On May 31, 2017, approximately 600 workers were lathicharged outside the gates of Aisin Automotive Haryana Private Limited. Subsequently, 390 men and 35 women were arrested and sent to jail. Their crime? They tried to form a trade union to secure their rights.
When Aman* got ready for work on the morning of May 3, 2017, she was still waiting for the company bus to arrive. She called the driver and was informed that the bus had already left. She did not suspect anything unusual until she reached the locked gates of the factory and saw bouncers in the dozens, on the other side of the gates.
Outside the factory gates of Aisin Automotive Haryana Private Limited (Aisin), was displayed a notice with names of 20 casual workers who had been summarily dismissed from service.
Their dismissal followed closely after the rejection of an application for the formation of a trade union, by the name of “Aisin Automotive Haryana Mazdoor Union”, which was filed on March 20, 2017. The application was rejected on the basis that there were not enough members to form a registered trade union.
A proviso to Section 4 of the Trade Union Act, 1926 states that no trade union can be registered unless 10% or 100 of the workmen (whichever is less) engaged or employed in the establishment or industry with which it is connected, are the members of such a union on the date of making of application for registration. As per the records of the union members, at the time of making the application, the company had employed 280 permanent workers, 250 trainees and 150 workers on probation. It was their contention that the company had fudged the records and showed 513 permanent workers on paper in order to increase the number of workers required to form a registered trade union. Out of these 513, a few had in fact left the organisation two to three months prior and many were not even given an appointment letter confirming their status.
Even before the office of the registrar relayed the news of the rejection of the application to the workers, the management of Aisin had already forwarded WhatsApp messages to the workers informing them of the rejection of their application. The workers received the status of their application formally from the labour department 10 days later.
On May 3, 600 workers saw the list and an undertaking displayed on the gates of the factory. The undertaking asked each worker to pledge that they would not take part in any untoward activities against the company and not be a part of any trade union. With a unified voice, they refused to sign the undertaking and enter the premises unless the dismissal of the 20 workers was withdrawn.
The workers remained outside the gates of the company for close to 30 days, in protest. In official meetings with the labour commissioner cum conciliation officer, Rohtak; the district commissioner, Rohtak; and the management of Aisin; the workers’ demands and complaints were arbitrarily rejected. The intention of the state officials and the company management was to harass and delay. At one point, when the workers relented, out of weariness, and agreed to let the court proceedings take their course with respect to the dismissed workers, the very next day, the company management released a new list of additional workers to be dismissed and another one with names of 150 workers, the day after that.
Jaswinder, a student at Maharishi Dayanand University, Rohtak, who was also present there through the month of May in support of the Aisin workers, said, “It was exemplary how the workers remained in complete discipline throughout the protest. They sat outside the company gates in scorching heat, dust storms and rain from May 3 to May 31. They did not relent and peacefully put their demands in front of the management.”
In the month of May, the workers combined various methods of peaceful protest such as indefinite/relay hunger strike, but to no avail. Aisin and its management continued their recalcitrant attitude towards the workers and finally, on May 31, 2017, a battalion of around 700 police officials was called. A brutal lathi charge ensued and women were not spared, even small children were beaten up and the men were roughed up badly. Sitting in protest with the workers were also many family members who had come out in support and concern for their children. These parents who had travelled from far off places out of concern and in support of their family members were also thrashed.
Subsequently, 390 men and 35 women were arrested and sent to jail. All of them are now out on bail. These workers who are paid a meagre salary of anywhere between ₹6,800 – ₹8,000 per month (with many a worker receiving an annual pay hike of ₹1!) will now be spending their life’s savings on court fees only to be trapped inside the unending trauma of Indian courts’ summary dismissals.
Aisin is a Japanese company engaged in the business of manufacture and sales of automotive parts. It has two factories in India, one in Karnataka and the other in Rohtak, Haryana. Operational since 2012, within five years it looks like Aisin workers are operating in similar oppressive conditions as Maruti workers allegedly were. According to the workers, the company had started with a production of 300-600 products per day on one established assembly line. They have now reached a capacity of approximately 2,500 products in a day on 16 different assembly lines. As per the details about the company available in the public domain, they produce about 280,000 door latches per month (i.e. about 9,000 per day) and the company is looking to double its revenue by the end of 2018.
While the shareholders of the company and the foreign investment record keepers of India rejoice and celebrate the success of foreign companies, workers toil and shed their blood and sweat which eventually leads only to humiliation, physical threats, and jail time.
The shop floor mechanics of this factory are not unlike Maruti in Manesar. Jasbir, the president of the union informed that the company requires the workers to finish assembling one product within 12 seconds, which means that five products needed to be finished in a minute. Jasbir and Anil (general secretary of the union) shared horror stories of oppression and mismanagement within the factory. They said that the environment is dictatorial. For instance, if workers stopped work to drink water at any time during their shift, they were reminded bluntly and in obscene language that their water breaks were causing losses in millions. Workers were strictly forbidden from talking to each other and their canteen was so far from the shop floor that in the 15 minutes of break that they were allowed (other than lunch) 10 were spent in walking to and fro from the canteen. It goes without saying that none of the workers was paid for overtime work.
As per the union member, workers were punished for acts such as drinking water and taking an extra two minutes to go to the washroom, by being asked to stand in one place the entire day, sometimes under the blazing sun. Bathroom breaks were rarely given and menstruating women had to divulge the specific reasons for using the facilities, whenever the management decided that their number of bathroom breaks was more than the usual. They were also subjected to rude and humiliating behaviour when a couple of women collectively asked for one small box to be kept on the shop floor, to use as storage for their sanitary napkins, which they were eventually denied.
There were numerous incidents of workers leaving to visit their families with valid leave permissions, only to come back and realise that they have been dismissed and replaced. The same thing happened to a worker from Himachal who requested for a four-day leave when his wife gave birth to their child. He argued that two days would be spent in travel and he would like at least two days to spend with his family. When he came back to the factory, his job was gone.
Anish, whose leave was sanctioned for a few days to visit his ailing father, had to spend extra days at home when his father eventually passed away. When he returned, his sanctioned leave was changed to ‘leave without pay’ and the management taunted him saying that he should have ‘planned’ efficiently, before taking the leave.
The union members allege that the company orchestrated a planned lock-out at least 10 days in advance. They had started bringing in additional, untrained casual workers who were made to work on the shop floor without any training. On the night of May 2, 2017, the lights of the shop floor were prematurely – and without warning – switched off at 10 pm, and the workers were made to exit after recording their times on one machine (instead of the usual three), all to cause a stir amongst the workers.
At a time when we are being convinced that the development models of the country are without exception leading us to a glorious future, the marginalised – in fact, the majority of our population – are being fed into incinerators operated by foreign companies.
Within a day of the scuffle between management and the workers, the automotive giant displayed its might and hired close to 300 replacement workers in their stead and promised them a compensation of anything in between ₹14,000 – ₹17,000. At the time of recruitment of already employed labourers, the required qualification of workers was ITI or diploma but these newly hired, untrained workers had barely passed class 10 or 12. One of the 300 workers was a farm labourer and another a tailor. They were literally picked up from the field and the shop, with the promise of good wages.
Deepa, who works at Advics (a company within the premises of Aisin, which manufactures brake products) stated that the newly hired workers have been housed inside the premises of the Aisin factory in one big tent. They have been provided three portable toilets and their identification and other documents have been seized by the company officials. They sleep, eat and work inside the factory. The majority of the workers have not left, either because they fear that their documents will not be returned or for the need of a month’s salary. Approximately 17 of those workers jumped fences and ran away in the middle of the night, too fearful to even lodge a complaint with the labour department or the police. She also informed me that the workers work without adequate training or equipment. While there were strict rules for the previous employees to use special kinds of shoes and goggles on the shop floor, these replacement workers work in their own set of clothes without any proper equipment. While telling me about such working conditions, Anil remarked, “They are untrained workers working on specialised parts which are essential for the safety of a vehicle. If tomorrow, a product is out in the market that malfunctions because the management adamantly denied us our rights, who is going to be held responsible?”
It is not only the demonstration of high-handedness and the power of the management, but also the method and style of capitalist modes of production. The capitalist would rely on, as in this instance, being able to replace with ease more than 500 labourers in less than 48 hours, in order to generate surplus value. In this case, not only has Aisin exploited the labour value but also literally expropriated the bodies of the replacement workers by confining them inside the factory, where they eat, sleep and work.
While statistics are being churned on a daily basis in a machine called ‘Make in India’, the identities and the very existence of the poor, the farmers, the labourers are being trampled on, under the pretext of pro-development policies.
The female workers I spoke with, informed me that sexual harassment in the factory is not uncommon. According to them, there had been incidents where members of the management inappropriately touched women and used vile language. When complaints were submitted to the sexual harassment committee of the human resources department, the female workers were informed that these things are quite common on the shop floor and they should just forget about it.
As per the union member, instances of harassment of pregnant employees were also frequent. Women who were 3-4 months pregnant, had to implore the management to let them off from jobs that require eight hours of standing on the shop floor. Not only did the management deny their pleas, they emphatically stated, “Maybe from next time we will stop hiring female workers altogether.”
At the peak of the Jat agitation in Haryana, the female workers of Aisin were made to work late into the night when the other workers in the area were let off. They were holed up in a small room, without food, at the time when the danger of untoward incidents was the highest. They got a chance to get out of the factory in the early hours of the next morning. The workers were then asked by the management to come back to work that day and were granted the ‘reprieve’ of not coming in uniforms. “That day we came to know the attitude of the company. Come what may, they will not want the production to stop, even if it means our death,” said Deepa*.
Women who cajole their parents and get the opportunity to step outside their households, work, and live outside their homes are persecuted at every step. “We cannot tell our parents about these incidents because we will be called back and asked to sit at home,” Aman said. These incidents leave us wondering at the hollowness of slogans like ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’. ‘Bachao’? – It may be comparatively easy to save them from being killed in the womb but lechers living in a patriarchal society roam free and wide. ‘Padhao’? – So women can be summarily dismissed from their work solely on the basis of their gender?
During the month of May, the workers had knocked on many doors including the district commissioner and sub-divisional magistrate’s (SDM) with their representations and grievances. During one of the hearings with the SDM, when the women complained of sexual harassment within the company, the SDM stated, “Vo to maalik hain, chaahe jaise bhi rakhe (He is the owner and has the freedom to treat you the way he wants).” The SDM also tried to convince the workers to not form a union, “tum union kyun banate ho, ye companiyaan chodke chali jaengi (Why do you want to form a union, these foreign companies will exit the country).”
(Note: The SDM, Arvind Malhan, when contacted by YKA, denied that any complaints of sexual harassment were brought to him. “Neither was any such complaint brought to me, nor did I make any such statement,” he told YKA. He added that he had “requested the management to take the 30 workers back, but the management refused to do so”. “When the matter was sent to the government, the government referred it to the labour tribunal and declared the strike illegal,” he told YKA. He said the labour tribunal has been asked to decide the matter within 6 months.)
The events that transpired on July 18, 2012, at the Manesar plant of Maruti Suzuki are evidently being repeated at Aisin in Rohtak. The agitation and subsequent incident at Maruti were also rooted in the demand for an independent trade union of the workers. The facility at Manesar began production in 2007 and was known to employ harsh tactics on the shop floor, creating inhuman working conditions for the labourers. Maruti also refused to increase the wages of its workers.
While the workers sit on the 46th day of their protest, it is no doubt that Aisin is also going the Maruti way. If supported and egged on by the labour courts, administration and police officials, in no time will we be hearing courts of law pronouncing that workers’ demands for their rights and dignity hamper the ‘industrial growth’ of our country and stop the influx of foreign capital. That day is probably not far when the Aisin workers’ protests will be seen as a blemish on the ‘development’ model of the country.
Shailza is a lawyer based in New Delhi.
*Names have been changed on request.