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.

The curious case of the alphabetically accused

On January 30, 2015, the Supreme Court while hearing a Special Leave Petition for bail for two jailed Maruti workers, Sunil Kumar and Kanwaljeet, gave the Haryana government two weeks to respond why the workers should not be granted bail. SC had on 17 February 2014 declined to hear the workers’ bail plea as eye-witnesses were still being examined. It asked the Haryana court to complete examine eye witnesses by April 2014, though the local court later missed this deadline. Below is a report from August 2014 on the legal case against a majority of the workers.

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Co-workers, families of jailed Maruti workers marching to Haryana Chief Minister Bhoopinder Singh Hooda on August 3, stopped on the way by the police in Rohtak. Photo: Anumeha Yadav

The Hindu

Manesar (Haryana): On Thursday, 147 workers of Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) in Bhondsi jail will be waiting patientlyfor the decision of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana on bail plea of two of the 147 workers. They have been in jail since two years after manager Awanish Kumar Dev was killed in an instance of rioting in Maruti‘s Manesar plant on 18 July 2012. The rioting in July 2012 was preceded by months of strikes by the workers demanding an independent union in 2011 that had caused a loss of over Rs 2500 crores to MSIL, India’s largest automobile manufacturer.

While all 147 workers have been charged on eighteen counts, including rioting charges, and under Section 302 of IPC for murder of Mr Dev, a pattern has emerged from the evidence against the workers. In case of 89 workers, the Haryana police cited the testimonies of only four labour supply contractors hired by the MSIL. Each contractor has testified to witnessing workers indulge in violence such that the names of the workers allegedly seen rioting fall in an alphabetical order.

Rioters seen in alphabetical order

Court documents show witness Virendra alias Rajender Yadav has named 25 workers such that all workers’ names fall in the alphabetical range of A-G. Another witness contractor Yaad Ram testified that he saw 25 workers rioting all of whose names fall in the next range G-P. Witness Ashok Rana names 26 workers who were allegedly rioting whose names range from P-S.The final witness Rakesh of Tirupati Associates who supplied 900 contract workers to MSIL testified to allegedly seeing 13 workers whose names, continuing the alphabetic sequence, are in the range S-Y.

On July 5 in the district court, all four contractors failed to identify any of the 89 workers named by them. “The management had originally named 52 persons in the FIR, mainly from the union’s body. The police picked up another 100 workers over the next two-three weeks and assigned 89 names alphabetically to the labour contractors with there being no other witnesses. They did not produce any witnesses at all against another 11 workers,” said defence counsel RS Hooda commenting on the evidence against 100 of 147 workers.

Special Public Prosecutor KTS Tulsi declined to comment on this pattern of the testimonies. Witness Virendra alias Rajender Yadav who has named workers with names ranging from A-G told The Hindu that his firm VGR Engineer Pvt. Ltd. supplied 700 workers to the Manesar plant in July 2012, and at present it supplied 600 workers to MSIL’s Gurgaon plant.

Car doors’ recovery

As rioting weapons, the police show they have recovered 139 car door frames and iron rods from workers weeks after the incident. For instance, they show Maruti Suzuki Workers Union’s head Ram Meher was arrested 13 days later on August 1, 2012. The Recovery Memo records that a car door frame over 2 feet in length, with sharp metal planks welded at both ends allegedly used as rioting weapon was found inside his bed in his residence in Ashok Vihar, 25 km from the Manesar plant. Similarly, they show Sarabjeet, the Union’s General Secretary, was arrested on August 1, 2012 and a car door frame recovered from inside Sarabjeet’s bed at his Laxman Vihar house, 22 km from the Maruti plant, was the alleged weapon.

Inside Bhondsi jail, 15 km from Gurgaon, Ram Meher said the pattern was repeated for several workers. “The police say we hid and carried door frames for kilometres, in some instances till another district. How could have we? The police planted these and showed arrests after many of us surrendered,” said Ram Meher.

“The alphabetic order of witness is a matter of probability. It is less probable but not impossible. I cannot comment on other details as I was not the DCP in charge at that time,” said DCP (South) Gurgaon Vivek Sharma.

The District Court in Gurgaon has already rejected the workers’ bail plea thrice, most recently this June. The High Court turned it down in May.