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Oct 21, 2009, 06.10 PM IST | Source: CNBC-TV18

What's causing the labour unrest in India?

The last few months has seen a sharp surge in worker protests in plants across the country. In Tamil Nadu, workers at Hyundai, MRF, and Nokia went on protest. So, what has led to this increase in worker protests?

Jayant Dawar, VP, Auto Component Manufacturer Association

The last few months has seen a sharp surge in worker protests in plants across the country. In Tamil Nadu, workers at Hyundai, MRF, and Nokia went on protest. Last month, a senior Human Resource Executive at Rico Auto died after having been attacked by workers. Now, work at the Gurgaon-Manesar auto belt of Haryana has come to a halt following the death of a worker in an alleged police firing. It is not just blue collar workers who have been aggressively asserting their rights or protesting and striking. Pilots of India’s biggest airlines like Jet Airways and Air India went on strike on separate occasions last month. So, what has led to this increase in worker protests?

Jayant Dawar, VP, Auto Component Manufacturer Association (ACMA), blames it on political parties trying to seek advantage in the recently held elections. “When elections were announced, politically motivated people came in and thought this was the best way to get their own publicity. They got the help of trade unions and started some kind of movement in which they said that they will feed the aspirations of normal people.”

However, Professor Sharad Bhowmik, Dean, School of Management & Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Studies, cites brutality of the state governments while quelling riots and the apathy of managements against trade unions. “The state government has been excessively oppressive on any section of the workers who have been protesting. In most cases, there is this whole apathy or hostility of managements for workers forming unions.”

Daksha Baxi, ED, Khaitan & Co, too shares Bhowmik view that there is an unhealthy relationship between managements and trade unions. He also sees a clear divide between organised and unorganised workers.

What can the government do?

Dawar says the auto body has been in talks with the government for the last three-and-half-months. He wants the government to implement labour reforms.

Baxi too shares Dawar view that labour reforms are the need of the hour. He feels companies must be empower to incentive performace and fire workers that are not productive.

Is low wages a reason for the unrest?

According to Dawar, salaries paid to workers in this area stand out as benchmark for the rest of India. “These are not workers who are paid less than normal wages or even normal wages or slightly higher than normal wages.”

What do managements say?

Surendra Choudhary, VP-HR, Rico Auto, says, “We have appealed to workers and sent out notices that the strike is prohibited. The matter is in court and everyone must follow what the court decides. Other than the 16 who were suspended, the rest should report to work. The workers want to come back but they are terrorized. If the terror stops, majority of them are willing to report back.”

Surinder Kapur, CMD, Sona Koyo, does not see things worsening. “I don't think things are going to get bad. I think these two units need to sort out their issues with their workforce. I don't think the other units have any issues with their workforce. Therefore, I don't think it's a widespread issue.”

Here is a verbatim transcript of their exclusive interview on CNBC-TV18. Also see the accompanying video.

Q: Is this a widespread malaise? We have seen repeated worker protests through the beginning of this year, what do you diagnose as the real reason behind what is going on right now?

Dawar: I disagree with what Kapur said that it is limited to one or two companies. I think it is much more widespread. We have been fighting this menace for a long time. We have been talking to the government for the last not 15 days but over three-and-a-half months now. We have been telling them that this situation in this entire belt is worsening as we speak. You are right to a certain extent when you say that is this wider problem. It is on account of aspirations.

But why is it different now and why is it different now in the belt of Gurgaon. I personally believe that its on account of the political scenario that has existed here in the last couple of months. When elections were announced, politically motivated people came in and thought this was the best way to get their own publicity. They got the help of trade unions and started some kind of movement in which they said that they will feed the aspirations of normal people. Haryana as a state is the most prosperous in the country when it comes to auto. More than 50% of the autos be it cars or motorcycles are produced here. More than 250 auto component manufacturers operate in this area. One thing that also stands out is that the salaries paid out to people in this area stand out as benchmark to the rest of other country, so this is not people who are paid less than normal wages or even normal wages or slightly higher than normal wages.

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