Rajiv Bajaj: Managing a plant is a contact sport that calls for courage

Geeta Nair Posted online: Monday, Apr 28, 2014 at 0000 hrs
Workers at Bajaj Autoís Chakan plant may have deferred for two weeks their threat to stop work from Monday but, with the Bombay High Court returning the labour dispute to the industrial tribunal in Pune, managing director, Rajiv Bajaj faces a tough situation. Itís almost a year now since labour unrest broke out at Chakan and while the Bajaj management did meet the workers halfway, offering them an increment of R10,000, the union is not satisfied. In addition to a wage hike of R20,000, it wants workers to be given shares at a discounted price. Bajaj, who has so far been firm with the union, is determined not to give in to what he calls its preposterous demands. The managing director is confident production can be shifted to the Waluj plant and tells Geeta Nair the process has already begun. Edited excerpts from an interview:

This will the second closure at the Chakan plant. How do you propose to deal with it?

We propose to deal with it just the way we did last time ó be firm with the troublemakers, provide protection to the others and safeguard our production. We have said we will not spare the rod. So the action will be as is appropriate to each individual, but we will act with less leniency than we did previously.

Is there any chance of an out-of-court settlement?

I doubt it since this time we are determined to ensure that those who vitiate the work culture are firmly dealt with, even if it means a six-month shutdown.

Will you shift production of motorcycles to the Aurangabad plant like you did last time?

That has already begun. Whether there will be a permanent shift of production from Chakan depends on how the situation there unfolds.

Isn't this dispute becoming a distraction for the management?

We have the management bandwidth to manage all issues simultaneously. We have had the most profitable year in our history; as a global company we judge our performance by our market share across all global markets, not just India.

Wage levels have been rising in the region, industry has been giving hikes of around R10,000 and this is becoming the norm. Aspirations of workers, especially the younger lot, have gone up and they are looking for higher wages...

We have all the data to show that on all important parameters, including compensation, we are the best or one of the best in this industrial region. We challenge the errant union leaders, who are misleading people to believe otherwise, to submit an iota of information to the contrary, instead of perpetuating vague subjective allegations.

How will you ensure that workers buy into your vision of becoming a world-class company and be part of the vision of making Bajaj Auto a world-class motorcycle company? Is it possible to achieve that if peaceful industrial relations remain elusive?

The vast majority already has, which is why Chakan brands like Pulsar, Avenger & KTM are so successful across the world. The few who for their personal ulterior motives are seeking to jeopardise this will be dealt with decisively this time.

Industrial relations experts say there is erosion of trust between the management and the workers, and that there is a need to increase this trust so that disputes can be resolved...

I welcome these academics to step into the real world and practise the wisdom that they preach from the comfort of their armchair. Managing a plant is a contact sport that needs courage, not commentary.