Other workers allege that Rakhi was fired for speaking up against the owners
Around 6 p.m., on May 7, as the day’s shift was getting over, hundreds of workers at the Jehangirpuri plant of automobile parts manufacturer Swiss Auto Pvt. Ltd. watched as 31-year old Rakhi Sonkar, laid off a few days earlier, consumed rat poison outside the factory gate. Two days later, she died at the Jagjivan Ram Hospital.
While activists of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) have demanded that the factory owners be tried for charges of abetment of suicide, the police say they have found little connection between Rakhi’s death and what happened on Swiss Auto premises.
“She was laid off on April 24, but did not approach us with any complaints against her employers. The post-mortem report is still awaited, so we cannot say if it is the poison that killed her,” said a police officer supervising the investigation. Rakhi Sonkar, a single mother and the sole bread winner of the family, is survived by three children aged 10, 8, and 6.
On Wednesday, a week after the incident at its factory B-2 gate, the factory building located on a busy road close to Jehangirpuri metro station still bore signs of struggle. The glass facade of the factory lay shattered in two places. Factory workers recounted they had broken the glass after watching Rakhi trying to commit suicide and alleged that policemen from the Mahendra Park police station were mere spectators while Rakhi drank rat poison.
“There were three policemen at the factory gate, but they simply watched while she threatened to kill herself and drink the rat poison. She fell over and they acted only after she showed no signs of movement,” said a 25-year old worker, who worked in the crimping section with Rakhi.
He and other workers alleged that the factory owners had fired Rakhi for supporting Amarjeet Singh, a 22-year-old former line manager at Swiss Auto in contesting his dismissal at the Wazirpur labour court in 2013.
Further, she had filed a complaint against the Wazirpur labour court alleging mistreatment on factory premises, they said.
“Rakhi helped me get my employment reference letter from the factory when I challenged my termination at Wazirpur labour court. She came to the court during my hearing. She was under tremendous pressure and faced verbal abuse and she had complained about this at the Wazirpur labour court three weeks back,” said Amarjeet Singh. He recounted that he had started working at the factory when he was 14.
“I worked there for six years and rose to the position of line manager. I objected to our working conditions — permanent employees were being dismissed on flimsy grounds, a five-minute delay in arriving at work meant losing a day’s wage, we were not allowed to go to the toilet for more than a few minutes a day, many workers were not being paid provident fund. When labour inspectors visited the factory, owners would not allow us to speak to them,” recounted Mr. Singh.
On Wednesday, security guards at the factory refused to allow this reporter to meet any officials inside the plant. The managerial staff at the factory did not respond to SMSs.