A Lean Production System is Bad for Workers
Image: Amit Verma
n 1936, Charlie Chaplin released his movie Modern Times. The film starts with the shot of a herd of jostling pigs followed by a frame that captures a swarm of workers entering a steel factory. It makes a telling statement on the similarity in the behaviour of animals and humans. The movie then goes on to tell the story of Chaplin, whose job as a factory worker involves tightening nuts on a piece of machinery on the assembly line. After a few hours, as the line accelerates and work picks up a frenetic pace, Chaplin suffers a nervous breakdown, creates terror on the floor and ends up in hospital. Three quarters of a century later, nothing seems to have changed.
Sitting in the library of Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), Professor Annavajhula J C Bose says the human mind goes through severe stress when it has to do the same task over and over again for more than eight hours a day and for over 350 days a year. Repetitive function, along with a punishing work environment and ridiculously low wages, saps a worker mentally and physically. “It is no surprise that these factories need young guys who can slave that much. But, by the time you are 35, you are done,” he says.
Bose is associate professor in the department of economics at SRCC. Over the past 10 years, he has trawled the factories and villages of Gurgaon, Noida and Faridabad to study the condition of workers in one of the largest automobile clusters in India. In his PhD thesis, which he submitted in July, Bose has uncovered shocking realities of the life of a worker and the pitfalls of following the Japanese lean production system blindly.
In the past four years, there has been an alarming rise in industrial conflicts in the National Capital Region. Skirmishes between workers and the management at Honda, Maruti Suzuki and Pricol factories have led to the loss of hundreds of jobs and many lives. What has caused such catastrophe? Bose blames it on the much-touted Japanese lean production system that, he says, has failed to deliver on its promised benefits. Not just in India but across the world. “People said there will be innovation in the automobile industry all over the world and they talked about lean production as its basis. A lot of people also said the industry will be the bellwether of employability in terms of labour relations,” says Bose. He, along with a few researchers, decided to check if there was any empirical evidence to back this claim.
What they found was startling. During the golden era of capitalism in the 60s and the 70s, all top Japanese companies ensured job security, wages based on seniority, enterprise unionism and consultative decision making—components that make up labour-friendly working conditions. They quickly junked the model when economic recession set in in the 1990s. What they proposed instead was a restructuring, dubbing it the ‘Japanese style of management in a new era’ and throwing job security and seniority-based pay system out of the window. According to the new principle, each firm should figure out how to separate ‘stock’ and ‘flow’ workers and decide pay strictly on the basis of performance.
Bose contends that this new form of lean production led to the rise of exploitation of contract labour. He explains how. On the pretext of maintaining a flexible workforce, the owner of a unit creates a fake contractor from among the supervisors and managers. The contractor is not registered as it would entail valid records, regular wages and other entitlements. He then informs the labourers that they are contract workers, pays them a pittance and never makes them permanent. “Doing field research on this is very difficult. Nobody wants to talk about the contractors. My own sense tells me they are dangerous people,” adds Bose.