A first-of-its-kind initiative by the employees’ union of an auto parts company in Manesar of granting membership to a contract worker has reignited the debate over contract workers’ right to join unions. The move has the potential to bridge the divide between permanent and contract workers in the Gurugram-Manesar-Bawal automotive belt in Haryana, according to workers’ and trade unions’ leaders.
On August 14 last year, Keshav Raj, a contract worker at Bellsonica Auto Component India Private Limited was granted membership in the company’s employees’ union and the matter came to light when the union mentioned his name in its income tax return filed this year.
The move prompted the Labour Commissioner of Haryana, who also functions as the Registrar of Trade Unions, to send a letter dated September 5 to the union seeking an explanation within 20 days for the action that “prima facie appears illegal” and in “contravention” of Rule 5 of the union’s constitution.
On September 28, in its reply, the employees’ union defended its decision saying that it was in adherence to its constitution, which was duly approved by the Labour Commissioner’s office. It added that the right to form a union was guaranteed to all workers under Article 19 of the Constitution and provisions of the Trade Unions Act, 1926, did not make any distinction between regular and contract workers in terms of forming a union.
‘Testing the waters’
Ajit Singh, general secretary of the workers’ union at Bellsonica, said providing membership to Mr. Raj was not an “easy” decision as there was opposition owing to apprehension over the deregistration of the union following the move. “Regular workers also feared that they would get marginalised. However, following indications from the management that a sizeable number of regular workers could be laid off, we realised we had to take along the contract workers to put up a joint fight. We inducted one contract worker to test the waters,” he said.
Rajesh Kumar, who is spearheading the movement to form a union for contract workers at Japanese company Hitachi’s plant in Manesar, said the decision is bound to create ripples and pressure regular workers to provide representation to contract workers in their unions. “We have submitted a charter of demands to the management seeking fair wages and other rights, but we have received no support from the workers’ union. Contract workers in all auto companies here face a similar situation. We work at a par with regular workers but receive abysmally low wages,” he said.
Shyambir Shukla, central committee member of the Inqlabi Mazdoor Kendra, a trade union based in Delhi-NCR, pointed out that while major workers’ movements in the auto hub saw the joint participation of all workers, permanent workers kept contract workers out of unions.
“Following the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991, different categories of workers were created, causing divisions among them. Though elimination of the contract system has been a long-standing demand of trade unions, precious little has been done to create awareness among workers of providing representation to contract workers in unions. It has created a huge disparity in wages and other benefits and hit workers’ unity. The move to induct a contract worker into a company’s employees’ union could set a new trend,” Mr. Shukla said.
Pawan Kumar, president of the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union in Manesar, welcomed the move but said there has been no such demand from the contract workers in his company so far.
Satvir Singh, vice-president of the Haryana unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said it was a “welcome step” but too early to predict its impact on workers in the region. “Trade unions, especially CITU, have always advocated the need to induct contract workers. The matter came up for detailed discussion during the Maruti workers’ movement in 2011, but it is for the workers’ unions to take the stand. Often, regular workers tend to play into the hands of the management and think only about their own interests. With the number of regular workers dwindling, the induction of contract workers will provide strength to unions for collective bargaining,” Mr. Singh said.
According to Hind Mazdoor Sabha general secretary Harbhajan Singh Sidhu, more contract workers have been seeking the membership of unions after the pandemic-induced lockdowns. “In the automotive belt of Haryana, thousands of workers lost their jobs during the lockdowns. When factories reopened, contract workers started approaching us to join our unions. We have helped several unions amend their by-laws to induct contract workers,” Mr. Sidhu said.
All India Trade Union Congress general secretary Amarjeet Kaur said officials of auto companies and the Labour Department have opposed giving permission to contract workers to form unions during negotiations, but no one can oppose it as it is the fundamental right of workers. “We have seen this new trend of contract workers joining unions in automobile, coal, oil and telecom sectors despite the managements and government officials opposing it,” Ms. Kaur said.
(With inputs from A.M. Jigeesh)