Maruti Suzuki: Workers’ Side of the Story

Workers of the Maruti Suzuki Manesar plant speak up about the events of 18th July 2012, and the repression that they have been facing since then. These workers were amongst the 500 permanent workers who were terminated in the aftermath of the fire.

The workers addressed a convention on 7th September organised by AICCTU and AISA.

Toiling for the Commonwealth

Ankit Sharma and Paresh Chandra

In the 19th century, the one time British Prime Minister, and renowned novelist, Benjamin Disraeli, wrote a novel called Sybil: The Two Nations; this was one of the first explorations of the polarisation of wealth and power that capitalism breeds, how inside a single country, coexist the fabled halls of plenty and extreme hunger. Today, in India, one does not even need to compare the metropolis and the margin (the “Maoist afflicted territories”) to comprehend the existence of two such nations – it is to be seen in the Capital itself.

 

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In the last decade the name of Delhi has become synonymous with “development”; fancy flyovers, expressways, wide roads, metro services, etc. symbolise the form of development that Delhi aspires toward – development that will make Delhi a “world class city” of the new millennium. And all this at the cost of neglecting completely, the fulfillment even of basic necessities of life for many living in and around Delhi. At present, it would seem on glancing at mainstream newspapers, that the development of a city is to be measured in terms of the number of shopping malls it has, or the number of millionaires, or the width of roads and so on – in short, everything which relates to the richer section of society. A supplement of one India’s leading dailies declares Delhi to be the city of the 21st century, moving ahead of other Indian cities like Mumbai and Kolkata. This declaration, ostensibly, is based on the one hand upon Delhi’s new born pride, the Metro, and on the other on the city’s status as the “melting-pot” of all Indian cultures (possibly because the industrial zones rising around Delhi attract workers from all over the country). Not a paragraph to bring out the conditions under which these workers live or labour.

With majority of the population, the labouring and languishing poor altogether out of contention, India indeed seems to be shining. Even if the class that actually reaps the benefits of such development comprises 10 per cent of the nation’s population, the number is still in excess of a 100 million. It is easy to stay within this constituency, represent and celebrate its interests, and still call oneself the representative (government, or daily) of a nation. Of course, there are times when even large sections of the richer nation inside India, the so-called middle classes are affected for the worse, by policy or development plans. But such is the inertia of their past comforts, and such is the influence of the state, that they are able to while away times of duress dreaming of riches to come. All their responses are programmed by the state, in forms the state can control, and in the final instance they are comfortable even in this relative discomfort, and they do not feel pressed to speak up.

 

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Coming to the immediate, we find that all of Delhi’s resources are being invested to prepare for the staging of the Commonwealth Games; all of the city’s development plans are spread around this event. Several new roads are being built, new stadiums are coming up, a concrete “village” big enough to house the people of many slums has been constructed for the athletes.  A city facing one of the biggest water shortages in all its history is going to fill up massive swimming pools. For three years in a row college grounds have been made unavailable to students, putting an end to a lot of sports activity (evidently this is how the CWG is going to encourage sports). Thousands of students, who can barely afford the subsidised hostel rates, have been thrown out of their hostels, forced to find accommodation in expensive areas around the university. The Chief Minister has come out in the media declaring that the people of Delhi will have to pay for these Games in the form of increased taxes, rise in the prices of public transport, and so on (supposedly, all people in Delhi are rich enough to pay this tiny price for the sake of the nation’s and the city’s glory). However the main thrust of the current piece is to spare a glance at that side of Delhi which is altogether ignored by all, including the media.

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Large numbers of migrant labourers have shifted base to Delhi because of the work become available due to the large scale infrastructural development leading up to the Games. This huge influx of migrant labourers , in addition to the ones already living in slums and worker localities around the city, has led to greater competition amongst them, on which private contractors hired by the government are thriving. These private contractors are able to control wages and working conditions, obviously to the disadvantage of workers. Workers at CWG sites earn anything from Rs.200 to Rs.700 for eight hours of work in a day depending upon level of skill, much more, it can be argued than the minimum wage fixed by the government. Using this data the mainstream media is often found trying to prove that the government is generating employment for these workers as well as helping them earn a livelihood. Often, it is added, that the workers are also being provided with a place to live, in temporary settlements near construction sites. But, as is always true in such cases, a different order of truth altogether ignored by the media exists behind this façade. These workers have no job security, hired on a day, fired on the other. In fact, most of them are hired on a daily or weekly basis. If hired for longer durations they face irregularities of payment. They do not have the freedom, as a result to work elsewhere during this period, or to leave this work, for the fear of having to forfeit wages earned.  Sometimes workers are paid not according to the duration of work, but quantity of it – this much pay for this much work (for instance, this is usually the case for road construction workers). In this case the work day extends upto ten hours or more; this, one can understand, is the cost of the alacrity needed to finish the project in time for the Games.

 

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Owing to irregularities of the kind mentioned above, workers are forced to shift their families close to the work-site where their wives too enter the labour market, hoping to find greater financial security for the family. Female workers get paid amounts much lower than what men earn for the same work. Where the fixed minimum wage is Rs.203, female workers are usually paid as little as Rs.130 for eight hours of work. When the supply of workers increases this drops down to Rs100 or less.  Furthermore, mothers have no choice but to keep their children close by while they work; a more hazardous environment to bring up a child is hard to imagine, because immediate danger of hurt is compounded with assured health trouble in later life. Children already nearing adolescence actually work alongside their mothers; a little more in the family’s pocket.

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Why should all the members of a family work when one member is already earning more than the fixed minimum wages? Clearly, the life that a single man’s wage affords is not quite so good. The minimum wage allows a worker to reproduce his labour power and is by no means suitable remuneration for the work he does; to be able to do even a little more than merely exist (even if that something is as seemingly inconsequential as owning a transistor) more than a single person’s wage is needed. So the whole family sets to work, at jobs that hardly pay anything even as they break their backs. Whether they work or not is not a choice, is clear enough to see, but even choosing the work they do is not an option – do what you get.

With increased migration and the fall in wages caused by the resultant increase in competition living condition of workers have also suffered. As the wages fall well below the minimum required for their subsistence the workers are forced to live in temporary settlements near work sites, settlements hardly suited to be inhabited by human beings. The differentiation between skilled and un-skilled labourers seems to continue in these settlements, where un-skilled workers are made to stay pretty much anywhere (tents beneath flyovers, or on the roadside, or next to metro-pillars and so on). Skilled workers are at least able to afford a place in some sort of slums or worker localities, or are provided with tin shelters near construction sites. Of course this relative privilege hardly amounts to anything; 4 to 5 skilled workers stay in tin rooms hardly 6 feet across. Often these temporary tents or rooms serve as living quarters for the entire family; proximity to the worksite definitely adds to health problems that workers and their families face.

 

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There is no direct supply of water to these localities, forcing the workers to use water stored in unclean cans which used for construction purposes; the problem is even greater for the quarters which are not that close to any big site, as they are forced to buy water form tankers. Furthermore, these settlements are not legal and once the work is complete the workers are forced to evacuate.

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Workers cannot afford to waste any part of their wages on daily commuting; another reason that forces them to leave close to worksites is their shift timings (for instance the workers constructing roads stay in tents near the site because they are required to work all through the night stopping in the early hours of the morning). These conditions negate the possibility of any “family life,” a middle-class term altogether alien to the lives of these workers. Even if the family stays together, everybody works: the man, the woman, and the children, giving them no chance to spend any time together, let alone “quality time.” A set of people involved in the construction of the structures that will allow India to “proclaim itself on the world-stage” as a rising “super-power” and a “quasi-developed-country” are reduced to a status little higher than the tools they use.

Photos by Ankit Sharma

Crisis and Class Struggle: The American Way

Pratyush Chandra

If we have to name a single industry prototypical of post-second world war capitalism, which to a large extent defined the nature and range of economic activities in this period, the choice would undoubtedly be the automobile industry. With the financial crisis finally taking its toll over this industry (especially the Detroit Three – GM, Chrysler and Ford), the crisis has almost acquired a general character. The most interesting aspect of this long impending collapse in the automobile industry is its bearing for the industrial regime that will evolve out of the present crisis – this will largely depend on the balance between the forces (classes and their agencies) which will see through this process of restructuring. The bailout package has already been declared and it aims to completely disarm the workers, that too with the assent of their own unions.

A foremost business magazine, The Economist (‘A Giant Falls’, June 4 2009) while assessing “where did it all go wrong”, found the “insupportable burden” of its commitments to workers (that they wrested through decades of their struggle) as the single most important factor that led to the bankruptcy of General Motors, the collapse of the American pride. So obviously the general consensus is being created that these commitments were not justified. It was a case of “mismanagement and decline”. Thus, “the auto unions, themselves once emblematic of what workers could achieve within capitalism, have been reduced to lobbying to save “their” companies, and a decades-long trend in private-sector labor negotiations has now confirmed collective bargaining as having shifted from demands by workers to demands on workers.” (Herman Rosenfeld, ‘The North American Auto Industry in Crisis’, Monthly Review, June 2009)

General Motors (GM), that shaped the American way of life and economy for so many decades, is bankrupt, now, and Obama has alighted to save it. The bankrupt capitalists hid themselves behind the State which is determined to save the “American way of life”. Such determination can be fruitful only under the condition of some sort of social corporatism – through the state-sponsored or negotiated peace among capitalists, and between workers and capitalists. The first reproduces a capitalist-class-for-itself, while the second submits the workers to the logic of capital accumulation and the competitive needs of “their” employers. Didn’t Gramsci teach us that corporatism (or consensus) is the only alternative, besides coercion, for dealing with the crisis of legitimation and accumulation in capitalism?

Around 90 years back, in October 1920, a crisis had struck another giant automobile company, Fiat, in Turin (Italy). To counter the militancy of Italian workers, evident in the tremendous Workers’ Councils and factory occupation movements, the Fiat management had offered a scheme of co-operation, which the workers summarily rejected. Gramsci and his comrades understood the designs of the State and Fiat behind their ideology of co-operation – to get the workers at their mercy. The Turin Communists understood that within this scheme, “[t]he workforce will necessarily have to bind itself to the State … through the activity of working class deputies…. The Turin proletariat will no longer exist as an independent class, but simply as an appendage of the bourgeois State. Class corporatism will have triumphed, but the proletariat will have lost its position and role as leader and guide.” (Quoted in Antonio Gramsci, ‘Some Aspects of the Southern Question’, Pre-Prison Writings, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 325-326)

Where Italian premier Giolitti could not succeed, Obama has succeeded. The “working class deputies” in the US have ultimately bound the workforce to the State and the bourgeoisie, right at the time of a crisis, a moment that Marx and Engels acknowledged as “one of the most powerful levers in political upheavals”. Crisis indeed is a moment for heightening class struggle. Why not? If capitalism itself is shaped through open and hidden struggle between capital and labour, then should the moment of crisis be left out from this fight? At least capitalists are not going to do that; they know the meaning of the crisis – now or never! And in the absence of any strong labour movement, they know it is an opportunity not to be lost.

There are diagnoses and recipes going around to save the ‘economy’ from the deepening crisis, as if the economy in itself is something neutral, and we can struggle over its colour once it is saved. Even when capitalism is blamed (taking into consideration the growing interest in Marx throughout the First World) for its own ailments, the revival is recommended through various interventionist measures. There are many Keynesian quacks nowadays roaming and gossiping around irritating the capitalists – “we told you so”. But the capitalist knows what to do. Yes, intervention, if it’s must, but on whose cost – capital’s or labour’s? The capitalist must be bailed out, and the labourer must be reined in. Social corporatism is not at all bad, if it subjugates labour to the ‘general interests’ of the economy.

Capital doesn’t want to mess up with labour. It has tried to evade the very circuit in which labour-power has to be bought in, but every time it does that destiny reminds it of its painful bond with labour. This time capital had almost created a world of its own without the nuisance of labour. But these consumers and debtors, on whom it relied so much, betrayed it – it suddenly realised that these were in fact the same little urchins – those children of labour, whose devilish smell and smile it wanted to forget.

Time and again, the capitalist class is reminded of the basic lesson in political economy that ultimately profit generates in the productive sector, through engagement with labour. But this class which is composed of competing entities – individuals or groups – relapses into amnesia once prosperity steps in, as they compete to “accumulate, accumulate…”. Ultimately, they all find it ideal to directly jump from M(oney) to M'(oney) without going through the strenuous process of production where they must deal with labour, which simply cannot behave like another dumb ‘factor of production’.

Once capital comes to its senses, and realises its inevitable bond with labour, it tries very hard (and every means) to sterilize labour – alienating it from its creativity (hence, its destructivity) and thus, its humanity. Whoever – capital or labour – mobilises its class and community first during the crisis commands the post-crisis phase. Here labour is always at a disadvantage, it has to make an enormous extra effort and prior preparation to come to command. If it arrives late, it gives enough time for capital and its agents to put themselves in their headquarters. They don’t meet in the streets (only leaving their dogs and watchdogs for the street-fights) but in lavish boardrooms and in the offices of national and international agencies. The labouring multitude is reduced to its representatives, who are b(r)ought in these offices to negotiate a deal. Thus, the social compact is attained.

This is what has happened in the auto industry and will probably happen in many other cases until and unless the working class too realises that crisis is a moment of class struggle, not of negotiation and compromise. In fact, what is a compromise, but an institutionalisation of class struggle under the conditions of capital, in which the defeat of labour is immanent!

Revolutionary May Day Greetings!

Saswat Pattanayak

Relevance of this day never was greater than it is today – as a celebration of collective human progress, as a reminder of historic labour struggles, as an occasion to reaffirm class allegiance with the working poor, and the majority strugglers.

Not an allegiance to exploitative ruling class demarcations of geographical boundaries drawn and redrawn through manipulative gestures of status-quo diplomacy. Not an allegiance to standards of academic, material, knowledge society thus distinguished and rewarded by the handful corporate czars to effectively facilitate their spheres of influence. Not an allegiance to normative philosophies of spiritual and religious practices aimed at bringing calm and internal peace through aggrandizing state of ignorance, indifference and ineptitude.

An allegiance to organized human labour necessarily requires obliterations of several convenient divisions mapped thus by the ruling class combines, while recreating new necessary ones.

Class allegiance in action must uproot the notions of purity attached with the cultural high-handedness in the form of canonic texts, classical arts and holy scriptures. Owing to lack of time from life’s labour, indulging in critical reflections on societal upbringings often becomes impossible or inadequate. As a result, the majority’s thought processes of any time are mostly conditioned by the simplistically offered explanations of recognized experts, not reshaped through rigorous testing by the self of acquired knowledge and incidental experiences. Such a propensity towards contentment by not subjecting oneself to question the foundations of belief systems helps maintain the glorification of cultural produces that puts the peoples in their oppressed places: that is, at the level of passive observers.

Authoritative texts irrespective of how patriarchal, discriminative and violent they are – all religious scriptures fall into this category – are passively consumed as holy and irrefutable. Ongoing texts of necessary collective resistance do not find a publishing house or a review on the mainstream liberal media. Classical as well as postmodern arts depicting both the royal past and confused future are heralded as containing “high” artistic value, while realist arts depicting peoples revolutions in the past or existing organized working class movements are discarded as socialist propaganda. Labour union songs, films portraying human labour as protagonist, and books about organized revolutionary history are forced out of circulation. If elite culture is limited to incomprehensible museums, popular culture is defined in terms of vulgar exhibits of indiscriminate media consumption. After dumbing down people through trivia overloads, they are praised for being free to choose what works best for their lives. After conditioning popular thoughts through uncritical materials, subjects are offered options to choose – between Coke and Pepsi, Disney and James Bond, McCain and Obama, Drama and Romance, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Degeneres, Rock and Pop. Choices vary only by degrees, because they simply cannot vary by kind. Such wide array of similar choices offered by corporate greed must necessarily be a substitute for the limited options necessary for establishment of a classless society. They cannot be supplements.

Classical/postmodern and socialist/realist choices cannot co-exist harmoniously. In their realized state, the monumental and fundamental conflicts must surface. Just as haves and the have-nots cannot co-exist peacefully. In their emancipated states, revolutionary struggles must take over. Political systems that claim otherwise and preach possibility of peaceful coexistence between economically disparate classes merely work overtime to deceive their subjects through propagandist media which conveniently redefine economic classes (hence, a creation of “Middle Class”) and reposition boundaries of dissent by forming among themselves mutually respecting groups of liberals and conservatives – as a result, annihilating the possibility of communistic discourse around property relations.

Political systems such as these – the wide array of “Democracies” rule over a comfortably numb, blissfully ignorant, uncritically religious, and eternally grateful mass of people who are preached the merits of self-centric career growth, domestic peace and personal saving accounts over the high costs they cause – endless cycles of poverty, unemployment, lack of healthcare, absence of socially relevant education, continuation of escalated wars, and unquestioned acceptance of accumulation of private wealth as a necessary virtue. This hegemonist worldview not only widens its own sphere but in the process closes the alternatives. As a result, individual comforts take precedence over collective good and external aggression is justified in the name of internal peace. The wealthy section is heralded as deserving, the poor as resulting high-crime neighborhoods. The rich are rewarded with tax-breaks and bank loans while the poor are condemned to be credit-unworthy and liabilities. The true majority comprising the working class is treated as a minority when it comes to effecting administrative changes, policies governing education, house ownerships, business labour practices and environmental concerns. The true minority consisting of the historically privileged and their recent elite cronies express and install the legislations that suit their interest while masquerading them as national interests. Hence the president of a given country declares wars in these times under the advice of the friendly military-industrial lobby without taking into account the interest of majority of people in the world. What is worse, the majority of people are in fact attributed as the ones who wanted to go to war in the first place. After all, in the democracies – the system where the leaders are elected by virtue of how much money they have gathered – people deserve the kind of government they elect. Since people have exercised their voting options – no matter how uninformed they were kept in their choices not just to vote one leader or the other but about their stance on the process of farcical elections themselves – the leaders carry out most heinous of acts relegating the consequences of responsibilities to the masses.

Under the conditioned pretense of being active deciders of their destinies, people support their elected heads in all unfortunate decisions – just as inside houses the children do not question their reactionary parents, students do not confront their ignorant teachers, followers do not challenge their religious preachers. In effect, narratives of socioeconomic history are authoritative when they speak through the ruling class lenses. Students grow curiosity about the hairstyles and handbags of the First Ladies of White House, than pose critical questions concerning the reason why their own working mothers toil so hard and yet feel they do not deserve the similar treatments as the rich presidential wives or their corporate guests at grand banquets. A “free” society based on rhetoric of individual liberty suffers from being inherently an unfree, ignorant, selfishly passive one. Women are defined by gender roles prescribed to them by men. Their loyalty is defined in terms of how much of the body they cover, and their freedom is defined in terms of how much of the body they expose. From their menstrual cycles to pregnancy months, their status as workers is defined as a liability by norm and disability by law. When the entire workforce strives to accentuate the greedy private capitalist bank accounts, the sense of contribution to societal developments is felt through the merciful charities – disguised as tax evasions – of rich individuals, and through painfully slow legislations of judicial systems that offer drops of justice from time to time. Legal amendments to grant freedoms to minorities – that conveniently divided group of oppressed world majority – offer quotas in lowly paid jobs in form of so-called affirmative actions and reservations. Not as reparations to the historic damages.

Demands for reparations lead to revolutions. Revolutions are prevented by means of granting of charities. Status quo of the privileged is maintained through shedding of material grants, and guilt, from their surplus. World Bank loans and grants to the landless in the world is an act of charity on behalf of the greedy bankers, financiers who put their poster-boys at the helm of political power just to prevent any step toward reparations. In these days as always in the past, private bankers help their political weapons to rule over the people. They do so by granting credits and loans to people for essential needs that otherwise should be taken care of by the governments. Instead, availing of housing, healthcare and education facilities are privatized in order to keep people debt-ridden throughout their lives. Debts and interests accrued on them create a majority population that is unable to conceptualize the demands of reparations. On a May Day today it is only important to note that Bank of America which has received billions of taxpayers money not only spends them for its own profit motives by pursuing a credit war on the hapless consumers; it also lets the CEO Ken Lewis receive $35 million salary in the past two years; and what is worse, it fires thousands of employees who cannot avail of the so-called Employees Free Choice Act – yet another false promise from the American President Obama, known better as the lasting friend of the corrupt banks.

It is not enough to say the economic class war on majority of world’s peoples is an indictment for the freedom and equality envisaged for our world. Indeed, it is only natural that in order to keep the world unfree and unequal, it is important that the economic class war waged by the rich upon the poor continues in this manner. For the ruling class of individualistic corporate, political, judicial, academic, religious profiteers who assume the world does not need revolutionary replacements whereby they must be prepared to give up their private houses, businesses and mansions, it is necessary for them to continue exploiting people – directly and indirectly- by preaching peace while waging war, teaching lies while educating the youths, celebrating private properties while pretending to be moral and religious.

Those of us who must realign or strengthen our class allegiances with the oppressed and the exploited, must sympathetically understand why the ruling class does what it is doing. Only then can we unite together to transcend barriers and divisions instilled among us by the exploiters and empathetically revolt for the classless society that we strive for. May Day is an occasion to stop wondering in surprise. Only yet another day we need to rise above and beyond the divisions. And working class must still continue to unite even more and reach out to those workers who have doubts choosing which side they must be on.

Laal Salaam!