In the early 1980s, when Suzuki began operations in India, it was in many ways a bold gamble. A Japanese company with a reputation for maintaining a punishing work ethic among its workers was about to enter into a country where the ‘work culture’ was considerably more laidback.
Under Osamu Suzuki, the Grand Patriarch of Suzuki Motors, the company set out to change that. It began with Suzuki hiring about 2,000 local workers, bringing them over to Suzuki’s main factory in Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture, near Tokyo, and training them in the ‘Japanese way of working’. It began with workers learning to finish their morning gathering five minutes before the siren goes off – and for work to start soon thereafter.
For his efforts in inculcating the most elementary workplace discipline among Indian factory workers, Osamu Suzuki earned high praise from the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Suzuki, she acknowledged, had changed India’s work culture.
Suzuki likes to cite one bit of statistic as validation of his efforts. In 1982, when the company began its Indian operations, India produced only 50,000 vehicles a year; there were only about 1 million cars on Indian roads.
In 2010, India’s automobile production had vaulted to 2 million units a year. Suzuki alone was producing in excess of 1 million units a year. In March 2011, it reached a significant milestone: a cumulative production of 10 million automobile units in India. These numbers give him much to be proud about, he has said.
Today, however, Suzuki’s Manesar plant is under a lockout following an explosion of workers’ anger earlier this month. And gritty details are tumbling out about the work conditions at the Manesar plant, particularly for its non-permanent contract workers. All this will perhaps give Suzuki reason to wonder whatever happened to that famed work culture he introduced –which, it appears, has over time become twisted into a perverse caricature of the company’s ‘lean production’ mantra.
Contract workers have revealed details of nine-hour shifts with a 30-minute meal interval and two tea-and-toilet breaks of 7.5 minutes each. And given the hierarchy that exists among workers, where permanent workers are higher up the ladder, the hardest work gets allocated to the contract workers – who are also paid less than half as much as the permanent workers.
Some contract workers claim they are required to work through the work, without a day off, and complain of hefty wage deductions – in excess of Rs 1,000 a day — if they fail to report for duty. Add to this the ritual abuse that they claim they are subjected to on the shopfloor, and the management’s alleged use of bouncers to intimidate workers. More details here and here.
The workforce at the Manesar plant is typically young, drawn from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and less willing to tolerate the indignities they feel they don’t deserve on the assembly line. .And far from being thankful for the chance to earn a decent wage, they claim their frustrations are mounting because they cannot support themselves.
Narratives like these are hard to reconcile with Suzuki’s claim that he taught India to work, so to speak. It would also be very hard for the company to resort to such shopfloor practices at its plants in Japan, given the strict provisions of the labour standards law.
There may have been much to admire in the Japanese work ethic and discipline that Suzuki inculcated, but the hell world that the contract workers at Manesar claim they inhabit today gives no cause for admiration.