Resisting ‘Death from Overwork’

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Japanese Management, Indian Resistance: The Struggles of the Maruti Suzuki Workers 

 Author: Anjali Deshpande / Nandita Haksar

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

A fire broke out around 7 pm on 18 July 2012 at Maruti Suzuki India’s manufacturing plant in Manesar (Haryana). It claimed a manager’s life. The workers have been in the public eye since. Basically, worker-management tension snowballed into a major fracas that day — a fire broke out in the plant. The manager, Awanish Dev, was suffocated to death. Workers were held responsible.

Within days, over two thousand temporary workers and 546 permanent workers were dismissed by the company. Thirteen of them— including the entire workers’ union leadership-were later charged for murder, ending yet another independent body for collective bargaining.

Japanese Management, Indian Resistance: The Struggles of the Maruti Suzuki Workers by Anjali Deshpande and Nandita Haksar tells the story of the biggest car manufacturer in India through the voices of the workers, interviewed over three years. They give us an understanding that the Maruti Suzuki revolution wasn’t the unmitigated success it was touted to be when they tell us about their resistance to being turned into robots by uncompromising management. It becomes abundantly clear that the Maruti Suzuki revolution was not what was expected. It is a fascinating account of what happened behind the scenes, particularly what happened both in the beginning and during the ensuing years. A closer look at the facts would cast doubt on the anti-worker judgment. 

Anjali Deshpande is a journalist and activist. She has participated in many campaigns and movements including the women’s movement and the Bhopal gas tragedy survivors’ struggle for justice. She is also a novelist and writes in Hindi. Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer, teacher and campaigner. She represents contract workers and trade unions in the Supreme Court. She writes extensively and has published several books, including on the trade union movement in Kashmir and migrant workers from the Northeast. 

Says the blurb: “Unions are the last, and often only, 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. This was true of Maruti Suzuki. Workers would get a seven-and-a-half-minute break from physically demanding work—precise to the hundredth of a second—to run to the toilet half a kilometre away and force a samosa and piping hot tea down their throats. But they were denied two minutes of silence in the memory of a deceased colleague’s mother.”

The sabotage of their unionising efforts, generally in collusion with the Haryana state government, came as no surprise to the workers. Yet they struggled through and managed to form successive representative bodies at both the Gurgaon plant, and the one set up in Manesar in 2007. But not only were they crushed, some were never officially registered. The often misrepresented events of July 2012 were far from an isolated incident. But few today, as then, are willing to see the matter from workers’ perspective. 

This book was the culmination of months of work by the authors, including locating and interviewing many workers and trade union leaders, including former life convicts out on parole. In the book, oral history narratives are interwoven with detailed analyses of legal processes as they are framed against the backdrop of widespread labour unrest, which makes for a book that has been meticulously researched. The context of a welfare state transforming into a corporate state, in which profits trump citizens’ rights, and Japanese-style management policies ruthlessly trample on workers’ rights, is clearly delineated, as is the sustained resistance of workers against this development. 

As the factory got privatised, while Suzuki made more profits, workers experienced a steady deterioration in their work conditions. The level of automation increased, the number of robots grew and so did the dehumanisation of working conditions. The Japanese have a word for a phenomenon that distinguishes modern Japanese work culture: `karoshi’, meaning `death from overwork’. This culture was imported onto Indian soil.

Several changes were instituted after Suzuki tightened its grip on the Indian production units. Among these were some pseudo-spiritual measures: vastu expert, Daivajna K S Somaiyaji, conducted rituals over two or three weeks to rid the Manesar plant of `negative energy’ which he said was due to its once being a burial ground, and because three temples were razed to set up the plant. Brahmakumaris also taught yoga and meditation to workers, specifically to keep their emotions in check!

It is a must-read book for anyone who is interested in organisational behaviour, labour relations, social work, industrial psychology, law, or political science. Aside from the clarity of the writing, the vivid descriptions bring alive the lives of the people who participated in one of the most widely known but least understood conflicts in management-worker relation.

Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.


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