Eleventh night under the sky, in Honda

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Since November 5, Honda workers have occupied / de-occupied the factory. National newspapers have reported how it is a helpless situation for Honda which is facing economic stress or recession.

Indian Express reported how the company had slowed down, less production, and these workers were contract workers doing irregular/unskilled/ ancillary work, loading or moving trolleys, packing etc.

The workers have a different experience / lived experience / perspective on it.

Of 2500 contract “casual” workers, 1500 are inside the plant, the rest are at the gate. Most have worked 10-12 years now at the same factory. For over a decade now, the company has made them leave and join again every 11 months, switching them between three identical named contractor company. Only employee code changes, their work and station remains same.”The papers are saying to counter our shutdown, you have increased overtime production in four other plants and your top management salaries are untouched, so how is it a slowdown for you?” “If you cannot afford us, why do you make us re-join in three months?”, they ask of the company.

The workers say either stop this pattern of keeping us-making-us-leave every 11 months, or let us go for good with a severance pay of Rs 1 lakh for each year we have worked, growing and building this company with our work from one plant in 2000 to four plants now. Tensions had been building up a few years and months towards this…

After the workers have stayed inside the plant 2-3 days, the management declares a holiday, so that even the 1,900 permanent workers who were in support stop going inside the factory. But the 1500 workers inside hold on and those outside join in even more large regular numbers.

To control the movements of those sitting inside the plant, the company welds the doors to the buildings of the plant so that the workers can no longer go inside the canteen to sleep or even use the toilets. That night they sleep under the sky in the cold and some fall ill. Hundreds of contract workers removed in August sleep outside the gate in solidarity.

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A worker speaks on a video call to a colleague inside the plant since November 5

Factory gates are lined with concertina wire. The workers are calm, patient, confident of what they are doing. Some who were removed in August three months back are back outside, walking around, smiling “Back home there was tension, here it feels good, we can see how we are here for each other..”

They cannot get a meal anymore the next day in the canteen and their older colleagues arrange a packet of milk, a banana each, some snack, and beedis. One of them, his wedding is coming up and he is inside, those outside recount in conversations with each other.

On the first two days everyone wants to have a say, share what the points of contention are, how the company barely gives any leave each quarter, how the salary is frozen, their children’s education is about to be ruined in this 3 month system of rejoining.

Day three the conversation goes to skill-deskill debate, the work they take on, how complex is it, how trainees whom come in from PM kaushal vikas yojana are treated by the firm, government taking on costs so the company has to pay Rs 6000-8000, lower than what it pays to contract workers; ‘will it pay Rs 14,000 when the government is promoting paying Rs 6000?’

Outside they speak of a colleague from Jhajjar who had committed suicide three months earlier. Then too they had together boycotted lunch for company to act responsible with his family. Another colleague comes to the gate very day and goes back, as if he has almost lost his mind and his life, this has been going since months.

Day four is slower. Company has put up new notices, of summons from court for 11 workers to make them leave inside. There is poori sabzi for everyone. Cardboard sheets and posters lined up on the sidewalk to lie down or sit together on. The ones outside are resting, talking, playing cards together, waiting for next week. One tells another, Don’t worry nothing happens to human body before 40 days of struggle. This is the right fight, we will win.

They get agitated only when speaking of conditions of the over the thousand workers still inside. How uncomfortable must they be, not being able to bathe wearing same clothes since 11 days, not seeing home, out in the cold of the night and daybreak.

If we went to Jantar-Mantar, Honda company will arrange a bus for us to leave. The only reason they are listening and conversing is because our saathis have taken over inside. They welded the doors, but we didn’t react even to the welding. We have carried on.

Durga Shakti Rapid Action Force was set up for women’s protection, in 2018. When a Durga Shakti Rapid Action force policeman in Blue guarding the inside the plant boundary since days says to them that the Haryanvis are sitting in and holding other states’ people from leaving, they listen and then quietly start telling each other that this is to break unity ekta, those from Uttar Pradesh speak up to say aren’t we sitting around here. They don’t argue with him but they also don’t take his claim seriously.

There are more than 500 policemen keeping watch since November 5, says an elderly policeman who did not go home the first three day says.

When they go for tea and hukka across the road, they don’t argue or lose sight when the middle aged man having tea nearby who dismisses their claims and struggle. Hero, Honda, Maruti these are the three main firms in Manesar. What can Honda do when there is aarthik mandi, he interrogates them. How are other plants still running, with thousands of motorcycles and Activa scooters are still being made, simultaneously, this time making the plant run overtime, they respond. But then one of them soon describes him as demoralising and then they don’t engage. Ours will be a decisive historic struggle, they say. This time will change the face of things, they believe.

They are setting a misaal, that contract worker larh sakte hain, Manmohan tells me on the phone from Behror, 80 kilometers away.

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