Complaining of one-sided media reports, four arrested Maruti employees offer an alternative narrative to the carnage that befell the automaker’s Manesar plant on July 18

Return to work at Manesar with Maruti? Never again, says Ashok, a 22-year-old worker from the stricken factory, with a shudder. An apprentice for the last three months, Ashok, a native of Hisar, spoke to Outlook hours before he was picked up by the police and charged with murder. The young man, along with 91 other workers of Maruti’s Manesar plant, is now lodged in Gurgaon Central Jail.

Ashok and three other workers protest their innocence, claiming that the cctv footage would prove them right. When informed that the footage was said to have been damaged in the arson, they are incredulous. “The fire might have damaged the camera and the lens, but the footage should be available in the central monitor,” they argue. But after hurried consultations among themselves, they concede that if the fire was caused by a short circuit, it could have stopped the recording.

The first shift that day (6.30 am to 3 pm) was uneventful, they recall. It was only after they had come out of the plant that they found the gate locked and police and security personnel milling at the exit. They were not allowed to punch their attendance card either (the company’s version is that workers from the first shift stubbornly stayed back, indicating that the violence was pre-planned). Those who were arrested say the workers, on being denied permission to leave, grew increasingly restive. Almost four hours later, there was a sudden commotion and several “injured” workers rushed out of the office building. Some were shouting, “bhaago, jaan bachao.” The general word was, “Police aur management kisi ko nahin chhodenge.”

The four are unable (or unwilling) to explain what had led to the commotion or how the workers sustained injuries. But they appear unanimous in their assertion that many more workers were injured that day than managers. They feel the workers’ version is not being aired and that the media is only publishing what it is being briefed by the management and state government.

The workers accuse the company of increasing production without adding to the number of workers or the required machinery. Leave, they recall, was hard to get. They were entitled to just nine days’ leave every year in addition to the weekly off, they claim. Medical and casual leave might have existed on paper, they say, but for every working day they missed beyond the nine sanctioned leave days, the company would deduct `1,500. A maximum of seven days off was permitted for a worker getting married. But if, say, it was a sister’s wedding, any request for more than two days’ leave was frowned upon. “They treat us like slaves,” says 28-year-old Ram Kumar of Jaunpur—the only contract worker amongst the four.

A large number of workers would be suspended for several weeks and months if they protested or did not report for work. Their absorption as regular employees would be put off and their promotion delayed. “The `4,500 paid to me was not even enough to pay for the rent, food and transport and most of us had to fall back upon remittances from home,” complains Ranjit, an apprentice, also hailing from Hisar. “Ek chaddhi tak nahin khareed sakte the,” Ranjit adds, with no little bitterness.

There’s obviously strong resentment against some of the local villagers, particularly those who are opposed to the workers’ agitation in the fear that the plant will be ‘shifted’. The company, they added, would not dare recruit local boys under prevailing working conditions. “It’s easier to coerce outsiders and treat them like slaves,” exclaims one, while his colleague defiantly chips in, “let the local Lotharios survive even 10 days in these conditions.”

(All names have been changed to protect the identities of workers.)