On February 19, about 3,000 workers gathered at Gurgaon’s Tau Devilal Stadium to protest against the police violence unleashed on the striking workmen of Honda Motorcycles and Scooters India’s (HMSI) on February 16. They marched from the stadium to Honda’s corporate office in Gurgaon.
While the details of what transpired inside HMSI’s Tapukara plant on February 16 are disputed, the following facts are not: one, at the behest of the Honda management, the police came inside the factory premises and lathi-charged the workers, who suffered grievous bodily injuries; two, more than a hundred workers were arrested, and while some were released, at last count, 44 were still in jail, under charges that range from attempt to murder, to looting and rioting; the HMSI workers have been trying to register a union, without success, since August 2015; and last, four permanent workers, who were also union office-bearers, were dismissed by the Honda management in early February.
“Many workers have been forced to go underground because the police have also registered FIRs against 42 unnamed workers,” says Amit of Workers Solidarity Centre, Gurgaon. “It’s an old tactic of the police which gives them an opening to go on arresting more workers under false charges.”
Honda workers claim that their troubles began on August 6, 2015 when they set the ball rolling for registering a trade union. “That’s when the company began to harass us, forcing us to do overtime on consecutive days, and penalising those who refused,” says Ahmed, a permanent worker from HMSI’s Tapukara plant. “Recently they terminated four permanent workers and close to 800 contract workers for their involvement in union activity.”
The workers say that on February 16, when a contract worker on Shift A was asked to do overtime, he refused because he was ill. “His supervisor then thrashed him. The workers protested, and struck work, demanding that the issue be resolved. Around 1,700 workers were inside the factory. The management then called in five worker representatives for talks,” says Vishal, a permanent worker who was present in the plant at the time of the incident. “We lost all contact with our representatives. Then the police came inside and asked us to leave. The workers insisted they would not leave without their leaders. Around 7pm, without any warning or provocation, the cops began to lathi charge the workers. The bouncers called in by the management joined in, attacking the workers and damaging the plant machinery.”
The Honda workers at the Gurgaon rally showed this correspondent pictures of the injured workers and the wounds they had sustained. “Many couldn’t seek medical help in Tapukara as they were afraid of being picked up by the police,” says Amit. “Some went into hiding in Manesar or Gurgaon. While the management has been dismissing workers on the basis of false charges, the police have been filing false cases against them.”
The workers claim that the beatings and arbitrary detentions by the local police continued on February 18 and 19. A complaint was drafted by Mr Naresh Kumar, president of the proposed Honda Motorcycle and Scooter 2f Kamgar Union Tapukara but the police refused to register it. “So we have sent it to the police by registered post,” says Amit. The complaint, marked to DGP Rajasthan, Assistant Labour commissioner, Alwar, Labour commissioner, Rajasthan, and National Human Rights Commission, alleges “conspiracy against the workmen and union by the “management of the HMSI Pvt Ltd, the district administration, and the labour office”.
In its Tapukara plant, HMSI, a 100% subsidiary of Honda Motor Company, Japan, employs about 3,000 workers. Of these, 466 are permanent workers, 100-150 are trainees or company casuals, while the vast majority are contract workers hired through labour contractors. The plant manufactures four two-wheeler brands – Activa, Dio, Shine and Twister. The production facility’s annual capacity is 12 lakh units.
Honda, while admitting that it has suffered production losses due to an “illegal strike within Honda’s second plant premises”, has denied that the strike was triggered by a contract worker being slapped for not agreeing to overtime. An official release from Honda states that “four workers were terminated by the company in the first week of February 16 after a 2-month disciplinary inquiry.”
It goes on to add, “On 16th February, 2016, those terminated workers along with 50 external supporters with vested interests from neighbouring states started an illegal strike within Honda’s 2nd plant premises… In order to avoid a major disaster, police had to intervene and used mild force to disperse the disruptive elements”.
Predictably, this version doesn’t wash with the workers at the Gurgaon protest march, who insist that that the real problem was the Honda management’s opposition to the workers’ bid to unionise.
“The Honda management at Tapukara has tried every tactic to sabotage the registration of the union,” says Ved Prakash Poonia, general secretary, Mico Bosch Labour Union, who has been active in helping the Honda workers unionise. “They got a handful of workers to register false cases and obtain a stay order on the union registration, which is why the union is still not registered. They dismissed four union leaders in February. Now they’ve got them brutally beaten up by the police. They fear that if a union is allowed in Honda’s Tapukara plant, it will encourage workers in all the other factories in this industrial region. So they want to stop it at any cost.”
When contacted by The Hindu , a senior Honda executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “Honda has done nothing to oppose the union formation. Why should we? In fact, our Manesar plant already has a union. It is a section of the workers themselves who contested the move to form a union and obtained a stay order.”
Interestingly, as many as fifty unions from Gurgaon, Manesar, Bawal, and Alwar, including Honda’s own union from its Manesar plant, had turned up for the rally to show their support. The speakers who addressed the meeting included leaders from all the top five central trade unions. AITUC (All India Trade Union Congress), to which HMSI’s Manesar plant union is affiliated, had been helping the Tapukara workers in the union registration process.
Even the BJP-affiliated trade union, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) is backed the striking Honda workers. “The Honda workers’ agitation is fully justified. We support them, and it’s true that the Rajasthan administration is terrorising the workers,” said Mr BN Rai, president, BMS. “It’s been eight months since the Vasundhara Raje government brought in labour law reforms. We want a white paper on their impact. How many new jobs have been created from these labour reforms? We want to know.”
HMS (Hind Mazdoor Sabha) president Harbhajan Singh Sidhu has a different take. “Japanese managements, wherever they are starting industries, refuse to give workers their legitimate rights. That’s why the Honda workers’ struggle has been going on for a long time,” he said.
Labour activists also point to parallels between the workers’ mobilisation in Maruti’s >Manesar plant in 2012 and the recent upheaval at Honda’s Tapukara plant. “In both cases, the workers were trying to form a union on the basis of total unity between the permanent and temporary workers; in both cases, the managements used bouncers and local police to repress the workers,” says Satish, a former Maruti worker present at the Gurgaon rally.
Honda, however, has denied that it employs bouncers. “We are not that kind of company,” said the senior Honda executive. An old issue that the Honda workers’ agitation has again brought to the forefront is the way workers are divided by the management into different categories so as to keep the staff rolls in constant churn.
The Honda official confirmed the workers’ claim that the Tapukara plant had four kinds of workers: contract workers, company casuals, trainees, and permanent workers. “You remain a contract worker for 1.5-2 years after which you get a chance to appear for a written test and interview,” said the Honda official. If you clear it, you become a ‘company casual’. You remain a company casual for 1 to 3 years, after which you become a ‘trainee’. You remain a trainee for 1 to 3 years, after which you may be absorbed as a confirmed employee.
Thus in theory, it may take a newly recruited contract worker anywhere between three-and-a-half to eight years to become a permanent worker. “In practice, most of them either won’t manage to clear the written test/interview or they are terminated just before they are due for confirmation,” says Ahmed. “Otherwise how do you explain 466 permanent workers in a factory that employs 3,000 workers round the year?”
So how many contract workers appear every year for this written test and how many clear it? “Last year 800 appeared, and 80-100 were taken on company rolls,” says the Honda executive. “We have to retain some temporary manpower in order to remain flexible in a sensitive market. If the market goes down, we cannot throw out people if they are all permanent.”
According to the Honda official, contract workers are paid Rs. 10,000-15,000 per month, company casuals get Rs. 12,500-17,500, trainees earn Rs. 14,500-20,000, and permanent workers make about Rs. 23,000 a month. Honda workmen, on the other hand, claim that their salaries are drastically cut even if they take a few days’ leave in a month. “The basic pay for permanent workers is Rs. 6,500 and for contract workers it is Rs. 4,700,” says Vishal. The overtime rate for permanent workers is Rs. 65 per hour, and for contract workers, Rs. 45 per hour.
What lies in store for the striking Honda workers? “Many have been hounded out of their homes in Tapukara,” says Ahmed. “They are afraid to return for fear of being detained by the police. The Honda management has already made arrangements for some 2,000 workers to be brought in from Orissa and other states.”
The Honda official, however, denied that any workers were being brought in from outside to replace the striking workers. “A majority of the workers have resumed work at the plant, and we have already ramped up production to make up for the losses.”
—With inputs from Yuthika Bhargava
(Names of the Honda workers have been changed on request.)