Honda Workers Strike: Ease of Maltreating Labour
Big companies break unions apart because they fight for dignity, rights and safety for the mazdoor. They use draconian policies and enlist the help of the State apparatus to quell protest; yet the protesting workers soldier on braving all sorts of adversities
On February 16 this year, 3000 Honda workers were unceremoniously sacked from the factory at Tapukara, Rajasthan. Ever since, the workers have been rallying and protesting against the management while simultaneously trying to fight for their rights and raise awareness about the problems that workers face every day.
The struggle that began in February has seen twists, turns, the insides of jail cells, and police violence amongst many other hurdles. The demonstration has now entered the ninth month and its shape and form has changed many times over. The Honda workers union travels from village to village, mobilising people. They have organised a nationwide boycott of Honda products. They have also started an indefinite hunger strike, and plan to intensify and escalate the struggle in the coming months.
On September 19, the Honda workers from Rajasthan decided to take their protests to New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar where they began their indefinite hunger strike. Here, they’ve received support from trade unions and also bipartisan support, cutting across political lines. Recently, Swaraj Abhiyan and Swaraj India Party co-founder Yogendra Yadav visited the workers at the site of the protest to extend his support to their cause. AK Padmanabhan, President of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, too has extended support.
However, the workers feel that the media has covered their struggle in a myopic manner, choosing to highlight visits of celebrities rather than focusing on the core issues.
At the heart of their struggle is the demand for the basic rights of the factory worker: job security, to be treated with respect and the safety of workers who work in hazardous conditions. What has happened instead is that the demand for their rights has been continuously countered by the State apparatus, which according to them is at the beck and call of the company management, and the police in collusion with the management has tried again and again to break the back of the union.
During the September 2 union protests that took place all over India, the largest number of workers came from the industrial regions in Manesar, Bawana, Tapukara and Neemrana to protest against the denial of their rights. Most of these workers are not part of centrally recognised unions, and walked great distances, missed work days and as a result much needed daily wages to protest. What is motivating these workers to come out in such large numbers? Why have unions become necessary for these industrial enclaves? Why do these workers give up their wages that provide security to unionise and in turn face the ire of both the company management and in turn the State?
In a conversation with Hardnews, several members of the Honda workers union spoke about the issues, their struggle and what they have faced in the past year.
Why did you begin protesting? What made you protest?
Naresh Kumar Mehta: I joined the factory in 2011, the management at the very beginning had given us a letter in which they had said that after three years we would be made permanent employees; when three years passed they increased the probation period for all the workers by six months. That was the first instance of harassment that we faced. Then there was the issue of overtime and the way the supervisors would use abusive language with us. Overtime and arrears slips that we would keep, which accounted for the amount of time we had worked, would never be reimbursed. It’s not like they had a large number of permanent workers on their payroll that their costs would go up. As I recollect, there were only 467 permanent workers, it can’t be possible that their overhead costs are that high.
It was the contractual labour who had the hardest time, they would be recruited from far-flung regions in states like Odisha, and brought on the promise of full-time (permanent) work, but instead would be made contractual workers. If they raised questions they would be promptly shown the door. However, this was not the end of their ordeal, their original documents would be withheld as a tool to force them into work.
Shiv: Our income was Rs 10-12,000 and if we took holidays only 6,000 or 8,000 would come. When we were recruited I was promised a salary of 11,000.The biggest concern for us was safety. I worked on the aluminium line. After the motor part would get baked at 210 degrees Celsius I would have to pick up the part with my worn-out gloves. This was extremely dangerous. I could have suffered burn injuries.
The PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) that was supposed to be given to us was not distributed. We were given one pair of gloves, one mask, and we were made to do tasks for which you were required to have extra protective gear which was not provided. Perhaps this was done to cut costs at the expense of worker safety. When the standard issue gloves would tear, or were inadequate, workers would have to make do. There were accidents with everyone, contractual labourers were the worst-off. Many times they have got injured. Shockingly, there were no redressal measures. At the end of the day what mattered was that the production shouldn’t stop.
The management would promise us training, but that would never happen. The management would make us sign papers that they would then pass off as safety training.
Rajpal: I was the first person suspended, and the issue was related to the sub-standard food we were given. I was suspended for just complaining about the food quality. One morning a samosa with a large stone in it was served in the canteen. I complained at 8 am and I was suspended by 2.30 pm when I got off duty.
Naresh Kumar: We used to wear nitro gloves. As it is specialised work, only a few would get it. We would use cutting oil that is bad for the skin. When the nitro gloves would tear, we were made to use cotton gloves; as a result we would get allergies and skin problems because of this. Things were harder whenever a contract labourer on the line would be laid off. We were explicitly told that the work on the line should never stop, and when the new labourer would join we were expected to keep the line going. The new recruits were untrained and were put on the main line. As a result any errors that they would commit would become our fault and we were promptly penalised for them.
How did the movement start?
Naresh Kumar: As we have said there were many problems to start with, over and above that there were many other basic amenities that were denied to us such as transport. We were made to go in small autos – 20-30 workers at a time, sometimes these autos would topple. Some workers died due to this. There were no increments and the salaries were cut randomly. These reasons led to anger amongst the workers. We began mobilising in June and July 2015 and were trying to form a union. On July 26, 2015, we had a meeting to discuss the problems. I used to work in Hero motorcycles, I saw the way the union there helped in managing the workload and the relationships on the line. We thought at this point that a similar union was absolutely necessary in the Honda factory as well.
We googled where other unions were fighting, and attempted to understand their struggles. We found that at the nearby Daikin factory, there were workers who were being oppressed and were protesting, we began meeting several unions and with their help put in the file for the union. The management found out through the labour department, we suspect that the department told the company.
The management started removing people from the factory without reason, terminating their employment. They first removed the contractual workers, then the permanent ones, and then finally our secretary, Rajpal, was suspended. Then the lay-offs became routine, three or four permanent members were removed in a matter of a few weeks. I was transferred, I wasn’t removed, I got a punishment posting to Bihar. The reason they gave me for the transfer was that according to the rules you can only go out of the factory twice for two hours per month. When I applied for leave I wasn’t given it on the grounds of asking for going out several times, and was called to the gate and told I was being transferred.
When we took the issue to the labour department, they wrote to the management saying that, as I was the head of the union, I can’t be transferred. The management didn’t listen, and seeing what was happening in the factory, I refused to go and my post was terminated on February 9.
Rajpal: This was the first transfer in the factory, and it became evident to us that the transfer was a tit for tat move. This was the first time something like this happened in the plant. These tactics were used regularly to instil fear in us and prevent us from raising our voices. For example, in 2011, they gave 40 warning letters to quell our protests.
On February 16, one worker who was working for two days in a row was asked to work again, and when he refused he was roughed up and slapped by a supervisor.
The union was already up and running, and when the worker presented his case in front of us we pushed for the management to take strict action against the supervisor. We planned to apply pressure for a warning letter to be issued. The plant remains shut for one hour every day, we decided to call a meeting of all the workers at that time. However, getting to know about it, they locked us out of the factory. One shift worth of workers was inside, the other shifts were outside. They had locked us out for raising our voices, and demanding justice.
The police was called by the management, they came and said that the issue could be solved through dialogue and compromise. We agreed. Five of us went to talk things out with the management, but it didn’t work out. After a while, when there was an impasse, the police locked us up. This was the beginning of our agitation. I was kept in jail for 18 days, and when I got out I found out what had happened during the time I was inside.
Surendra: After a couple of hours, at around seven, the police lathicharged again. Those who had organised the meeting were asked to leave the plant and, despite the workers agreeing to disperse, the police lathicharged them. The management told all the workers that those outside the factory would never get to come back, and got a restraining order of 500 metres. The workers galvanised and said that they wouldn’t vacate the factory until their co-workers returned.
The police pounced upon the workers and they needed urgent medical attention; their legs were broken and their heads were bleeding. Moreover, 39 more workers were put in jail on charges of attempt to murder, under IPC 307, 185, 147,151 and many other laws. All this happened on February 16.
For the next couple of days, we would protest in regions close by (Dharuhera) and the police would come and assault us, and they continued to arrest more and more workers. At this point, we got more and more support from the neighbouring industrial regions such as Dharuhera, Manesar, and Gurgaon and we protested in front of the Honda head office in Gurgaon. This happened on February 18-19.
After this, the police became more heavyhanded on charges of blocking Highway 58. People were detained and things for us became worse every day. The support of fellow workers, both from our factories and other plants, helped us get our friends out. The courts had set the bail bonds as high as one or two lakh per worker, and we were 44 who were inside, but people came together and got us out. This gave us much strength.
In the time between February 16 and October, the Honda workers have been protesting in every district of Rajasthan and neighbouring Delhi and Haryana. According to them, the police has continuously been used as a means to prevent them from protesting. “Whenever we would call for a protest the police would come at night and take us into preventive custody. This happened in March, April, June, and July,” according to Surendra. The management has been unwilling to hear them out, or negotiate with them and has accused them of breaking machinery in the plant during their two-day protest.
According to them, a dummy union has also been created at the factory, under the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which represents the government-management nexus. The union has also tried to fill vacancies, but it is afraid that the rights that they are fighting for will collapse like a house of cards in front of the number of people who are unemployed and are looking for jobs. They fear that people will take up jobs despite the vagrant disregard for their safety and rights.
The fight for them has now moved from not just being a fight on the streets or at the plant, but a social media fight which they want to continuously go viral, to raise issues about the rights of workers in all these industrial enclaves. They use Facebook and WhatsApp to spread their message, and have started a thread called ‘Honda Workers Struggle’. One of the main tasks they have taken upon themselves is to push for a boycott of Honda products all over the country on the grounds that since untrained workers are making these products, they are of inferior quality.
However, it is not just the Honda workers who are being penalised for forming unions, the rise of anger against the vagrant disregard for labour laws has led to minor labour uprisings everywhere in these industrial complexes. “Workers are agitating in Neemrana, in Manesar, in Rudrapur where they have been on an indefinite hunger strike for 20 days for a company called Minda,” they say.
With low wages, lack of job security and ill-treatment at the hands of the government, these workers have no option but to unionise. Yet, once they begin the demand for their rights the heavy hand of the State is used to browbeat them, criminalise their protesting and in turn make them criminals. Ideology is now what guides them. They idolise Bhagat Singh, talk of social reform and call themselves socialists, “We aren’t scared of jail anymore, all we want is our rights,” declare Surendra and Rajpal.