Are Humans Just Resources?

Posted in Human Resources Articles, Total Reads: 3207 , Published on 06 October 2011

It is a well accepted fact that role of HR has changed over time. It has moved on from the time it was a corner desk job, to reactive people management, to proactive management and finally being the strategic business partner. Today, HR participates in the decision making process and shares the table when taking key decisions. HR is living the role of change champion.

Is human just a resource ?

From the times when it was considered to be an intangible service, to today, when we calculate the impact on the bottom line, HR as a function has come a long way. Manpower planning, cost and ROI to the company on activities like recruitment, training etc form the basis of many decisions in the company. After all ‘we get what we measure!’ So, metrics did redefine our roles as HR managers, didn’t they?

But are we running too fast and beyond means to increase the bottom line?

Why do I ask this? Because all the praise and fanfare comes to a grinding halt when faced with the realities of the striking workers of the Maruti Suzuki plant in Manesar.  Media reports say that “The Company provides a 30-minute lunch break, ten minutes of which goes in travelling to the canteen 400 m away”. This break includes the removal & wearing of the safety gear, the time spent in the queues waiting for their lunch as all the workers get their break at the same time and time for going urinating. “A seven-minute break is given for tea and using the bathroom. Going on leave becomes almost impossible as Rs 1,500 is deducted for every day on casual leave from the salary” – salary being Rs. 5,500/month for an unskilled contract worker and 18,000 for a permanent worker. The 8 hour shifts often extend and it is compensated by paying Rs.20 an hr.

Are we getting blinded by all the money that can be saved by using such measures? Is Employee relation just about a transactional approach and meeting labor laws? Are the blue collared workers commodities? Even with all the justified constraints that exist in the manufacturing industry, are we treating them right? Are we doing enough?

Who is to be held responsible for such a situation? Is there a flaw with the sector or the laws governing the sector? With the National Manufacturing Policy coming up and the development of National Manufacturing and Investment Zones (NMIZs) the contract Labour Abolition Act will not be applicable to these zones and the labour laws will become more flexible. It will give the employer the flexibility to downsize, the number of hours per shift would undergo change and the right to form unions would be restricted to workers who are drawing a salary below a certain limit. Though the policy will bring in more FDI’s and boost GDP but at whose cost? Though the ministry maintains that ‘Wherever application of labor welfare legislation is suspended or diluted, an alternative safety net will be put in place to take care of the interest of labor’ (Source: Discussion Paper on National Manufacturing Policy) the only question that strikes me is – If this is the situation of the workers when it is said that the labor policies are employee friendly, what would be the scenario when we lax them?

India is an independent and democratic country. Forming a union is a legitimate right of the workers. Neither debating the fact that political ploys often rule such formations nor that it has its own implications in the working of the organization, but is lockout a solution to the current problem at Manesar? The Labor Secretary of Government of India Mr. P. C Chaturvedi, in his statement to Financial Express on September 2nd, 2011 said that it was ‘illegal for the company to ask workers to sign a good conduct bond as a precondition to work, to which MSI chairman Mr. RC Bhargava responded saying company was well within its rights to ask for the signing of such a bond since workers were sabotaging production.’ But are we not looking at the behavioral results and providing un-sustainable solutions?  Are the conditions imposed in the ‘Good Conduct Bond’, violating their rights like ‘stay-in-strike’ and the ‘right-to-work’? The causes of the June, 2011 strike were also not known but for media reporting reasons like uniforms, wages and deplorable working conditions.

On one end where we talk of getting the best out of the employee, of their achieving results and respecting others but are we not striking at the base of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, thus destabilizing the whole framework, when we deprive them of the basic physiological need of excretion? [During the 13 day strike at MSI in 2005, only one bathroom was open for more than 2000 workers, health facilities withdrawn and the water coolers are not working]. Isn’t their need for safety and earning livelihood threatened? And not to forget that most of them are away from their families to earn a livelihood, hence, their need for belongingness gets challenged. If the basic necessities don’t get fulfilled it is bound to snap out energy from the higher tiers of the hierarchy. Wouldn’t it be wrong on our part to expect them to respect others given the situations they face? I am not saying that they should be paid extravagant wages but there are certain basic hygiene factors like job security and working conditions which are a mandate if we want to at least avoid such situations from erupting.

Similar was the case for Honda motors in 2005 located at Manesar, Haryana. Apart from Center for Education and Communication and other sources, Nagraj Adve in his article “Living to fight another day – The attack on Honda’s workers” in the Economic and Political Weekly, dated September10, 2005 has talked about the brutal attack on the workers, followed by lock out and efforts of undermining unionization by asking them to sign blank sheets and hiring of goons to intimidate them. There were cases of suspension without inquiry and dismissal without notice, let alone termination of permanent employees. Such incidents have been a regular feature since the late 1970’s. With capitalistic intents and desire for better FDI investments, have we forgotten that our resources are humans?

A similar case happened in Nike in 2001, conditions being low food and sanitation, low wages, no grievance system, denial of sick leaves and therefore, alleged death of two workers because of the same.  The whole thing continued until the intervention of human right activists. Nike had to face the heat because of abysmal working conditions in the third world countries, unfair and deceptive practices, physical and sexual abuse. Fingers have been pointed not just on Nike but other companies as well that there is a huge disparity in the wages and the policies that they adhere to in their home countries vis-à-vis the others. Their employees are humans but aren’t ours? How can we turn a blind eye to our own people? They learnt at a great cost but have we learned nothing?

It is good to talk of CSR activities and of giving back to the society which helps us thrive. All companies today talk of CSR, but is it a sincere effort or just a ‘fashion’ statement? Is it right to talk all this and still keep our employees suffering in sweat shops? Doesn’t charity begin at home? Whom are we trying to help with such contrasting policies and practices? Do we always need a human right activist to wake us up? To tell us that there is something wrong that is happening in our own premises? Who is accountable?

I wouldn’t blame the companies for using all means to make profits, and that is what they are in business for but at whose cost? No one, not even the workers expect themselves to be treated as kings but at least as humans. It is a fine line between business ethics and profit that we are treading. These are just a few examples of what prevails in the industry. The questions here are not raised at the companies mentioned but to us as managers, as human beings.  As HR managers has our status as ‘strategic business partner’ muted us to this extent?  Has the metrics defied ethics and conscience? Are we the true change champions?

About the Author

Diksha Shrivastava is a student of TAPMI, Manipal. Her interests include Painting and Singing apart from of course business.


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