Violence, Victimization yet the Struggle Continues in Bellsonika Auto Components India

Faced with management victimization, state violence and legal apathy the Workers at Bellsonika continue their struggle

by Santosh Kumar, Labour activist based in New Delhi

{Translated from Hindi to English by Thozhillalar Koodum Team}

Bellsonica Workers at a Hall meeting

Bellsonika Workers at a hall meeting

Bellsonika auto components manufacturing factory is located inside the four walls of Maruti Suzuki company situated  in the industrial model township (IMT) Manesar. BellSonika is a joint venture company of Maruti Suzuki whose owner is a relative of Maruti-Suzuki  Owner Suzuki. This Japanese company was established in 2007 on a small scale with twenty to twenty-five workers who were making sx4 cars. Monthly salary of workers at this time was 6000 per month. In the beginning all the workers were contract workers. In 2008, the company expanded its production  and started supplying parts of a new model known as A-star car. By the end of 2008 the number of workers working in the factory went upto almost 200. In the beginning of 2009, the production increase by significant amount and in order to operate multiple shifts, the company started hiring even more workers. By now the number of workers in the company ranged from 400-500. By March 2009, the company due to its significantly more production was operating in two shifts. Prior to this when the production only happened during single shift, the conditions of the workers were unfathomable. The workers had to come inside the plant by 8.30 Am sharp but there was absolutely no fixed time on when they could leave! There was no canteen in the company and workers had to bring food from their homes. 2 hours after the shift started, workers were given a 10 minute tea-break during which time workers had to use toilet and were allowed to drink water! There were no fixed working hours and 16-18 hours of daily work was extracted from them. There were also no fixed lunch hours, company managers used to say that first finish your work and then just go home and eat. Workers had to sometimes work in welding shop and sometimes in press shop. Treatment of workers by the managers was  inhumane and they never talked to workers about anything except the work. During 16018 hours of work, the only meal that company management provided to the workers was a cup of tea. The amount of exploitation of the workers in Bellsonika was so extreme that even basic necessities of the workers like bathroom break and drinking water facility were not paid any attention. The entire focus was on getting maximum production out of the workers at any cost.

In 2009 when the number of workers were between 400-500, around 70-80 workers were trainees and rest were on contract. Trainees were paid 4400 rupees and contract workers salary had gone down to 5400 rupees! After a year of training, trainee’s salary was increased by 700-800 rupees, however salary of contract workers was not increased at all. No clean drinking water facility, no proper ventilation and no first aid facility were available even in 2009. If a worker fell ill, he was not sent to any hospital but just told to go home and stay there. For smallest of mistakes workers were insulted and always threatened that they will be fired. There have been occasions when even after 18 hours of shift, workers were ordered to stay for further overtime! It was not even clear if the got any extra money for doing this overtime over and above inhuman 18 hour shifts! The contractor colluded with managers and regular  salaries, overtime payments and EPF amount were constantly rigged. By 2010, company had expanded its production tremendously and started supplying parts for one more model called Maruti-Swift. Obviously this was all due to intense hard work of the workers who never got to saw even a fraction of the profit. In 2010 the company had to take a further 400-450 workers. There was thus a simultaneous expansion in production, workforce as well as exploitation of workers at unprecedented levels. In 2011 Bellsonika even got award from Maruti-Suzuki for being the best supplier.Even after this, there was no recognition of workers contribution to this success who continued to toil on 16-18 hour shifts. Company continued to recruit increasing number of trainees inspite of the clear standing order that workers who participate in core production cannot be kept as  trainees. In 2011, the salary of a trainee was 6500 and salary of a contract worker was 5500.

In 2012, a trainee called Mithilesh was working in a welding shop. In this shop there was no ceiling fan nor was there any exhaust and the place used to be filled with hazardous smoke and fumes. Due to this Mithilesh fell severely ill. Management, instead of sending him to hospital told him that company is not responsible for his treatment and told him to just go home. They refused to even assist him financially so that he could go to hospital himself. The smoke as it turns out had destroyed his lungs and he died a few days later. All the workers from the factory gave significant financial assistance to his family after his death. Mithilesh had a young wife and 3 young kids and there was no earning member in his family. In this circumstances, his wife once reached the company to ask for financial help  when the HR manager Manoj Singh, grabbed her hand and pushed her out of the company gate. This is the kind of atrocious behaviour Bellsonika management have towards its own workers.  It is remarkable how the administration, government collaborate with the capitalists to intensely exploit the workers. This kind of incidents happened 4-5 times in the company where workers were working in the factory and died due to Hazardous working conditions. But not a single time, the company gave any financial assistance to the family of diseased workers. On the other hand due to the hard work, dedication and honesty of workers the company reached number one rating among vendor companies.  It is important to note that ever since 2009 when HR manager was appointed in the company the conditions for workers had significantly worsened. The HR manager Manoj Singh had started what the workers called “Hitler Raj” in the factory. He obviously did it for his personal gains. He took the Japanese into confidence that their profits will increase further if they allow him to handle workers in his way. He started harassing , threatening workers. Not only did he refuse to increase the salary of contract workers, he even used to increase the training period of trainees by 2 years and at the same time increased the number of contract workers. Manoj Singh was responsible for firing a number of workers on smallest of pretexts. If a worker did a small error or if a worker missed a days work due to ill health, then they were fired. Manoj Singh also recruited a lot of his own relatives in the staff and together they were responsible for stealing Lakhs of Rupees from the company. When this corruption racket  came into light , Manoj Singh, to ensure that his relatives do not go to prison just removed them from the company without any inquiry. This is the kind of authority he had in the company. He was constantly ensuring that due to threats, harassment and oppression workers in the company never raise their voice or try to fight for their rights. It was an extremely oppressive environment inside the company which was essentially controlled by one HR manager. If a worker complained about even lack of basic amenities or horrible working conditions, Manoj Singh would call him alone in training hall, abuse him and kick and punch him so that his fear remained among other workers. In the Months of May and June workers not only had no clean drinking water facility, they also had to drink hot water as there was no water cooler in the company! There was no fan or ventilation  anywhere in the work place. But the environment Manoj Singh had created was filled with so much fear that workers never tried to raise their voice even against such inhuman working conditions!

So on one hand we have a company which is rated at number one among all vendor companies and on the other hand the conditions of the workers were increasingly worsening. In 2014, when Bellsonika had 89 permanent workers, they increased salary of 2-3 workers out of these and said that other workers had not performed upto the mark. This way the management also created a split among the workers. Number of contract workers continued to climb and many of them who had worked there for over 6 years continued to get 6000 rupees of salary. Number of trainees were also on the rise and there was no discussion of turning most of the trainees or contract workers into permanent workers.

 

 

Thus neither the management not the administration or government was paying any attention to the conditions workers were facing at Bellsonika. Instead of making a strict law which can punish companies for treating workers so badly, administration collaborates with the government to ensure that such conditions are sustained. In fact whatever laws exist like trade union act, factory act, Industrial Disputes act, which the working class of this country has fought so hard to get are slowly being abolished by the government. Thus finally being fed up with continuing exploitation, low salaries and oppressive atmosphere inside the company and becoming awakened to their basic rights,  workers  at Bellsonika decided to form a union.  45 workers called a meeting on 29/6/2014 and placed a proposal to form union. Workers gave a unanimous vote in favour of forming a union and elected 8 representatives. Via labour department of Gurgaon they sent the union registration papers for verification to Chandigarh on 21st August 2014.  However somehow the company got a whiff of this workers attempt to form a union and the management started threatening as well as bribing workers to dissuade them from forming a union.  Some of the workers were kept locked inside a room for  days on end and the manager used to threaten them that what happened with Maruti workers will also happen to you if you continue to insist on forming a union. Management often did this intimidation with bouncers of Gurgaon police officials in the room. Workers were also tortured in various ways. If one of the workers who was kept locked in the room wanted to go to bathroom, a security guard will go with him. These “arrested” workers were kept away from remaining workers and other workers were not allowed to even speak to them. However the workers,faced such treatment and circumstances without any fear and continued with their resolve for form the union. The unity  and resolve of workers finally paid off  when on 10.10.2014 the Bellsonika union was registered. However the same day the union was formed, the 45 workers involved in the union were suspended. As this was exactly in violation of the ID act, the union lodged a complained against the company in the labour department on 20.10.2014. Labour department acted on this complaint and sent a report against the company to the labour commissioner of Chandigadh.  After this a notice was sent by the labour commissioners office to the company asking them to give a reason regarding suspension of these workers. Based on this notice and after a legal investigation both sides participated in a discussion and based on which a final report was sent  to the Chandigadh labour commissioner on 3.11.2015.  However till date no action has been taken based on this report. Due to trade union activities the company has fired roughly 150 workers. Due to this workers were forced to resist such terminations and company even resulted to violence to physically throw out these workers. On the shop floor Manoj singh explicitly said that any worker who supports a union will be beaten up and thrown out of the factory. One of the workers was forced to sit on his knees and kicked repeatedly by Manoj Singh in the presence of other workers who were warned that same fate awaited them if they  continued to support the union. When the union tried to register a complaint against such violence in Manesar police station, the police inspector refused to do any investigation on the matter. In all 54 permanent workers, 32 trainees and 62 contract workers have been fired by company due to their involvement in the union.

 

Company has also given a statement to the labour department that we are not interested in having any discussion with these workers who have been fired. The 45 workers who are suspended have not been given any suspension letter or any charge sheet. Union  wrote to the management as well as labour department asking for such a charge sheet. In response company sent a envelope filled with a blank piece of paper as a charge sheet. The union complained about this to the labour department however it was clear that management’s modus operandi was to do some sort of internal inquiry against these suspended workers and remove them from their jobs. In December 2014, union had filed a case in Guragaon Civil court and on 24.12.2014, they managed to obtain the charge-sheets through civil court. In order to ensure that the inquiry against the 45 workers was not one-sided the union released a article in a local newspaper called “  Amar Ujalla”(Eternal light).   However this had no affect on the company and based on it’s internal inquiry it removed 39 workers on 16.02.2015. When company tried to get the approval application from the labour department regarding these terminations, the labour commissioner after hearing both sides of the case rejected the plea of the company and ordered the company to consider take the workers back and pay their salaries from the day of their suspension. When commissioner reached the company gate with these 39 workers , the management refused to take back these workers and said they will appeal to high court. Company decided to contest the decision of labour commissioner for 2 of the 39 workers and approached the high court of Chandigarh and Hariyana. Company wanted the high court to stay the order issued by labour commissioner, however the high court bench upheld the order and asked the company to reinstate the workers with full compensation. In order to ensure that high court orders are obeyed by the management, the union approached deputy commissoner. However he refused to give any satisfactory response and said he will talk to the company. Meanwhile company contested the high court decision by approaching the double Bench. Double Bench gave date of hearing as 25.01.2016. Even though company was not successful in getting stay on labour commissioners orders, the administration and government are incapable of   or unwilling in executing these orders. Now double bench has given next date of hearing as 17.07.2016. This is how the administration and government protects the interests of the capitalists and forces the workers towards more ground level struggles.  This example clearly shows that the laws are only applied to workers, the poor and the toiling masses. Capitalists can violate any laws and get away with it. Bellsonika  workers have lost their faith in law and are compelled to carry forward their struggle on their own.

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