Vikas Bajaj and Sruthi Gottipati


Mumbai, India — One person was killed and more than 70 others injured during a violent struggle between workers and management at a car factory near New Delhi on Wednesday night, illustrating a sharp escalation in labor tensions.


Parts of the car factory, owned by Maruti Suzuki, which makes half of all cars sold in the country and is controlled by the Japanese automaker, were burned during the fight, which started about 7 p.m., the police said. Nearly 100 workers were arrested, according to officials, and two Japanese executives were among the injured.


This Maruti Suzuki factory in Manesar, about 30 miles south of New Delhi, has been the scene of several industrial disputes since it opened five years ago, including a strike at the end of last year that shut the plant down for several days at a time. The factory was part of a big expansion for Suzuki, which gets more than a quarter of its revenue from India.


Strikes and violent protests have marred operations at several Indian car, motorcycle and auto parts companies in recent years and a couple of them have resulted in deaths. Workers have complained that their wages have not kept up with the country’s high inflation even as their employers have enjoyed rising sales and profits. Another big source of tension has been the increasing use of temporary contract workers to skirt Indian labor laws that make it nearly impossible to fire permanent employees during downturns.


The company and its labor unions provided very different accounts of the origins of Wednesday’s struggle, which occurred amid continuing wage negotiations and a demand by the union that the company rehire workers fired during last year’s strike.


The union has said a supervisor insulted and demeaned a worker who is of the Dalit caste, formerly known as the untouchables, and when that employee protested, he was suspended.


When the union tried to intervene, the company called in “hundreds of bouncers on its payroll to attack the workers,” Ram Meher, the president of the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union, said in a statement.


But Maruti Suzuki said in its statement that the fight began ”with a worker beating up a supervisor on the shop floor.” The union, Maruti said, demanded that no disciplinary action be taken against the employee. Workers then blocked managers from leaving, beat them with iron rods, ransacked offices and set fire to parts of the factory.


“By any account, this is not an ’industrial relations’ problem in the nature of management-worker differences over issues of wages or working conditions,“ the company said in a statement. “Rather, it is an orchestrated act of mob violence at a time when operations had been normal over the past many months.“


The employee who died was a human resources manager, Awanish Kumar Dev, 50. A doctor at the General Hospital of Gurgaon said he died of smoke inhalation. His body was badly burned and his legs were fractured in several places.


Police and government labor officials on Thursday backed the company’s story, describing the protest as a “conspiracy“ and promising to arrest workers and union leaders who they said were in hiding.


Mr. Meher and other union officials could not be reached on Thursday and their cellphones were turned off.


In recent years, as the Indian economy took off, the Indian auto industry rose with it. Few companies benefited as much as Maruti, which was once a joint venture between the Indian government and Suzuki of Japan. The company is the dominant player in the biggest segment of the car market: small hatchbacks that sell for as little as 250,000 rupees, or about $4,500.


But workers have complained about harsh conditions at the factory and the company’s practice of hiring most of its workers on temporary contracts. Those hired in such a way are paid a small fraction of the salaries permanent employees earn — about 7,000 rupees a month, or $126, compared with 18,000 rupees a month for permanent workers. Contract workers can also be fired more easily.


Company executives deny abusive conditions and have said they hired entry-level workers on contracts and made them permanent as they gained experience. Executives have also accused politically affiliated national unions of instigating protests against it.


Last year’s strike ended after the government of Haryana state intervened and a few labor leaders agreed to leave the company after receiving large severance payments.


The company has had far better relations with workers at its first and primary factory in nearby Gurgaon.


Workers have said that one source of tension has been that more than two-thirds of the workers at Manesar are on temporary contracts, while a majority of the workers at the Gurgaon plant are permanent employees. The company said it had 4,700 workers at the plant, 2,000 of whom are permanent employees; the rest were hired on a seasonal basis.


In an interview last October, the chairman of Maruti Suzuki suggested that the employees at the Manesar plant, which can churn out 550,000 cars a year, tended to protest more because they were more inexperienced than workers in Gurgaon, which has a capacity of 900,000 cars.


”The operating conditions in both plants were the same,” said the chairman, R. C. Bhargava. ”But the Gurgaon people have had long years to adjust to these conditions and to understand why and what they are.”


The troubles come at a challenging time for Maruti Suzuki, whose sales have slipped as the Indian government eliminates subsidies on gasoline but maintains them on diesel fuel. Maruti Suzuki also produces diesel cars, but has the capacity to produce more gas-powered vehicles.


The company said it had suspended car production at its Manesar plant, which is being guarded by the police.


Vikas Bajaj reported from Mumbai, India, and Sruthi Gottipati from New Delhi. Hiroko Tabuchi contributed reporting from Tokyo, Neha Thirani from Mumbai and Hari Kumar from New Delhi.


(The New York Times, July 19, 2012, supplied by Liberation News Service)

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