Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
Maruti Suzuki chairman RC Bhargava was perplexed at the company's shareholders' meeting on 28 August. He said he could not understand the rage behind the workers' riot at the Manesar plant last month, which even claimed the life of a manager. Osamu Suzuki, chairman of the company's Japanese parent told reporters there was need for 'introspection.'
Is it likely that conditions on the shop floor are actually quite oppressive and the famed Japanese style of management where workers deliver high performance and superior quality in a spirit of cooperation is as far from the authentic as Chinese cuisine adapted to the Indian palate?
A Ph.D thesis by a professor of Delhi's Sri Ram College of Commerce suggests this might be so. Annavajhula J C Bose studied labor relations in the national capital region's automobile industry between 1999 and 2004, till an attack on him (and a broken tooth) by those who thought he was a government official snooping around for illegal factories, made him give up the field study. Based on that study, and the findings of labor activists in the Gurgoan area, he submitted his doctoral thesis to B R Ambedkar Bihar University earlier this year.
The Indian automobile industry is hailed for 'world class' manufacturing practices. But do employment practices match? There is little study on the subject. Business journalists would much rather celebrate corporate honchos than write about lowly workers. Management consultants who advise on industrial relations seldom get their hands dirty. For economists, it is a down market research theme. Those, like Bose, who work up the enthusiasm, find the reception unwelcoming, even downright hostile.
Bose says no one replied to his emailed questionnaires except Toyota Kirloskar Motor, Bangalore (he seemed to have expanded his study beyond the NCR). Maruti Suzuki was suspicious and did not respond despite friendly recommendations. The public relations manager of that time said the company was 'more Japanese than the Japanese' but did not cooperate. The corporate planning manager said the company had turned down a student of the London School of Economics (so what chance did he stand?). An assistant director of the Automotive Components Manufacturers Association suggested a study of spurious spare parts instead!
The personnel manager of Munjal Showa called the security guards when told that Bose had come on the recommendation of a union leader who had been thrown out. He even threatened to 'smash' the research project by telling factories around that he was interviewing workers and managers. It was impossible to enter a factory unless it had a union and the office bearers took the author inside. Every factory was a prison guarded by security guards who were on contract and on move from one place to another. Those of Group 4 Securities were 'uncouth and rude'. Delphi has 116 rules of conduct. In Devi Lal Colony Bose was beaten up and lost a tooth as he was mistaken for an official on the prowl. He was in the vicinity of a building that was locked from outside but from where the sound of machines could be heard.
Bose says the human resource managers are not what they pretend to be. They have to do fire fighting because of frequent labor troubles. His chanced upon a bunch of HR managers of component companies undergoing training at the Management Development Institute, Gurgaon. The senior guys were secretive; those at the lower levels were less tongue-tied. But on the whole he got the impression that labor relations were a taboo subject like Aids or incest.
Bose met a Haryana labor inspector, courtesy of a union leader. He had a lavish lifestyle, much beyond his monthly salary of Rs 10,000 could afford. The official said he was supposed to facilitate entrepreneurship rather than inspect for labor law violations. Bose visited the homes of some workers. Those at the 'top-end' (on company payroll) had living spaces better than Bose's. The contract workers lived in 'appalling' conditions. At factories they rushed out like 'pack animals' during the short breaks they were given for tea or a smoke.
The workers themselves were not aware of their rights. All they could say was 'malik choosta hai' (owner sucks us white) without substantiation. The union leaders were unaware of unfair labor practices. Some of them played a double game of taking money from management. One of them was an old CPI (Communist Party of India) comrade who was in the business along with his son.
The automobile industry has three or four tiers of suppliers and two types of workers: core full time workers and peripheral part time workers. The former are highly skilled, have job security and are well looked after. The rest are on contracts, which can be rolled over or abridged any time. They do repetitive work and are paid low. There is a great deal of redundancy. The contract workers can be regular, temporary, trainee or apprentices. And they get a range of pay.
Employer-employee relations in India used to be quite adversarial, till the government broke the back of militant trade unionism led by the fiery Datta Samant in the 1980s, after the year-long Mumbai textile mill strike. With economic liberalization, employers got the upper hand. Even the judiciary is not kind to workers. In 2003, the Supreme Court said the resort to strike was not a fundamental right.
Japanese companies are supposed to walk the 'high road' of industrial relations where, in exchange for lifetime job security, workers pledge to deliver on time, high quality products with the least wastage ('getting it right the first time, every time). Bose says they have taken the 'low road' in India, seeking competitive advantage in low wages.
Bose does not hide his affinities. In fact he declares them boldly. 'Although a researcher is supposed to be neutral and dispassionate in relating to respondents, this criterion of research methodology is too academic, nay plastic, to get organically nearer to the workers,' he says. 'While doing fieldwork, we got thickly entangled in the protracted struggles and resistance of workers against their employers,' he adds. 'That was the way for us to get emotionally closer to the workers who would not open up unless they were sure of the researcher's genuine concern for them.'
Unlike 'the priests and prostitutes of neo-classical economics teaching equality between capital and labor or the mendacious corporate whores and B-school pimps' who see virtue in 'world class lean manufacturing' techniques, he sees 'repression and superexploitation' in the Indian automobile industry.
The use of epithets certainly do not burnish Bose's credentials as an academic. But why were the HR executives secretive? Did Bose wear his bias on his sleeves, or did they have something to hide? What if conditions on the automobile shop floor are such as to provoke anger? If mere observation can work up such rage in an academic, think of the workers who have to put up with the ignominy of a seven-and-a-half minute tea break. Perhaps that explains their murderous rage.