occasions life gives him a chance. It is to Sethi’s credit that he manages to write about a man like Ashraf without seeking to explain him away.
Strangely enough, the most poignant passage in the book appears after Sethi has extracted from Ashraf what he had wanted right from Day 1 — the ‘timeline’ of his life. By then, five years have passed. Ashraf is now in a TB hospital, weakened by the disease, exhausted by the treatment.
Having surrendered the timeline, the labourer tells the journalist, “That’s it, Aman bhai. Now you know everything about me — sab kuch. Like a government form: name, date of birth, mother’s name, place of residence, everything. Our faces are pasted in your notebook, our voices are locked in your recorder — me, Lalloo, Rehaan, Kaka, JP Pagal, everyone. Now you know everything. What will we talk about if we ever meet again?” By thus foregrounding the underlying instrumentality of the journalist’s interest in the labourer, Ashraf retains his dignity even when all has been taken from him.
About 93% of India’s working population belongs to the unorganised sector, and people like Ashraf would figure close to the bottom of this 93%. Indeed, the labourer class exists in the consciousness of the country’s elite more as statistic and subject of policy debates, than as living people with names and even lives. The achievement of Sethi’s book is to extract a person from that statistic and paint his life in all its tragic, funny, and moving humanness.