India's Maruti locks out workers at riot-hit plant

India's top carmaker Maruti Suzuki said on Saturday it was locking out workers at one of its plants hit by a riot in which one manager burned to death and nearly 100 other executives were injured.

The lockout at Japanese-owned Maruti's Manesar plant near New Delhi that produces 550,000 vehicles a year -- one-third of annual output -- would continue until the safety of its employees could be assured, the company said.

"There is now a lockout. To me, what is more important is the safety of my colleagues rather than producing some cars to make some money," Maruti Suzuki India chairman R.C. Bhargava told a news conference in the Indian capital.

Workers chased Maruti executives with iron bars, destroyed equipment and torched offices in the last Wednesday's riot, according to witnesses, marking India's worst industrial violence in recent memory.

Bhargava said the riot at the factory, which makes some of Maruti's top-selling cars such as its hugely popular Swift hatchback, was a "shocker" for the company despite a history of troubled labour relations at the plant.

The charred body of the plant's human resources manager, Awanish Kumar Dev, was found in a burned-out conference room. Police said he had been unable to flee the flames because attackers had broken his legs.

The plant which employs some 3,000 workers had been closed since Wednesday's violence.

The indefinite lockout comes less than a year after labour disputes at Maruti cost more than $500 million in lost output.

Bhargava said production would not restart until an investigation into the riot was finished and action taken to guarantee a peaceful industrial climate.

In response to repeated questions about how long the plant would be shut, Bhargava replied: "We will be very inefficient if we take six months. I don't think we are that bad."

A protracted closure would be a blow for Maruti, whose profits slid 29 percent last year on the back of labour disputes over pay and union recognition that cost more than $500 million in lost production.

Bhargava dismissed media speculation that Maruti might move the factory, located in northern Haryana state, elsewhere because of the violence.

"Talk of the Maruti unit moving out of Manesar is absolute fiction," he said.


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