Gurgaon Workers News #37 - April 2011

Gurgaon workers newsletter issue 37, with news, reports and analysis from India's special exploitation zone.

Submitted by wojtek on December 27, 2011

Position Paper on Potential for Wage Struggle Offensive in Gurgaon – Delhi Industrial Belt / April 2011

Without artificial optimism or propagandistic attitude we can say that the development of both ‘industrial climate’ and working class experience in the Delhi industrial belt have created the general condition for a larger wave of wage struggles. Obviously there is no ‘historic inevitability’, but there are many historic indicators asking: “When, if not now?”

During the last half year the combination of general inflation leading to real wage decline and continuation of ‘full capacity’ production in most local companies has created a palpable tension within a spatially concentrated and industrially integrated work-force. The long working-hours and overtime, which meant to compensate low wages, have reached human physical limits. A large majority of workers remains outside of the institutionalised wage regime of trade union mediation, in most cases the legal frame-work of state defined minimum wages does not apply. On a local level we have witnessed sporadic, but partly successful ‘autonomous’ workers’ struggles, still limited to the company level. On a similar wider background the wave of wage strikes in China last year have set a reference point.

We think that the emergence of independent wage struggles have the potential to bring forward a ‘general wage demand’, which can become a reference point beyond a single company. Under given conditions, struggles around this ‘wage demand’ have the potential to express not mere ‘economic needs’, but a general social discontent, a balance of forces between a new generation of workers and a hated urban factory system. There is a correspondence between their ‘equal condition’ within modern industry, the necessity of ‘direct forms of self-organisation and coordination of struggle’ and an ‘egalitarian and generalising’ demand. In the following we want to have a short look at the general conditions, the current policy of state and trade unions to economically and politically integrate the ‘wage question’ and the specific situation according to different local industries.

Objective Conditions

We can say that the general inflation is out of control of the ‘political managers of capital’. Global oil prices, and more so, global streams of ‘hot money’ bubble up inflation rates not only in India, but the wider ‘emerging markets’. Most ‘anti-inflationary’ policies, e.g. curbing influx of short term investment, would endanger the financial base of ‘stimulus policies’ and choke off the little recovery there is. In form of inflation the ‘stimulus costs’ (lowering of custom duties, tax relieve for industry etc.) are passed on to the working class, which has to face real wage losses. General annual inflation is at ten per cent, but higher when it comes to the main working class expenditures like food, transport and rent. In mobile and labour intensive sectors like garment and call centre industry, wages are ‘global wages’ in a direct sense, any major changes will immediately re-shift their global position. The local automobile industry is under ‘full steam’, but operating with enormous ‘cost pressures’ at shrinking profit margins. This is the wider systemic pressure on wages. In addition to the general inflation we have to raise the issue of specific local price developments which impact on workers’ wages, e.g. room rents tend to increase in the rhythm of any little absolute wage increase there is. This has to be taken into account when it comes to ‘defending wages’ on the extended terrain of the reproductive sphere.

Economic and Political Integration

The national trade union demonstration against price increase which took place on 23rd of February in Delhi was a symbolic event, but it revealed the fundamental division of labour between state and trade unions to economically and politically integrate the wage question. All major trade unions mobilised nationally for a ‘March on Parliament’, only around 40,000 to 60,000 people followed the call. Factories in the Delhi industrial belt ran smoothly that day. The demonstration consisted of mainly white collar workers (banking sector, public employees) over 50 years of age and the occasional construction workers who had been mobilised as foot soldiers. The following day after this tame and rather minoritarian ‘protest’, the Delhi state government announced a 15 per cent increase in the NCR (Delhi state region) minimum wage. A clear sign to the wider class: if you stick to democratically contained forms of protest you might gain something. Without drawing too much of parallels this move has to be seen on the background of the ‘inflationary’ unrest in North Africa. It has also to be seen on the background of the historical function of trade unions apparatus as transmission belts of not only ‘economic function’, but also political integration. With declining legitimacy of the state, ‘organically’ the main ‘democratic sphere’ remains the working class terrain. Again and again the union apparatus brings forth the ‘institutionalised representation’ necessary to ‘re-make state power’ (from times of ‘democratic transition’ in Spain, Poland etc. to currently in countries like Tunesia, where in lack of ‘political opposition’ the old trade union apparatus initially fulfills this function).

The decision to increase the Delhi minimum wage has resulted in a wide official wage gap between Delhi region and bordering industrial areas in Haryana (Faridabad, Gurgaon, Manesar etc.). Minimum wages for unskilled industrial labour in Delhi is 6,084 Rs / 234 Rs (monthly wage based on 8 hours and one weekly holiday / daily wage), while Haryana wage is 4,503 Rs / 173 Rs. Any worker knows that in the majority of cases minimum wages are not paid, neither in Delhi nor in Haryana, nevertheless the gap will increase general wage pressure from below, while at the same time already setting an official boundary. In that sense the decision of Delhi government is not a merely populist measure, it is political sign, material containment and part of regional industrial policy of structuring wage zones. In Haryana we have reached a current stage where the wages for the ‘employment scheme’ MNREGA (labour intensive ‘welfare’ scheme for the rural poor, digging canals etc.) are higher than the minimum wage for industrial workers (179 Rs for MNREGA / 173 Rs minimum wage). This is actually mainly due to electoral policies, an official way to buy votes from rural poor, less an attempt to attract industrial workers for village work – most industrial workers are registered in other states anyway.

While the state sets the frame-work of the wider legal wage regime and adjusts it to general economic plan and crisis policies, the trade unions mediate the wage question on the level of individual enterprises. Just to give the example of the union at Honda HMSI in Gurgaon. No one will deny the ‘genuine character’ of the union, it has been fought for with blood, it has not been established as a company union, no one will approach them with betrayal. Since it has been recognised in 2005, wages of the permanent workers – the union members – have quadrupled: before May 2005 permanent workers used to get around 6,900 Rs, current wages are around 30,000 Rs plus, including incentives and bonuses. At the same time permanent workers have become a minority in the plant. In 2005 there were 1,200 permanent, 1,600 trainees, 1,000 workers hired through contractors and 400 apprentices. Today there are 1,800 permanent workers and 6,500 workers hired through contractors in production departments, plus around 1,500 workers hired through contractors for cleaning, canteen, driving etc.. The temporary workers in production get around 6,800 Rs per month, less than a quarter of their permanent work-mates. The permanent workers have retained mainly supervisory positions. As part of the union-management wage agreements the permanent workers’ wages contain a large share of productivity bonus. The company wants to make them ‘benefit’ from the increased work load which has been imposed on the shoulders of the temporary work-force. The actual material power of the union has decreased, they compensate the decline by making themselves important managers of the wage hierarchy – not as ‘one act of sell out’, but as result of trade union’s essential character within the wider process of re-structuring of class relations. On this background we will also have to reflect on the ‘glorious defeats’ of recent struggles for union
recognition, e.g. at Rico or Denso.

Conditions and Experiences of Workers’ Struggles

The temporary work-force is not represented by unions. They have no major interest in company based long-term wage agreements, they shift jobs frequently between companies and between sectors. They have an objective interest in the wider wage conditions. Unlike their parent generation they also show little interest in ‘saving money’. Buying a plot of land and building a house in the area is out of reach, their interests are more immediate: mobile phones, some leisure, as far as wages allow it. These factors have forced temporary workers to struggle outside of the trade union framework.

This is a general background for very specific conditions of struggle, differing according to economic cycles of various sectors and specific industrial organisation of work-force both on the basis of sector and individual companies. Let’s briefly focus on the differences between three main sectors in Gurgaon area – meaning call centre, garments and automobile industry.

In the call centre sector, workers were able to increase wages on an individual level by changing jobs frequently. This possibility was limited to the international english-speaking call centres and only as long as there was a significant demand. Since end of 2008, with the US and European crisis, wages decline. Call centre wage levels in the US have come down to an extend which passes on wage pressure to the regions of outsourcing like Gurgaon. What remains is a big wage gap between domestic and international call centres. Workers in domestic call centres hardly earn more than industrial workers – around 7,000 Rs – while in international call centres wages are still double to three times as high. In March 2009 workers at Sparsh call center in Gurgaon stopped work for three days, asking for higher wages. They earned 4,800 Rs at the time. This is one of the few collective steps we heard about.

In the garment industry workers are subjected to harshly fluctuating cycles – enormous work loads during times of orders, followed by temporary lay offs. The work-force is mainly segmented along the line of individual qualification, which is also expressed in the division between piece-rate for mainly skilled tailors and monthly wages for helpers. We have seen many short and temporarily successful strikes by skilled tailors to enforce better piece rates when new orders come in. We haven’t seen collective steps about the question of subsequent 16 hours shifts followed by temporary lay-offs which result in lower average monthly wages. The bargaining power based on individual skill is increasingly undermined. We have seen only few examples of wage struggles which managed to bridge piece-rate / monthly wage or skilled / unskilled divisions on a company level. The potential for generalisation of struggle in an industry which is as little intertwined as the garment industry is low – apart from the occasional insurrection. The fact that in Gurgaon, and particularly in Manesar, garment industry and automobile industry are spatially concentrated in the same areas will be of importance.

Wage levels and working times in garment and automobile industry vary little, whereas the industrial structure does significantly: more or less continuous production flow within assembly plants and within network of hundreds of supplying companies, sensitive to any interruption – see decline of Honda HMSI output during trouble at various suppliers during 2010 (AG Industries etc.). Within the companies a more or less equalised mode of production of assembling or machine operating work. A product which is presented as the highest form of individual consumption in a modern society, but which remains outside of reach of local producers. The local struggles within the metal and automobile industry in recent years have expressed the material potential for generalisation, despite the fact that most of them remained confined to company grounds. We only want to give a few examples.

Demanding amongst others higher wages temporary workers at Hero Honda Gurgaon occupied the plant for several days in 2006. After the end of the occupation workers at Hero Honda supplier Shivam Autotech stopped work and raised wage demands, referring to permanent workers’ wages at Shivam plant in Binola. Wages at Binola plant had been raised by 900 Rs during the trouble at Honda HMSI factory in 2005 without workers putting forward any demand – so much about the relation between general pressure and wage increase and the question of the necessity of formal settlements. In 2007 a series of wildcat strikes irrupted in automobile suppliers after minimum wages had officially been increased, but not passed on by company management: On 3rd of August 2007 around 2,000 temporary workers struck at Delphi, on 8th of August workers at Maharani Paints, on 9th of August at Shyam Elanyaz, on 10th of August workers refused to take old wages at Sanden Vikas and workers stopped work at Talbros. This series of short ‘spontaneous’ strikes continued, seemingly without organisational links. The most recent ‘chance’ of generalisation emerged during the 24 hours wildcat strike at Honda HMSI in December – the question of temporary contracts could have been raised on a wider level. There have been a lot of short strikes in various companies in March 2011 (Eastern Medikit, Concept Clothing etc.), either because wages were not paid in time or wages were not increased after the minimum wage hike in Delhi. So far the ‘attraction’ of these strikes remain limited to the company arena. In the April issue of FMS we will call for a workers’ meeting in Okhla – where most of these strikes have taken place – in order to discuss the experiences.

Any debate about ‘generalisation’ of struggles has to be based on these specific conditions and experiences, otherwise they turn into hot air. Once we look at the wider historical framework, e.g. the last round of large scale wildcat wage strikes during the 1970s in the US and Western Europe, we can see that workers had to find forms of self-organisation based on their specific conditions: they had to develop ways to make antagonistic use of the wider social industrial character of their work in order to ‘generalise’ their struggles. The emergence of a general wage demand then became an organic expression and further catalyst, a rallying point and an expression for both, the egalitarian forms of organisation and of desires. In the industrial struggles on the 1970s these wage demands questioned the working class internal hierarchies between white and blue collar workers, the questioned the link with capital and capitalist productivity, they questioned the trade union institution in their ways to ‘settle wage demands’. The ‘wage struggle’ became a political struggle in both form and content: against the factory regime, for more money and less work, here and now.

What could be done?

The schematic thinking which separates into ‘economic and political struggles’ still prevailing in our circles results in problematic consequences. On one hand the ‘political ideological critique’ is applied externally: workers’ struggles are judged according to their superficial form as ‘economic’. Little effort is undertaken to analyse the wider ‘political context’ of these struggles or the ‘political forms and questions’ which emerge during any struggle. This approach leaves us in the coldness of ideological separation, the gap between ‘revolutionary class consciousness’ and day-to-day struggles become an unbearable task of enlightenment. When trying to bridge the gap to these ‘day-to-day struggles’, in many cases our initiatives become the utmost ‘economistic’/'legalistic’ themselves: focusing on labour laws and written agreements rather than direct workers’ power, relating mainly to trade union apparatuses and representatives rather than workers’ experiences, believing in the ‘generalising’ effects of general or transitional demands. This is only a logical consequence.

In the questions raised above we tried to sketch out the ‘material and political context’ for workers’ struggles: the global dimension (world market, global supply chains), the relation to state and law, the ‘capitalist promise of development’ vs. reality, the industrial social structure as bases for new forms of proletarian organisation, the mobility of workers and their problems in the ‘reproductive sphere’. On this bases workers’ struggle will neither be ‘spontaneous’, nor will they be able to remain ‘unpolitical’ – they will have to address the main social questions in their own language.

We will put forward the issue “500 Rs for an 8-hours day – We can’t do it for less’ in Manesar Industrial Model Town. Manesar is dominated by automobile industry, it is ‘integrated’ both in terms of industry – most companies are actually departments of Suzuki and Honda assembly plants – and work-force – most workers circulate within this condensed industrial area. We have discussed the issue with some workers employed in different companies. We will put it forward both in form of hand-written posters in the area and inside these companies. We will decide about further steps according to the debate which hopefully will emerge amongst workers in different factories.

There is obvious danger in ‘anticipation’. If we put forward the slogan ’500 Rs for 8 hours day – We can’t do it for less’ relating to a specific industrial area at a specific time, and if we propose to workers from various companies to meet in order to form committees, we do this with the explicit emphasise on the question attached: ‘But how can we enforce this’. We openly say that such slogan alone will neither free us from looking at our department or company specific conditions, nor do we have the illusion of a ‘final settlement’. It can help us to debate about concrete steps. Which steps will be specific, which steps can be common? What can we do inside the factory, what in the wider area? We see little danger in ‘pre-defining’ aims or forms of future struggles. It will help us debate about existing divisions. Even a ‘maximalist slogan’ like 500 Rs for an 8 hours day – which would quantitatively mean a 300 per cent wage increase for most workers and immediately addresses the question of 12-14-16 hours days predominating now – will hit the material fact that some permanent (unionised) workers earn more and might see the potential of unrest as threatening. The form of struggle – the development of a new social practice and atmosphere of ‘solidarity’ – will determine whether a ‘workers’ unity’ can emerge. One of the last myth of the institutionalised labour movement, that ‘organised unity’ is the precondition of and not a process within class struggle – will have to fall. We invite you for debate and for practical steps.