Honda Workers Strike Against Imperialist Super-Exploitation in India, Ajachi Chakrabarti, reproduced from issue 3 of the journal
It is very easy to get distracted when attending a protest at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. The only place one can hold demonstrations in the heart of India’s capital, the stretch of road between the 18th-century royal observatory and Parliament Street, can often resemble a literal marketplace of ideas, with various slogans and banners competing for your attention to their cause. On the afternoon of 19 September, the workers from the Honda Motorcycles and Scooters India plant at Tapukara, who had begun an indefinite hunger strike demanding the reinstatement of over 3,000 workers who had been laid off following a sit-in strike on 16 February, were the largest gathering at the protest venue, but the speakers on the podium were occasionally drowned out by neighbouring agitations.
To their left were the United Madheshies of Nepal, a Delhi-based NGO, gathered to protest the anniversary of the enactment of that country’s ‘racist constitution’. Across the road, a few sadhus loitered on an empty stage, with banners demanding the exoneration of spiritual guru Asaram Bapu from charges of sexual assault. To the right were a silent group of hunger strikers demanding action against Meerut police officers who had killed their relatives. Facing them was the rump of a rally organised four days earlier by the National Future Party—a fringe right-wing political group few have heard of—demanding an end to affirmative action throughout the country. Three people sat on the stage, chanting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai!’ (All hail Mother India!) and ‘Vande Mataram!’ (Mother, we bow to thee!) into a mic at sporadic intervals. After a while, more party workers gathered to burn a Pakistani flag and demand that India declare war on its neighbour to avenge the militant attack the day before at a military camp near the Jammu and Kashmir town of Uri. They were followed by the ‘Youth Brigade for Nation’, led by an old sadhu, who marched back and forth within the confines of the designated protest area chanting ‘Vande Mataram!’ and ‘Pakistan Murdabad!’ (Death to Pakistan!).
It was a different type of nationalism that emanated from the podium at the Honda workers’ protest. As the Youth Brigade went past, Animesh Das, president of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions, took a dig at them. ‘Vande Mataram ke jaap japne wale, is desh ki raksha ke naam pe khoon-paseena bahane wale, woh is desh ko videshi companiyon ke haath mein bech rahe hain.’ (Those who chant Vande Mataram and spill blood and sweat in the name of national security are selling the nation to foreign countries.) Speaker after speaker talked about how national and state governments – run by both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its predecessor, the Indian National Congress – have bent over backwards over the last 25 years to accommodate the demands of international capital at the expense of workers’ rights. Every time unions fight back, Satbir Singh, a member of the working committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, thundered in a voice strained by years of firebrand speeches, they are told to desist or the multinational firm will wind up operations and go home. ‘Ye Japani kya tumhare baap lagte hain?’ (These Japanese are your fathers or what?)
The erosion of labour rights in the age of globalisation is at the root of much of the recent political upheaval around the world. As an article in the Monthly Review put it, ‘[two] realities dominate labour at the global level today. One is global labour arbitrage or the system of imperial rent. The other is the existence of a massive global reserve army, which makes this world system of economic exploitation possible (Foster, McChesney and Jamil Jonna 2011).’ Under the post-Fordian labour regime of this neoliberal era, countries engage in a race to the bottom to attract investment by offering lower wages and a more pliable workforce, employment has become more precarious, while collective bargaining norms are subverted in a systematic manner.
In India, the renewed push to expand the manufacturing sector, marketed under the current government as ‘Make in India’, relies not on strengthening infrastructure in existing and past industrial areas but on what economist and former UN undersecretary-general Nitin Desai called the ‘escapist fantasies’ of turning over poorly performing state services to the private sector and establishing development enclaves in greenfield sites (Desai 2012). After the original strategy of establishing special economic zones proved unpopular due to ham-handed attempts at land acquisition, the government has turned to inter-state industrial corridors, a grand experiment in urbanisation and industrialisation from scratch.
Super-exploitation in Tapukara
HMSI’s Tapukara plant, near Alwar in the state of Rajasthan, is part of the flagship Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, a $100 billion project that spans over 1,500 kilometres in the states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra and promises to provide over two million manufacturing jobs. (Others include the Bengaluru-Mumbai, Chennai-Bengaluru and Amritsar-Kolkata corridors, while Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu is planning a Vishakhapatnam-Chennai Industrial Corridor.) The northern end of the DMIC, which includes the Gurgaon-Manesar-Bhiwadi-Bawal industrial belt, is home to a number of automobile and auto parts manufacturing plants, as well as many textile units.
There are no unions at the factories in and around Tapukara. The original HMSI plant at Manesar has one, won after a long struggle that culminated in a brutal police baton charge on 25 July 2005, in which hundreds of workers were injured (Pandey 2005). Workers throughout the auto belt have long been subject to exploitation, and faced official repression whenever they have sought to organise. It is all part of a bitter class war being waged by capital with active collusion by the government, which has put labour on the defensive.
The piecemeal nature of the struggle to improve working conditions since independence has led to a complicated regulatory mechanism, with as many as 70 laws governing employment in the manufacturing sector. This provides employers an excuse to seek the dilution of worker protection laws under the rubric of ‘labour reforms’. Although the central trade unions have resisted such measures at the national level, labour is part of the Constitution’s concurrent list, with both the centre and state allowed to pass legislation. In the name of ‘competitive federalism’ – another buzzword popularised by the Modi government – state governments are engaging in their own race to the bottom, loosening labour laws in order to attract investment.
The Rajasthan government was a pioneer in this regard. In 2014, it amended the Industrial Disputes Act, Factories Act, Contract Labour Act and the Apprenticeship Act, raising the thresholds of factory size beyond which the laws take effect. (Already, almost 85 percent of organised enterprises in the country employ less than a hundred people, the threshold specified by the IDA.) Plants could double in size without having to comply with the regulatory regime.
In any case, lax enforcement of existing laws allows employers to perpetuate exploitative practices. A particular favourite is the reliance on contract employment. A report on worker safety in the auto belt explains the situation:
The Gurgaon automobile industry receives immigrant workers from various states of the country especially from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Bihar. These migrants leave their families behind with aspirations to earn a stable income and send most of their salary back home. A majority of these workers are unskilled and reach out to small formal and informal contractors (called Thekedars) for work through networks of relatives or friends who are already established in the industry. Many a times, the workers, bring along their friends and relatives from the villages, to work with them in the industry. The workers stay in small slums/shared rooms in and around the factories and are often dependent on each other for shared resources.
The contractors are connected with manufacturing units across tiers and are responsible for regular provision of contractual workforce. A contractual worker has no direct agreement with the factory owners but is employed by the contractor. As per the laws, all provisions defined under the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 are applicable to contract labourers. However, unfortunately the regulation and implementation of this Act is more on paper than practice.
Only around 10 per cent of the total workforce in the industry comprises of permanent employees and is on the payroll of the factories. These workers are often part of small unions, which exist in some of the factories. The remaining 90 per cent are contractual workers with little identity or protection (SafeInIndia 2015).
Over three-fourths of the workforce at HMSI is contract labour. The company maintains a policy of wage division and internal segregation. According to a report by the Workers Solidarity Centre, Gurgaon-Bawal:
The total component including incentives comes to Rs 10–12,000 per month (£120–145) for contract, company casuals and trainee workers, and around Rs 20,000 per month (£240) for a permanent worker. However, even working full-time at the break-neck speed, hardly anyone gets this consolidated component, and arbitrary cuts from the incentives are the norm rather than the exception. If a worker takes leave in two consecutive days, Rs 4,000 (£48) is deducted from the monthly salary (WSC 2016).
Although management claims that there is a seamless process through which they can become permanent, it is an onerous one that can take a minimum of eight years. Contracts typically last 11 months in order to get around the Contract Labour Act’s provisions against differential treatment for workers performing the same tasks, and have to be renewed at the end of that period after a short cooling-off period. If a worker manages to keep his job for three years – whinging about rights doesn’t help in that endeavour – he then has to pass an exam and an interview in order to become a ‘company casual’. Two years after that, he might be taken on as a trainee for three more years before being hired as a permanent worker. Less than a hundred contract workers have been promoted to company casual in the four years of the plant’s existence, and no-one has made it to permanent status. Some 26,000 contract workers have been let go in that time.
The precarious nature of this employment, and the loss of power inherent in being a migrant worker, means that employers can get away with oppressive work conditions. ‘[It] is common,’ writes G Sampath in The Hindu, ‘to find workers toiling on 12- to 16-hour shifts for as little as Rs 9,000 a month’ in the industrial belt (Sampath 2016). HMSI workers have eight-hour shifts on average, but like most manufacturing plants in the region, operate under tremendous pressure. Workers are assigned strict quotas – an engine must be assembled every 18 seconds, a frame every 20 seconds. The crushing workload means most labourers cannot sustain it beyond a decade; there are few autoworkers over the age of 35. Machines are often short-staffed, and ‘[if] someone has to drink water or go to the bathroom, other workers have to adjust the work (WSC 2016).’ The high-pressure environment is not conducive to worker safety. (There are over a thousand serious industrial accidents in the Gurgaon-Manesar region every year.)
‘Workers weren’t given safety equipment,’ Rajpal, one of the leaders of the agitation, told me when I asked about conditions at the plant. ‘The recommended time between processes in order to perform them safely was not followed, and we often had to work overtime without pay.’ The WSC report alleges that the company sweeps accidents under the carpet, often designating them as road accidents. Besides safety concerns, workers also complain about a lack of accommodation and transport facilities, which forces them into an unsafe, uncomfortable commute, either hitchhiking on trucks or taking autorickshaws meant to ferry 10 passengers that carry up to 25 at a time. The food served at the canteen, Rajpal said, is only fit for dogs.
Demanding union recognition
Like many other plants in the industrial belt, the Tapukara plant workers realised that the only solution was to form a union. Last August, 227 permanent workers signed an application to the Labour Department in Jaipur, seeking recognition for a new union. Company casuals, temporary and contract workers supported the initiative. Like other employers in the belt, however, HMSI management responded by doing everything it could to delegitimise and discourage organisation efforts. Their playbook is instructive of industrial relations under the new paradigm of development.
First, the company filed an affidavit with the Labour Department, purported to be signed by 21 workers, objecting to the formation of the union. When the workers in question filed a counter-affidavit, claiming their signatures had been forged, management got three loyal workers to file a similar suit at the Civil Court in Alwar and obtained a stay in the unionisation process. Meanwhile, it began adopting coercive measures to discourage participation. Some 800 contract workers, especially those who had been outspoken about unionisation, were let go, while the others were made to sign blank papers that could be used against them in the future.
The proposed union leadership, including president Naresh Mehta and secretary Rajpal, were fired after an enquiry committee that the workers term ‘a complete eyewash (WSC 2016)’, while other members were given suspensions or warning letters. Workers also report that ever since the union application was moved, the company started hiring unqualified labour – employees must have a degree from an Industrial Training Institute – for the express purpose of keeping an eye on potential agitators and terrorising them. For its part, Honda claims that it isn’t the sort of company that hires bouncers, but such tactics have been used frequently throughout the belt, such as during the unionisation struggle at Maruti’s Manesar plant, where a 2012 strike resulted in violence, leading to the death of a human resources manager (Laul 2012).
Criminalising striking labour
Matters came to a head on 16 February. A little before 2:30pm, the end of the first shift, a contract worker, who was ill, refused to work overtime for a fourth day in a row. The executive who had asked him to do so then caught hold of his throat and slapped him. Such violence had become commonplace, but enough was enough. Once word got around, some 2,000 workers – permanent, temporary, casual and contract alike – stopped production and demanded action be taken against the engineer, as well as the reinstatement of those who had been suspended or terminated.
Management responded by calling in the bouncers, who sealed the factory, locking the B Shift workers out and the A Shift ones in. The police arrived around four, and called the leaders of the agitating workers in for negotiations with management. Soon, none of the leaders’ phones were reachable – they remained in police custody for a week before being transferred to Kishangarh jail, some 40 kilometres away – and the rest grew nervous.
A little after seven, once darkness had set in, additional district magistrate Harbhan Meena and assistant superintendent of police Manoj Kumar, along with some managers and bouncers, came inside the plant and asked the demonstrators to disperse. They refused to do so until their leaders returned. ‘Thereafter,’ goes the official statement of the workers to the authorities, ‘the ASP started hitting the machines with the stick he had and told the workmen that once they are beaten up like these machines then only would they leave the premises. He also said that, ‘aaj main hi yahaan ka SP hoon, DC hoon aur mukhyamantri bhi hoon.’ (Today I am the SP, the DC and the chief minister here.) After this he started beating up the workers and the same was followed by other policemen and the bouncers. . . . There was tear gas shelling and gun firing being done by the police and the bouncers were throwing stones on the workers. The police chased the workers even till their home and arrested them and also till the hospital . . . [They] kept threatening them, beating them and detaining them’.
In a perverse turn, 90 workers were charged with serious crimes, including attempted murder, property damage, endangering life and safety, rioting and looting. 3,000 contract workers and some 250 permanent workers were summarily dismissed. This was by no means atypical to such situations; trade unionist Rakhi Sehgal writes that the ‘labour conciliation mechanism has been deliberately eviscerated . . . Instead, we see a pattern where violence is deliberately provoked by management on trivial issues and industrial disputes are converted into law-and-order problems for which police intervention is requested and given with alacrity by district administrations (Sehgal 2015).’ 212 workers from the Maruti plant at Manesar still face cases pertaining to the 2012 incident, with 36 still in jail. ‘To mention just a few,’ the WSC report says, ’15 workers of Orient Craft in Gurgaon still languish in jail, in Noida Graziano workers are in jail since 2009, workers in Sri Ram Pistons Bhiwadi and numerous others have criminal cases against them.’ State governments have militarised the industrial belt in an effort to have force close at hand in order to suppress strikes; on the day of the violence at Tapukara, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar announced the setting up of more police stations in industrial parks as well as the establishment of an industrial intelligence unit (Dhoot 2016).
Criminalising striking labour has the twin benefit of discouraging further industrial action as well as giving authorities a bargaining chip in negotiations—instead of improvements in working conditions and recognition of unions, workers are left trying to get their fellows reinstated and charges against them dropped. The same has happened with the HMSI strike. The dismissed workers’ attempts at sustaining an agitation were frustrated by official repression; whenever they tried to hold a rally in the industrial belt or even in front of the Jaipur Labour Department, police would disperse or detain them.
Meanwhile, the company resumed production by hiring 500 unqualified contract workers from the impoverished state of Odisha, and expedited the eight-year process for the latest batch of exam-takers, who were all made permanent. It also increased wages of permanent workers, and recognised a new union dominated by the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the trade union wing of the ruling BJP. (When some workers were reinstated following negotiations, they tried joining the co-opted union. Worried that they would wrest control, the union stopped taking membership requests.) The company has also attempted to clamp down on any support among its current employees for the agitation. On 24 September, Vijender Kumar, a permanent worker at the plant, was indefinitely suspended for ‘liking’ a Facebook post about the hunger strike (Fathima 2016).
The terminated workers did manage to stage demonstrations at ITIs where HMSI had gone for recruitment. Also, in order to protest the official apathy to their struggle, they organised a mock kaavad yatra, an annual Hindu pilgrimage, approaching Lord Shiva himself in the hope of a fair hearing. These were minor actions, however, and eventually the decision was taken to shift the agitation to Jantar Mantar in order to reach a wider audience.
The fate of millions
After the protest wound up on 19 September, the various labour and students’ organisations who had come in solidarity gathered in front of an abandoned protest tent to chart the further course of action. A car passed by, and the ashes of the burnt Pakistani flag blew over them. It was symbolic of how the agitation would struggle for visibility, with the media – and the nation – preoccupied with rousing the dogs of war.
The first action was a protest on 23 September in front of Bikaner House, the erstwhile embassy in Delhi of the princely state that now serves as office and residential space for the Rajasthan government in the capital. Police broke it up within 20 minutes, and 28 protesters were detained for over five hours. The following week, workers and activists began picketing Honda showrooms, first in Delhi and then in other cities, urging customers to boycott the company’s products in the festive season, a crucial period for auto sales. It’s not just out of solidarity that they ask consumers not to buy Activas, Dios, Shines and Twisters; the models being sold, the union says, are assembled by unskilled workers and many defects have been reported in them. Although the boycott call went largely unreported outside local papers and alternative media, and protesters outside a Honda showroom in Jaipur were assaulted by staff (Jha 2016), Honda sales fell by almost 19 percent as compared to last year (Mohile 2016).
The union has also attempted to expand the struggle to cover the entire manufacturing belt, sending delegations to other organisations and movements in the region. Solidarity actions were organised throughout the corridor, and many leaders of other active agitations came to speak at Jantar Mantar. A group of workers walked for five days through the industrial corridor from Tapukara to Delhi, holding gate meetings at various factories along the way.
The Indian bourgeoisie, however, has been conditioned over the years to think of trade union militancy only as a law and order problem. The various burning issues of labour are ignored throughout the year, except around the almost ritualistic annual all-India general strikes. This year’s edition, on 2 September, saw the participation of some 180 million workers, probably making it the largest general strike in world history (Chattopadhyay and Marik 2016), but beyond securing a few minor concessions, it failed to initiate a national conversation about workers’ rights.
And so, a nation that was spurred into passing comprehensive anti-corruption legislation less than five years ago by a hunger strike that was supported by the reforming elite, whose independence was secured in part through the many hunger strikes of Mahatma Gandhi, remained apathetic to the five workers whose health considerably deteriorated over 20 days of fasting for their rights. The union has had to change tactics in order to ensure the longevity of the struggle; on 8 October, the original five broke their fast and five others took their place (Thomas 2016). The relay hunger strike will continue, the workers say, until their demands are met.
How successful they will be in that endeavour remains to be seen. Representatives of various central trade union ministers have met labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya, who assured that he would look into the matter. Activists believe that most of the workers, barring the union leadership, will eventually be reinstated, but remain pessimistic about significant improvements being made in the working conditions at the plant, leave aside a reversal of the systemic deterioration of labour rights. Any change, however, requires the struggle to continue, and expand. The fate of millions of workers depends on it.
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