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Manesar echoes in faraway TN
The emergence of labour outfits with militant leanings belies the state's image as a region immune to unrest.
The death of an HR official in Maruti's Manesar plant after workers went on a rampage has raised concerns about a militant brand of trade unionism gaining ground in industrial belts. Some 1, 750 km away from the site of the attack, in remote Hosur, near the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border, provocative posters have already sprung up, inciting workers to celebrate the incident.
The New Democratic Labour Front (NDLF) is a splinter labour group with small pockets of support, but keen to widen its influence among across TN. Their posters stuck on factory gates of industrial units of Hosur, Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri and Salem in western Tamil Nadu endorse the mob violence in Manesar which claimed the life of a Maruti official and resulted in a lockout. "We congratulate the workers who burnt down the big boss attitude (sic) of the management, " says one poster.
The outfit, established around 2000-01, is known to take extreme confrontationist positions, which appeal to some sections during labour disputes. The HR head of an auto component maker says, on condition of anonymity, "NDLF is a registered trade union. But they have demonstrated militant tendencies and pressured several units in the Hosur belt by using the threat of violence. "
Though the outfit does not enjoy much patronage or support compared to mainstream unions such as CITU, INTUC and the DMK-backed Labour Progressive Front (LPF), its membership is clearly on the rise. In many areas, NDLF presence is marginal, but it tends to influence labour relations, especially in times of crisis.
"We do not believe in democracy. We believe in fighting it out. It's a fight for workers' right. We cannot achieve anything through democracy, " says NDLF representative Santhosh, whose contact number was published on a wall poster in Hosur. According to him, the trade union has a presence across 30 factories in the Hosur region alone and in several in and around Chennai.
NDLF's growth belies Tamil Nadu's image as a region unexposed to industrial unrest and lockouts. Barring the odd labour strike, labour relations historically have been harmonious here. The one blot on the state's record was the September 2009 incident at Pricol's plant in Coimbatore when its HR manager Roy George was lynched by a mob of workers backed by a local political functionary from a regional party.
But the emergence of NDLF and other outfits with militant leanings may herald a change on the industrial landscape. A K Padmanabhan, national president of Left-backed CITU, says fringe outfits do not enjoy mass appeal, but hot-headedness and the language of violence tends to attract some following. "Violence in any form cannot be accepted. It is important to recognize workers' right to form a trade union. The problem is most managements are averse to trade unionism. "
The reluctance on the part of managements to deal with politicallybacked unions has certainly created a gap which drives unorganised workers into the arms of fringe outfits, Padmanabhan adds. Multinationals such as Hyundai and Nokia resisted the establishment of mainstream trade unions for a long time, preferring to deal directly with workmen through bilateral committees which comprised representatives of both management and workers. This arrangement enjoys legal sanction in several states although unions see this as crony unionism.
Such situations leads to a trust deficit in an age when companies are increasingly focused on downsizing and set stiff production targets. If the targets are not achieved, managements are often seen penalising the workforce. "But with young workers, many of who have migrated from other parts of India, there is a tendency to be vehement on issues. While it is contained most of the time, on occasions it boils over, " says G S Ramesh, who was head of HR at Hyundai Motor India and is now an HR consultant. And this is the sentiment militant unions capitalise on.
The increasing number of disputes in companies is also due to the rivalry between unions competing to expand their support base. Before assembly polls in 2011, DMK nudged several units around Chennai to recognise its LPF union. The government's informal diktat was followed. But soon after the polls and a change of guard at the state secretariat, the status quo began to be challenged.
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