Seventy nine workers were hospitalised and 26 arrested in a confrontation with the police at Shriram Piston and Ring Ltd’s manufacturing facility in the Pathredi Industrial area of Alwar, Rajasthan.
The incident, the Rajasthan police said, occurred on Saturday morning, when approximately 200 policemen evicted about 1,200 workers who had occupied the plant since April 15.
Shriram Piston supplies pistons and engine components to most major automobile manufacturers in all segments, including Maruti Suzuki, Honda, Bajaj Auto, Hero MotoCorp, Tata Motors and Ashok Leyland.
The violence at the firm’s manufacturing facility is the most recent manifestation of simmering discontent in the automobile sector where strikes, slowdowns and sit-ins have affected manufacturers and their suppliers.
The auto industry’s prolonged slump has meant production cuts and a loss of between 150,000 and 200,000 jobs, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers.
In 2013, the industry employed approximately 19 million direct and indirect workers.
“While the slump in the automobile sector has put pressure on original equipment makers, high inflation has affected cost of living for workers,” said Abdul Majeed, auto analyst and partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“This has put pressure on both, employers and employees, and could explain some of the recent unrest.”
At Shriram Pistons, the labour and management have sharply divergent accounts of the events preceding the weekend’s violence.
“The trouble began when the management victimised workers for trying to form a union. Our demand was rejected and workers were suspended,” said Mahesh Kumar, a workers’ representative.
This January, Kumar and 21 other workers were suspended.
In March this year, workers occupied the plant and halted production for five days, after which an agreement on working conditions and reinstatement of workers was reached.
When the management did not implement the agreement, Kumar said, workers went on a strike again on April 15 and occupied the plant.
“On Saturday morning, the police and company bouncers attacked workers and beat us mercilessly,” Kumar said.
“Workers have been knifed and wounded. The condition of four workers is critical.”
Shriram Pistons has refuted Kumar's allegations.
“The workers were on an illegal strike and sit-in. They were vacated by a court order after they did not respond to our appeals,” said a company source.
“The company has no role to play in the creation of the union and no worker has been victimised.
"The reinstatement of those dismissed was underway according to procedure.”
Company officials said workers were held hostage by unionists with no links to the plant.
The company was forced to act for reasons of safety, as plant furnaces continued to run without supervision.
“The police was acting on court orders to remove the workers from the plant,” said Thakhur Chandra Sheel, additional superintendent of police, Bhiwadi, confirming his force used water canons, tear gas, batons, and finally fired 17 rounds of live ammunition to disperse the workers.
“The workers pelted us with stones,” he said. “We responded in self-defence.”
Recent cases of labour issues at some of the automobile companies
April 2014: Chakan plant workers threaten to go on a strike from April 28, demand 500 of the firm’s shares for each employee at Rs 1 apiece; say half the amount Bajaj spends on CSR activities should be given to them, besides other things; strike deferred after management talks tough
Mar 2014: Unions at two factories in Bidadi (near Bangalore) ask for more holidays, company housing and pay raise of up to Rs 4,000 a month; unions willing to sign a code of good conduct but against individuals doing so; work resumes after state govt intervenes
General Motors India
Jan 2014: After the firm gives fresh appointment letters to only a few workers at its plant in Gujarat, contract workers protest, demanding parity in wages; matter settled after the firm works out a new plan
Nov 2013: Bosch (India) Ltd’s main production unit near Bangalore is hit by labour unrest, as the employees’ union “resorts to an illegal” tool-down strike following a dispute over a gate pass for an employee; the issue is resolved later