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Rajasthan Govt. Doesn’t Want You To Know Why Honda Workers Will Go On Hunger-Strike

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February 19, 2016: Workers protest in solidarity with Honda workers from Tapukara in Tau Devilal Stadium, Gurgaon. Photo credit: Workers Solidarity Centre, Gurgaon-Bawal
February 19, 2016: Workers protest in solidarity with Honda workers from Tapukara in Tau Devilal Stadium, Gurgaon. Photo credit: Workers Solidarity Centre, Gurgaon-Bawal

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, around 20 to 30 workers and activists are gathered in a park in the industrial town of Manesar. A street-play is in progress. Four actors, with a temporary screen behind them, are enacting the familiar woes of the working classes. As the play progresses, the character playing a newcomer is being urged by ghosts of workers martyred in labour struggles to organise for his own as well the benefit of workers world-wide.

The Industrial Model Township (IMT) of Manesar is just one end of the Manesar-Bawal region, earmarked for auto component and automobile investment. It’s twin in Rajasthan is the Khushkhera-Bhiwadi-Neemrana Region in Rajasthan, marked as General Manufacturing, Automobile, and Auto Component Investment Region. These are the only two automobile and auto component investment regions of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor proposed in the 2007 concept paper for the corridor. Conceptualised “to provide transparent and investment friendly policy/facility regimes”, with financial and technical aids from Japan, and with a concurrent Multi-modal High Axle Load Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) being developed over a length of 1483 km, this Corridor is also a persistent site of labour struggle.

Why Honda Workers Are Going On A Hunger-Strike

In Tapukara near Khushkhera, the portion of the corridor that falls in Rajasthan (39 percent of the length of the freight corridor is in the state), is located one of HMSI’s (Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India Pvt. Ltd.) three factories, the other two being in Manesar and Bangalore. “In Rajasthan, the management everywhere is following the same procedure. They get a stay order issued against registration of the union,” Sonu Sandhu, Vice-President of a proposed union at HMSI tells a group of activists in Delhi at a meeting organised to discuss an indefinite hunger-strike beginning September 19.

In what appears to be a formulaic strategy, barely three years into production, the HMSI factory had started retrenching workers when they started the process of union formation in August 2015. A report prepared by the Workers’ Solidarity Center (Gurgaon-Bawal), a rights group operating in the region, says that as the number of workers decreased, work-pressure had mounted, leading to a strike when an ill worker was allegedly forced to work overtime on successive days and then slapped when he refused. Suspensions, terminations, lathicharge, and arrests followed this February 16 incident.

Over 70 workers, including leaders of the union, were arrested, the workers allege, on false charges including attempt to murder. While workers have been granted bail, a stay order on the registration of their union from November 2015 continues. Instead, a BMS union (the ruling BJP’s labour wing) was registered around May, where some 60 workers who individually went back to the company were inducted while tripartite negotiations involving the Labour Department were on with the workers outside. Following a June 6 settlement, in which some 256 workers were reinstated, the management submitted that it will only negotiate with the registered union thereon. This stalemate over the remaining 3000 contract workers and around 150 permanent workers has made them propose an indefinite hunger-strike that will start at Jantar Mantar on September 19 and can possibly draw support from workers’ unions, student unions, and citizens across Delhi. They will be protesting for their right to union formation, collective bargaining, peaceful assembly and protest, and against legal and extra-legal repression by the management and state machinery.

Additional Labour Commissioner (Industrial Relations) of Rajasthan CBS Rathore, however, told me that since a union recognised by the management has been registered and a settlement reached with that union for three years, he considers the factory to be working fine. Asked about the arrests, he said, “After that a settlement has been reached. I think it (the factory) is quite in normalcy”.

Similar Repression Across DMIC

Sandhu tells the group in Delhi that their case is not unique. Shriram Pistons in nearby Pathredi has had a similar fate. “There are comrades from Daikin who are still fighting. They do not have a union by the way. There is a stay on their union too,” he tells the group.

The uniformity and extent of this alleged clinical procedure of dismantling workers’ organisation can also be learnt from the response in the region to the September 2 all-India strike of workers. Around 13 current and former Maruti workers, after being detained on the day and charges being levelled against them, have been told that the matter will be settled without any hassles when there is a hearing on September 21, the Maruti’s Manesar Plant President Ajmer Singh told me. This is apart from a 4-year-long court-case, where former workers of the plant are being granted bail even now, as nobody has been convicted yet. On September 13, for the first time and after over hundred workers were gradually granted bail, four former office-bearers of the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union were granted bail.

Group of workers holding banners and flags marching down a road. Photo credit: Abhishek Jha
July 18, 2016: Workers march in Gurgaon in solidarity with Maruti workers in jail since 2012. Photo credit: Abhishek Jha

At Daikin too, which manufactures ACs and has a plant in Neemrana, a worker was suspended because he allegedly stopped diploma trainees from going to work during the all-India strike but was then taken back in after only half a day of strike on the 3rd. Sanjay Dewan, Director (Factory), denied even the September 2 strike took place until questioned further, when he accepted that some workers had gone on a strike. He denied knowing any worker by that name when asked about the suspension.

The workers here have had a stay order on the registration of their union since 2013. The workers who were terminated after the process of union formation was initiated continue to protest. Manmohan, a worker terminated during the union formation process, told me that some 450 workers from Daikin had struck work during the all-India strike.

This has led workers to also organise across factories. Honda workers from Tapukara are supported by their counterparts in Manesar as well as other existing unions or proposed unions in the region.

Stay On Unions Despite Directives

But unions not getting registered may appear peculiar, given the Ministry of Labour and Employment had announced before the September 2 strike that advisories “will be issued to all the States Governments to ensure that registration of Trade Unions takes place within 45 days (sic).” Rathore, however, denied having received any such advisory yet. “At present I don’t remember any such communication in writing we have received from the Ministry,” he told me. Asked then about the Daikin plant, he offered that “until the injunction is vacated, anybody will not be able to take it forward”.

Rathore also opposed strikes and protests. He was of the opinion that the matter be brought to the notice of the labour department. “You can opt for that provision. Only then you can get relief. If you choose the other course of action then it is your choice,” he told me. Questioned then about the pendency of these cases over years, he replied that in that case more courts and staff should be there and that the system should be strengthened. “If you go on protesting like this, then a solution is not there. Solution is here,” he replied.

A street-play in progress in SPM Park, IMT Manesar, Photo credit: Abhishek Jha
A street-play in progress at SPM Park, IMT Manesar.

Sandhu, however, says that they have to protest because they face unprecedented repression from the administration. “It is so dangerous that if they learn that Sonu is in this room, they raid that room” he says, “On this 7th, we were only talking among ourselves, and summons were issued for 35 people.” Moreover, he says, the management has stopped talking to them now. With permission for any assembly or protests not being granted anywhere from Gurgaon to Alwar, they have now decided to hold a hunger-strike at Jantar Mantar and are mobilising workers from other places in NCR to join them.

In the latter half of the street-play, which the group of actors performs across NCR, the audience is engaged with Salman Khan (the play itself is named after a new movie “Sultan”); then the play pits the Bollywood big-shot’s privileges against what is common knowledge for workers: The rich and powerful can get away with murder but the workers are incarcerated even for demanding their rights. A little nugget of labour history, another ounce of labour politics, and the newcomer is ready to fight along his fellow comrades. Even before losing the proverbial blindfold, the worker knows the nature of his relationship with his maalik. He exclaims: “Hamaara khoon choos ke to maalik bana hai saala! (He became the owner sucking on our blood!).” The newcomer’s transformation isn’t difficult.

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