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Taking hostages, sometimes it is a commercial negotiation tactic. I should know!

Monday April 6th, 2009 by fathersez


I found this picture in Google from a story about Karnataka Housing Board officials being gheraoed for being late in water supply connections.  Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the gherao that I went through. I suppose the taking of pictures was very far in my mind.

Taking the boss hostage? In France it is a labour tactic, says the New York Times. Apparently this had happened during some labour related disputes in the French operations of Caterpillar, 3M and Sony.

Taking the head honcho or the senior executives hostage is not rare. Coming to think of it, the workers cannot wait for all the legal and “corporate big talk”. The most effective avenue they have is the “holding the senior officers hostage” tactic. This gets them publicity, applies tremendous pressure on the senior officers and their bosses, and most often results in concessions being given by the other party.  

Holding someone against his or her will is, of course, illegal. Still the Authorities seldom inflict the punishment that comes with hostage taking on the offending parties. Countries like India, many of the African countries, Indonesia and even in some cases, Malaysia have had examples of these.  

In India, trade disputes such as non payment of debts are often settled by these measures. The creditor and his supporting cast (usually other creditors and their staff) just walk into the office of the debtor and sit there, refusing to leave until their debts are settled. You can imagine the   pressure applied on the debtor to find the funds to settle these creditors.  

In India, the term used to describe this kind of tactic is gherao.  

I went through a gherao in Orissa, India sometime in 2004.  

We were building a highway project there and there were some payment disputes with some of our subcontractors. I strongly suspect there was also an element of complicity by some of our local staff.  

Anyway it all started harmlessly enough. 5 guys turned up in our quarters seemingly claiming to want to discuss their payments with me. (This was on a Thursday evening.) They refused to go home and wanted some settlement to be arrived at there and then. They insisted on staying the night. As they were people I was well acquainted with, I agreed.  

The next morning more people joined in. Even people who were not our subcontractors. Basically it turned into a crowd, but I must say that they were generally well behaved and there was no chanting or beating of the war drums, so to speak. I mean, these were largely people with whom we had worked for well over a year!

We called the Malaysian Embassy in Delhi, and the person I spoke to informed the Indian Foreign Ministry.  And that night all hell broke loose. A police riot squad was despatched to our house and we were asked if we were feeling threatened in any way. By then about 15 of my staff had joined me, including two fellow Malaysians. A local TV crew turned up and basically we were portrayed not much different from being the scum of the earth. 

The Superintendent of Police for the District was also there and he explained to me that he was sorry about this, but there was little he could do. But the little was quite a lot. He made sure the guys did not cross an imaginary line he drew on the other side of the road facing our house. I was allowed to freely move about but not to leave the District without informing him. I thought that was pretty fair. 

By now my Head Office was aware of this gherao and arrangements had been made to send the required funds over. We finalised the accounts of each and every contractor, though I must admit that we were a little naughty in finalising the accounts of the chief instigators last. 

All the while, including at night, they took turns to watch the house, perhaps to make sure that we did not slip away in the middle of the night. That thought never crossed my mind. For one, the town we were in, was about a four hour drive from the state capital and the road was also not a good one. To face such a crowd along the road would be far worse that what we were going through. 

On Saturday, one of the chief instigators called one of my staff, the Project Manager who was an Indian, though not from Orissa. I think he must have been quite pissed at having been made to wait his turn whilst others were being paid. Some very harsh words were spoken including an alleged threat to my PM’s life. 

I asked everyone to stop work and we went to see the SP to lodge a report, and the reaction was firm and immediate. The SP’s logic was simple. We were taking steps to make payment and people were being paid. We were also working late into the night and this fact had been reported back to him by his patrolling officers. The SP gave the rest of the crowd a sharp tongue lashing (the guy who made the threat by then had taken off and I have never seen him since), and told them all to go home and not to come back unless they were called by us.

He also told them that if we made another report, he would not care if it was false, but would just lock each and everyone of them up. 

That was the instant the gherao ended. 

Looking back, it was one of the most harrowing times of my life. I had to show leadership in this time of crisis and I think I persevered. Later I was told by some of my local staff that if I had just bowed to the “head of the instigators” all these would have just blown away.  

Still I am very grateful to the Malaysian Embassy in Delhi, the Indian Foreign Service and the Superintendent of Police in Berhampur, Orissa. I count myself really lucky that this incident did not happen at some of the other Indian states where even the Police might not have been able to be of much help. 

I feel for those expatriates who come from developed countries and get posted to 3rd world nations where trade disputes are not always settled via the courts. It would have been terrifying and most probably result in a complete overhaul of life’s priorities in the minds of those affected.  

Still, I never thought something like this could happen in France!

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3 Comments for “Taking hostages, sometimes it is a commercial negotiation tactic. I should know!”

by Patrick
On April 17, 2009
At 7:42 pm

Very interesting story! I can’t say I have ever experienced anything like this before, and I hope I don’t! Still, I understand where the workers are coming from. There are many places where workers are taken advantage of and the corporation won’t do anything about it until they absolutely have to.

On April 17, 2009
At 10:41 pm

It is not an experience I would like to go through again. Lucky for me, the atmosphere was not violent. The Superintendent of Police made sure of that. Other managers in India have fared far worse, including being lynched…I shudder when I think back at the risks I was taking.


[…] Taking hostages, sometimes it is a commercial negotiation tactic. I should know!. This is an interesting first hand account of how labor relations in Malaysia are quite different than they are here in the US. […]

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