The recent act of industrial manifestation of the violence at Maruti Manesar Plant, where Awanish Kumar Dev, General Manager, Human Resources at Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. died at the hands of antagonist workers in the factory premises and the attack on other employees of the Plant brings before us the dreadful expression of industrial unrest and labor violence. The common defence of the employees being provoked because of increasing number of contract workers, substantial wage disparity between permanent employees and contract employees, refusal to negotiate better wages and working conditions and the imposition of company trade unions and prolonged non-recognition of the unions chosen by the workers, cannot justify a criminal act of murder. Such instances of violence are unpardonable. The antagonist workers will not be immune from the murder charges and liability to compensate Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. for the damage caused to its property. Their liability comes from the 2009 ruling of the Supreme Court, in which the Supreme Court has, held that "Where persons, whether jointly or otherwise, are part of a protest which turns violent, results in damage to private or public property, the persons who have caused the damage, or were part of the protest or who have organized will be deemed to be liable for the damage so caused, which may be assessed by the courts or by any special procedure created to enforce the right."
While it is true that, whatever the provocation, murder is a criminal act and that has nothing to do with industrial relations or social inequity, the incident at Maruti Manesar Plant has once again brought to front the challenges employer-employee relationship faces and has re-opened the debate on the larger issues of labor reforms.
A major reason of industrial dispute is the widening disparity between the wages of the contract workers and permanent employees. The Central Government framed and published The Contract Labor (Regulation and Abolition) Rules, 1971 wherein, sub-rule (v) (a) of rule 25 (2) states that “in cases where the workmen employed by the contractor perform the same or similar kind of work as the workmen directly employed by the principal employer of the establishment, the wage rates, holidays, hours of work and other work conditions of service of the workmen of the contractor shall be the same as applicable to the workmen directly employed by the principal employer of the establishment on the same or similar kind of work”. The Labour Court under Section 33-C (2) of Industrial Dispute Act, 1947 has the power to go into the question of equal pay for equal work, because it is incidental to the computation of wages that the workers are entitled to receive under law. The Supreme Court in 1998 ruling held that “the grant of benefit to the contract workers of equal pay for equal work depends upon large number of factors including equal work, equal value, source and manner of appointment, requisite qualifications, equal identity of group and wholesale or complete identity….. It also cannot be judged by mere volume of work….. There may be qualitative difference as regards reliability and responsibility. Functions may be the same but the responsibilities make a difference...” The industrial unrest and labor violence makes it obvious that industries opting for contract workers for reason of cost competitiveness lead to frustration amongst contract workers who, may be, not possessing the requisite qualifications, holds long experience more particularly to the satisfaction of the employers. Witnessing the unrest in the industry, it is apparent that The Contract Labor (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 regulating the employment of contract workers is woefully inadequate to meet the challenges of the present day economic system.
Also wages are not in accordance with the economic realities so that a worker can afford a decent living. The Minimum Wages Act, 1926 must be revisited and the minimum wages should be fixed providing sufficient purchasing power to the workers, enabling their basic standard of living and contributing to reduce poverty.
The workers of India have a right to form trade union as provided in Trade Union Act, 1926 and to practice collective bargaining under the framework of Industrial Dispute Act, 1947. While these laws allow formation of trade union, they are silent on the issue of recognition of union by company management, thus severely curtailing the power and actions of the union as bargaining agent on behalf of the workers. The management, most of the times, refuses to engage in collective bargaining with the union as evident in Maruti incident. Hence, the workers have poor union coverage to fight for their rights. Also owing to the triangular relationship characteristic of the contract labor system, the location of the employment relationships for the contract workers may not be clear.
Owing to the disarrayed industrial relations, the government should look the ways of remedying the situation, such as the worker's basic right to an increased wage and decent working conditions, recognition to worker’s trade union in order to increase the scope of collective bargaining must be honored as well as the insidious practice of contract labor employment must be revisited.
The author is Partner Titus & Co.