Union struggle and the law in Gurgaon

A short introduction to the Industrial Disputes Act and some general thoughts on union-related local problems, with a detailed look at two struggles.

Submitted by Steven. on February 22, 2010

Examples from Amtek (Automobile) and Fashion Express (Textile) in Gurgaon
First we give (A) short overview on the legal constraints, then there will (B) some more thoughts on problems of union struggle in the area, in the last part you will (C) how these problems play out during two examples of more or less recent industrial disputes.

(A) The Law

The following is a rough extraction from the Industrial Dispute Act, 1947, giving some background of the legal framework in which strikes in India take place. Theoretically any group of workers with a common cause (which has to be legally accepted as a cause for industrial dispute, e.g., wages, unfair dismissals) can raise an industrial dispute. The group of workers need not be union affiliated, but has to comprise at least 1/12 of the total work-force of the company. If the company and workers or union cannot settle the dispute by negotiations, workers have to address a Conciliation Officer, engage in voluntary arbitration or finally address the Labour Court and Tribunal. The government has the legal opportunity to refer the dispute to the Labour Court.
A strike is prohibited while conciliation proceedings are pending before a Board and seven days after the conclusions of such proceedings. The same is valid during proceedings before a Labour Court or Tribunal and two months after conclusions of such proceedings. A strike has to be announced 14 days before it starts, and it must not start later than six weeks after notice has been given. In the “national interest” the government can declare a strike illegal (the scope of the “national interest” could be seen when the state government of Tamil Nadu wanted to illegalise the strike at Toyota car plant in 2006 “in the interest of the nation”). Striking workers have no legal right to prevent (strike-breaking) employees from entering the plant, or to obstruct goods, trucks, etc. from leaving it. Neither have workers the legal right to use or enter the place of work if they “have no intention to carry out their work” (sit-in strike).

(B) The problems of union struggles

Some specific local factors aggravate the problems of union organisations. In the Gurgaon belt mainly the bigger factories or companies have a union representation. In summer 2006 AITUC reportedly has about 30-35 unions in the Gurgaon belt, HMS has about 15-20 unions (eg. Lomax, Deep Autos), CITU has about 15 unions in the area. This is a small minority. To this adds that in India unions often only represent the permanent workers on the shop-floor, which in many industries in the Gurgaon-Faridabad area account for less than 30, 20, … per cent. Classical forms of representation and the main aims of unions (‘defending the market value of a specific group of work-force’) is less applicable when it comes to mobile contract and migrant workers, who tend to switch between locations, sectors, modes of employment. In times of confrontation the unions in the area tend to fight for their permanent members, sometimes at the cost of workers hired through contractors or other ‘casual’ workers.
The legal restrictions and the vast supply of potentially strike-breaking work-force (migrants from the country-side etc.) and - at least in the textile and smaller industries - the mobility of industries (the possibility to shift plants and units within the area) undermine most traditonally lead struggles. A lot of openly and legally lead strikes (necessary for the organisation’s recognition or reputation) end in lock-out situations and in the repression of workers by capital and state. Often companies make use of or even provoke a strike/lock-out situation in order to change the existing composition of work-force or capital in their favour.

(C) Examples of recent industrial disputes: Amtek and Fashion Express

Attack on workers at Amtek Siccardi India Ltd. (ASIL), Manesar on 6 June 2006

Overview on company structure
According to the company website (www.amtek.com) the Amtek Group of Companies is a $650 million global auto component company with 25 manufacturing facilities in Asia, US and Europe. It is the largest flywheel ring gear manufacturer in the world. It is a tier 1 supplier to major auto makers around the world.
The company started manufacturing in Sohna, India in 1987. Forging operations in Gurgaon started in 1993. In 1997 a joint-venture with the Japanese company Benda Kogyo Limited was forged. Since then Amtek bought or merged with various medium-sized (European) automobile suppliers, starting in 1999 with the collaboration with Ateliers de Siccardi of France.
In 2006 Amtek has about a dozen plants in the Gurgaon area and the international group consist of, amongst others: Amtek Gears Inc., located in Bay City, Michigan (USA); Amtek Aluminium Castings UK Ltd., GWK Amtek Ltd. (UK), Lloyds (Brierley Hill) Ltd. (UK), Midwest Mfg. Co. (US), Sigmacast Iron Ltd. (UK), Zelter Gmbh. (Hennef, Germany).
Amtek supplies parts to many automobile companies, for example: Ashok Leyland Limited, Aston Martin, Bajaj Auto Limited, BMW, CNH Global, Eicher Motors Ltd., Escorts, Fiat India, Ford, General Motors, Hero Honda, Hindustan Motors, Honda Scooters, Hyundai, Jaguar, John Deere, JCB, Kawasaki, Land Rover, Mahindra & Mahindra, Maruti Suzuki, MG Rover, Piaggio, Saab, Scania, Tata Motors, Toyota, and Yamaha Motors India.

Chronology of the Dispute
In hindsight it is difficult to trace the reasons for why on the 6th of June 2006 about 20 permanent workers and CITU union members got beaten up by paid goons or, as other sources say, by workers hired through contractors on the behalf of the management. Though the underlying reason for the attack is a longer dispute between the management of Amtek and the CITU union representatives, some elements of the dispute might have been on a rather personal level (some union members got dismissed for allegedly not paying their company phone bill, etc.). Central to the incident is the fact that Amtek, a huge international automobile company, uses this kind of repression in order to enforce discipline at the workplace. Some characteristics of the dispute question certain union forms of struggle: the union having to get engaged in struggles (and risking workers being beaten up) in order to defend or re-instate their official leaders; the complete division if not hostility between permanent workers and workers hired through contractors; the use of the media in order to create pictures of martyrs. We give a short chronology of the incident.

Events leading up to June 6th:
On 14 April 2006, two workers of ASIL had a scuffle outside ASIL premises on the road near Denso (another auto part supplier) regarding a private matter of money loaned to some workers who worked as casuals at ASIL. This happened as they were coming to duty. The casual workers went to the company and reported this incident. Thereafter, ASIL gave a verbal notice to two workers, transferring them from the Manesar unit to an Amtek unit in Gurgaon. Not having received a written notice, both workers showed up for work at the Manesar unit and were not allowed to enter the gates. According to the workers the transfer was legally incorrect, amongst other reasons because no written notice was given. When both workers were not allowed to enter the gates of ASIL at Manesar, the ASIL union (CITU affiliated) protested the matter.
Since 24 April 2006, 20 of the permanent workers were asked by the management to sit in the conference room/reception area and not allowed to enter the factory. They went to the Labour Office (LO) and to the management four times but management refused to compromise.
On 18 May 2006 there was a meeting with the Deputy Labour Commissioner (DLC) and an agreement was reached. However, when the workers reported to work the next day on 19 May 2006 they were still not allowed to go in. So the workers went back to the DLC, who sent them to the LO, but still there was no agreement.
On 5 June 2006 there was another meeting with the DLC with management and union representatives where Mr. Vikal, Personnel Manager, told the DLC and workers that management would broker an agreement the next day and asked the workers to meet them at 5:30 pm in the conference room/reception area.

The incident on June 6th:
When the workers showed up for the meeting on the 6th of June 2006, the gates of the factory were locked and two vehicles filled with goons were allowed to enter the factory premises; these goons encircled the ASIL workers and finally beat them up using saria and crank shafts that are manufactured at the plant itself. About 22 workers had to be sent to hospital.
One unionised worker reports in a conversation on the 7th of June 2006 that four local (Gurgaon) workers who got hurt had previously been targeted by management. Management has even asked the union to expel him as a member, so that management could then dismiss him from work.
In the local newspapers the management describes the incident from their point of view: ‘Said Baljeet Singh, factory manager at Amtek, “About 20 men went on strike after two of their colleagues were transferred from Manesar to Gurgaon. On Tuesday, the 6th of June, they entered the plant and started breaking things. They also hit our chief general manager on the head. Later, they managed to flee.” The management lodged a complaint against 12 workers on charges of beating the employees, while no complaint has been lodged by the workers against the management. The retelling of some unionists who have not been involved in the dispute puts both pictures together. They assume that negotiations between the CITU unionists and the Amtek management were going on, that then there was some physical fight, and that the management called in contract workers to beat up these permanent workers since goons could not be arranged at such short notice. Proof of this is (a) the so called goons came without weapons and used make-shift weapons such as saria and crankshafts, (b) there was ongoing tension between permanent and contract workers. They say now the permanent workers are afraid to go back to work and are refusing to return until a settlement is reached and they feel protected.
The strategy to charge workers with assault on policemen or managers after they have been beaten up by the latter is common practice in current disputes. In the subsequent court cases the charges against the workers are used in order to blackmail them to drop their charges against the police or managers. In order to react against the power of the law, unions and other workers’ organisations often try to use the media and the images of beaten up workers in order to win over public opinion. This is how the scene looked in Gurgaon Hospital during the night of June 6th:several known union leaders who had just arrived at the hospital and who knew little to nothing about the history of the dispute standing next to the beds of the beaten up workers, holding speeches surrounded by cameras and journalists.

Since 6 June incident:
On 10 June 1,000 workers gathered at KN Park in Gurgaon and marched to the DC’s office and submitted a memorandum and via the DC to CM Hooda (Central Minister of Haryana). On Monday June 19th unions planned to take out a big rally in IMT Manesar that culminated in front of the ASIL factory gates.

Factory Occupation at Fashion Express in March - April 2007

Overview on Company
The Fashion Express factory is situated in Udyog Vihar Phase 1, plot no.100 in Gurgaon. The company has two more factories, one of them in Manesar. In Udyog Vihar about 110 permanent workers are employed, in addition to 100 to 150 workers hired through contractors. The workers work six to seven days per week. The workday normally starts at 9 am and finishes at 8 pm. The permanents receive about 5,000 to 6,000 Rs per month the workers hired through contractors about 120 to 150 Rs per day. The company tailors clothes for export, mainly for the US. Buyers are companies like:
There are two major show-rooms in New York the company collaborates with. If the dispute would have carried on, a joint action with activists picketing these show-rooms would have been an important next step.

Florissant Fashion
209 West, 38th Street
1002 Estate or Suite
New York 10018

Jeevan LLC
214 West, 39th Street (or also 38th Street?)
1005 Estate
New York 10018

Chronology of the Dispute
According to a statement of the Fashion Express Karmchari Sangathan (union in Fashion Express) the conflict started when two women were sexually harassed by the factory owner. The women went to complain to the local police, but the police did not know what to do against the powerful owner. The women, the union and AITUC representatives went to court. The judge issued summons against Tejpratap Mamik and Gaurav Mamik, the owners of Fashion Express. On 22th of November 2006 the judge sent them into one-day custody.
On 24th of November 2006 the bosses suddenly and without considering legal processes sacked four union leaders and pressured one woman to ask for her final dues. The other woman was called to the office from home and also pressured to ask for final dues and to withdraw her case against the bosses. The union AITUC and Fashion Express Workers Union demanded a solution. Conflicts must have started earlier on given that the demand notice from the union was issued on the 11th of July 2006 and is still pending.
On 20th of March 2007 the permanent workers, represented by the union, stopped work and about 40 of the (women) workers stayed inside the factory. All workers hired through contractors left the factory, having to look for a different job. According to union officials the Fashion Express workers from Udyog Vihar tried to contact the workers in Manesar, but those workers were afraid of losing their jobs, so they kept on working. The union rep, when asked about the relationship between permanents and these workers hired through contractors: “We are separate from each other”. The workers in Manesar actually took over a lot of the work which could not be finished in Udyog Vihar. The clothes were then delivered in the name of Fashion Express.
In the following weeks joint rallies with AITUC members were organised; one took place in the Kamla Nehru Park in Gurgaon. About 500 union members from various companies took part (G4S, Honda HMSI etc.). The rally had the usual character of leaders speaking and members repeating slogans. Nevertheless it is possible to meet and talk to union members from different sectors, e.g.,, from Gurgaon Classical Golf Course. The AITUC had a long struggle to get recognised at the golf course; during the dispute it was closed for several months and some unionists were jailed. About 280 workers are employed on the course.
Concerning Fashion Express unfortunately we do not have any firsthand reports on the situation inside the occupied factory and how the struggle was organised there. This would be particularly important to know because of the fact that many women are employed at Fashion Express. In general (and this is a big difference to similar export sectors in Vietnam or China), the female wage employment in Northern India is low, in 2001 officially about 7 percent.
On the 8th of April about 150 police (wo)men were gathered outside the factory. The police threatened enter the premises and kick the workers out. The workers said that they would stay inside and defend themselves. In this situation the union, employers and the Deputy Labour Commissioner started to negotiate and finally signed an agreement (Section 12(3), a binding agreement). The agreement comprises the following points:
1) The pending annual increment of the last two years will be given to the workers on basis of their performance.
2) Three days wages which have been cut around 1st of May 2006 will be paid to all workers.
3) Annual leave will be increased from 8 to 10 days.
4) The four women workers who had been suspended are to be taken back on duty.
5) Issues related to bonus and annual tour (company leisure travel) will be solved by discussions with union.
6) The dismissal order against the union president and treasurer dated 24th of November 2006 will be taken back and converted into suspension. The management assures that if the atmosphere in the company remains good for one to one and a half months, they will be taken back on duty.
7) The days of strike/occupation will not be paid, “no work no pay.”
8) All workers will remain disciplined and make sure that full production will be given.
9) All legal complaints made by both sides will be taken back, and the complaints made by the women workers against the owner will be withdrawn, so that the atmosphere in the company will be congenial.
10) All issues of the demand notice given by the union on 11th of July 2006 have been resolved.
Work resumed on Monday, 9th of April. Some permanent workers say that only 60 of the former workers hired through contractors came back or were taken back. At the factory gate there is a sign saying that “tailors are wanted”. Unfortunately we have not managed to talk with either the women workers or the sacked workers from the contractors. The positive element of the dispute is that by staying inside the factory workers managed to avoid being bashed up by the police and thereby to enforce some demands. Problematic is the fact that the charge of sexual harassment was used as a negotiable issue and that most of the workers hired through contractors have lost their job due to the dispute. The ‘probation’ situation of the union representatives now puts additional pressure on workers to remain ‘disciplined’.