Wage negotiations at Maruti Suzuki India Limited, India's largest automobile company, turned violent on Saturday morning as clashes broke out at the firm's Manesar plant between protesting workers and a group of people they described as bouncers.

More than 100 workers were detained, though the police released them in the evening. Two former employees of Maruti accused of leading the protests were charged with rioting and illegal restraint. The police also filed an FIR against 500 "unknown persons" for arson and rioting.

The trouble broke out at 6 am on Saturday, when more than 1,000 temporary workers hired on seven month-contracts at Maruti's Manesar plant in Haryana began a protest at the factory gates. They were demanding parity in wages with the 2,500 permanent workers of the company who had successfully negotiated a wage settlement on Friday.

Maruti officials said the temporary workers refused to enter the plant and shouted slogans for two hours. Residents of Aliyar and Kasan villages nearby, whom the workers describe as bouncers hired by the management, arrived at the factory gate and tried to persuade the workers to go inside. A clash erupted when the workers refused to relent.

History of disputes

In 2012, workers at the same factory stuck work three times to demand that they be allowed to set up an independent union and improvements in their wages and working conditions. A senior manager died and several others were injured when a fire broke out at the plant during a clash between workers and management on July 18, 2012. The police charged 147 Maruti workers with murder and rioting, 34 of whom are still in jail.

That conflict resulted in losses of Rs 2,500 crore and a 6% drop in market share for the company. In the wake of the clashes, Maruti sacked more than 1,700 contract and 546 permanent employees. It then substituted temporary workers it had hired through labour contractors with temporary workers hired directly from industrial training institutes. The company said that workers hired through contractors show less commitment to the job.

The new category of temporary workers, called “company temps”, are hired for seven months, after which they are laid off. The must wait five months before they can apply to be re-hired, again on a temporary basis. Their role is described as supporting the permanent workers in welding, painting and assembling cars on the shop-floor. They draw salaries of around Rs 14,000, less than half of what the permanent workers earn. It was these company temps who participated in the protests on Saturday. They claim that on they are paid much less than permanent workers even though they do the same work.

The two men against whom the FIR was registered on Saturday were Khushi Ram and Jitendra, former employees whose services had been terminated after the July 2012 unrest, Gurgaon police commissioner Navdeep Virk said. Both men were present at the factory gates when the demonstration occured.

Torture allegations

Khushi Ram, who is now general secretary of Workers' Solidarity Center, a workers' rights group in Haryana, said he was there to support of the workers. “The policemen stripped me and hit me with rods, batons at Manesar police station,” said Khushi Ram, after he was released on bail on Saturday evening. Police commissioner Navdeep Virk did not respond to text messages about these allegations of torture in police custody.

Business dailies on Saturday reported that Maruti Suzuki Limited had on Friday signed an agreement with workers' unions of its three plants. The new agreement will provide a benefit of Rs 16,800 to permanent workers of the company spread over the next three years, besides an incentive of Rs 3,000 to each worker.

Maruti officials said this had led temporary workers to demand a similar increase in their wages. The management and the temporary workers met for negotiations twice on Friday evening, but the meetings were inconclusive.

“This morning, 500 workers in Shift 'A' blocked the gate," said a company official who asked to remain unidentified. "It was a mob...the workers were quoting different figures for a wage hike and wanted an immediate response on their demands."

Kuldeep Janghu, the general secretary Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union, one of the unions that signed the wage agreement with Maruti management on Friday, said that his association did not back the temporary workers' agitation. “We do not support the temporary workers' demand for similar increase in wages because their work experience and training is lower than that of the permanent workmen,” said Janghu. He added that the union had negotiated with the management for the release of workers from police detention.

Maruti officials said that despite the protests, production was not affected.