Violence broke out on 18 July 2012 at the Manesar plant of India’s largest car manufacturer, Maruti Suzuki. A manager died, and 90 other managers and hundreds of workers were injured. Within days, over 2,000 temporary and 546 permanent workers were dismissed by the company, and 13 of them—including the entire leadership of the workers’ union—were later charged for murder, thus destroying yet another body for collective bargaining.
Unions are the last line of defence workers have in modern industries, especially when the management isn’t averse to undermining their rights, dignity and health in pursuit of higher profits. At the Maruti Suzuki factory, the Japanese style of management had reduced workers to mere cogs in a production chain where men and robots worked side by side. Workers would get just a seven-and-a-half-minute break from physically demanding work, for instance—precise to the hundredth of a second—to run to the toilet half a kilometre away, then force a samosa and hot tea down their throat and rush back to the assembly line. In this mercilessly efficient process that the workers found themselves in, they sought to form their own independent unions. They didn’t want the bureaucratic control and compromise of older, established unions. But the representative bodies they set up were all crushed, sometimes in collusion with the government.
The often misrepresented events of July 2012 were thus far from an isolated incident. But few people today, as then, are willing to see the matter from the workers’ point of view. To ask if those accused of committing violence received a fair trial, or understand the dehumanizing pressures that they were subjected to. This book is one of the first to tell the Maruti Suzuki story through the voices of the workers. Interviewed over three years, they tell us of their resistance to being turned into robots by an uncompromising management, and the price they were made to pay for it. Their story is not only that of a union fighting for workers’ rights; it is a glimpse into the new India that is emerging: a welfare state transforming into a corporate state, in which profits trump the rights of citizens.