More than 1500 contract workers of Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India (HMSI) Manesar plant in Haryana have been in a one-month long militant struggle against retrenchment that began from 5th November 2019. A report by Mazdoor Sahyog Kendra, Gurgaon (Workers Solidarity Centre, Gurgaon), on this struggle of contract workers’.
More than 1500 contract workers of Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India (HMSI) Manesar plant in Haryana have been in a one-month long militant struggle against retrenchment that began from 5th November 2019. Under the pretext of economic slowdown, the Honda management retrenched around 650 contract workers on 4th November. From 5th November, those retrenched started a sit-in dharna outside the factory gate, and nearly 1000 workers started a sit-in strike inside the plant. The management initially tried to run the production on 5th November with the help of the permanent workers, but during the course of the day, only around 100 two-wheelers were manufactured. And even then, those cars had faults and needed repairing. The management ultimately declared temporary shutdown of production from 11th November. The striking contract workers remained inside, occupying the plant. And, that was the peak of the struggle.
The company management closed most of the toilets and did not allow any outside food, but only one small packet of milk and two bananas twice a day for each of the workers through contractors. The workers could not take a bath or wash their clothes. Many fell ill, but refused to come outside and continued the occupation in high spirits. Ultimately, with the mediation of Honda Employees Union (whose members are all permanent workers of the plant), based on the assurance of the administration to have a settlement within two days, the workers evacuated the plant, came outside and joined the workers in sit-in dharna outside the plant on 18th November 2019. Since then, nearly 1500 workers are continuing the dharna in a ground outside the factory gate, demanding reinstatement and permanency of jobs and an acceptable policy of compensation for retrenchment. But the management has refused to take part in the conciliation process in the Gurgaon labour department.
On 22nd November, the Honda contract workers, joined by the Honda permanent workers and workers from other factories, organized a 22 km long rally from IMT Manesar to Gurgaon DC office. The next day, the Honda management suspended six members of Honda Employees Union, including its president Suresh Gaur and issued a notice asking permanent workers to sign a good conduct bond and join work from 25th November 2019. Thereafter the permanent workers had a general body meeting and decided to join work. Though they signed the good conduct bond, they challenged its legality, submitting a complaint to the labour department. The contractors offered contract workers compensation of Rs.15,000 for each year of working, but the workers refused. There have been few mass meetings in support of struggling Honda workers, including a big mass meeting on 6th December 2019, where many central level or state level leaders of different trade unions (AITUC, CITU, INTUC, AIUTUC, HMS etc.) and union representatives of many factory unions (Maruti, Hero MotoCorp, Honda 2F, Rico, Munjal Showa, Daikin, Belsonica, AG, Napino Auto, FCC Clutch, Shivam Auto, Sona Steering, Hema Engineering, RGB, Nerolac, Munjal Kiriu, PN Writers, and many more) expressed solidarity to the struggle.
Though the Honda management has given the excuse of fall in production due to economic slowdown for the retrenchment, the actual reason is not exactly so. It is true that the two-wheeler segment has been affected by the slowdown. But that did not cause the retrenchment. The other plants of Honda, including the Honda Tapukara plant (Honda 2F), at a distance of 50 kilometer from Honda Manesar (1F plant), are running at full production, including occasional overtime. Honda 1F plant, which has a capacity of 5,540 two-wheelers per day, was producing much less than optimum capacity, around 2,800 two-wheelers per day. But the reason is that the bulk of the production was shifted to Honda 2F (Tapukara plant in Rajasthan), Honda 3F (Bengaluru plant) and newly started Honda 4F (Gujarat plant) recently and the ground of mass retrenchment was made with the pretext of slowdown. The Honda management utilized the excuse of economic slowdown to actualize an industrial restructuring that is difficult to do in normal times. There are few reasons behind the industrial restructuring. To understand the nature of the industrial restructuring regarding labour regime, we need to follow the developments over the last two decades.
The Honda plant was established in Manesar in 1999. In 2005, Honda workers, facing extremely dehumanizing working conditions, started a militant struggle to form a union. Though the formal members of the union were permanent workers, the struggle was joined by both the permanent and contract workers. The unity of permanent and contract workers was key to the success of that remarkable struggle, which, despite severe repression, including massive lathi charge on workers by the police on 25 July 2005 (which is still observed by the union each year as ‘black day’), could ultimately form a union without any victimization of the workers. The success of Honda union, the first one in the Manesar industrial belt, led to a series of struggles in different factories in Manesar by permanent and contract workers culminating in many cases of successful union formation.
When the Honda management failed to break the permanent-contract unity inside the plant by force, it took a different tactic. The main ground of permanent-contract unity was their similar working condition and nearly similar salary (permanent workers used to get around Rs. 6,500 before union formation). After union formation, in successive 3-yearly settlements with the permanent workers’ union, the management increased the salary of the permanent workers manifold and a huge gap was created between the salaries of the permanent and contract workers. Today the salary of a permanent worker is Rs. 70,000 per month, or more depending on the grades, whereas the salary of the contract workers is Rs 16,000 per month. Also with each settlement, the burden of production was gradually shifted on to the contract workers and permanent workers increasingly took roles as line leaders and other supervisory roles to run production. This ensured a kind of ‘industrial peace’ where the permanent workers gradually distanced themselves from the contract workers, and also from the other struggling workers in different factories in the Manesar industrial belt. The contract workers in Honda struggled a few times on their own in 2008 and 2010 on different issues, but without effective support from the union, these struggles could not achieve much, except an understanding that each year 100 contract workers would be made permanent on the basis of seniority and a test. Also, whereas the contract workers earlier had to rejoin every six months, now in 2008 that was extended to 11 months. In each settlement, there was a meager increment in contract workers’ salary. In 2016, during the last settlement, the salary of permanent workers had an increase of Rs. 23,000, whereas the salary of contract workers was increased by Rs. 3,200. Thereafter, there has been no increment in the salaries of contract in the last 4 years.
This ‘industrial peace’ helped Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India (HMSI) achieve seamless production and reap profit, and increase its production (this ‘Honda model’ of peaceful production by creating permanent-contract gap has been emulated in many top-tier plants in the industrial belt), by establishing new plants in Tapukara (Rajasthan) in 2012, in Bengaluru in 2014 and in Ahmedabad in 2016. The annual capacity of Manesar plant is 1.65 million units, the capacity of Tapukara plant is 1.2 million units and the annual capacity of Ahmedabad plant, “the world’s largest only scooter plant”, 1.2 million units. The capacity of Bengaluru plant is the largest, with a daily production capacity of 6,600 vehicles. This massive expansion of production was accompanied by a significant change in technology and labour regime. Whereas the Manesar plant is the least automated, the other plants are more and more automated, particularly the paint and the weld shops.
In Manesar plant, paint shop work is almost 80% manually done and 20% robotized. In the Tapukara, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad plants, the percentage of work done by robots are around 50%, 80% and 100% respectively. Changes have been made in the painting process too. In the Manesar plant, painting is done in three steps – the application of a primer, a base coat and a top coat. Now, in the newer plants, ‘mono-coat’ painting is available. With increased automation, there is less dependence on experience and manual skills. A flexible workforce, even with less experience, is able to run the production. The control of the workers over the production gets increasingly less with this kind of automation as well. Thus from 2014 onwards, Honda Manesar management has stopped the rejoining process of new contract workers and began implementing a more flexible labour regime.
Consequently, the management does not want to make any of the existing contract workers permanent. Rather, they want to replace the contract workforce with more flexible temporary workforce and NEEM (National Employment Enhancement Mission) trainees. In 2018, and in the last 2 years, around 800 NEEM workers have been hired. These NEEM trainees are given only Rs. 11,000 out of which half is paid by the government. Any new worker now needs 3-4 days of training before joining the production process. Now the Honda Manesar plant has 1,865 permanent workers and around the same number of contract workers. In Tapukara plant, permanent workers, around 325 in number, constitute 10% of the total workforce. Thus the management has now introduced a three-pronged strategy of industrial restructuring — shift production from Manesar plant increasingly to the newer plants where automation and productivity are more and a low-wage, flexible, non-unionized workforce is available; change the workforce composition of Manesar plant by substituting old contract workers by various categories of temporary workers and remove remnants of permanent-contract unity; weaken the union and gradually implement VRS (Voluntary Retirement Scheme) or partial closure of production. With the economic slowdown as excuse, the management has tried to implement the first two purposes and is trying to prepare ground for the third.
All the struggling contract workers in HMSI Manesar have been in the plant before 2014 and many have been there since 2008. All the contract workers joining after 2014 have already been retrenched. There are three contractors in Honda Manesar plant – KC, Kamal and Sukhma. Contract workers are taken for 11 months following a break of 15 days, and then they are rejoined under a different contractor. As per the settlement between the management and the union, 100 contract workers are to be made permanent each year. 50 of them should be on the basis of seniority, and 50 on the basis of a test. From 2008 up to 2015, during every rejoining, 50 workers were made permanent on the basis of a yearly test. But in the last four years, the test has not been conducted, and this year even the seniority criterion was dropped.
Last August, around 800 workers were retrenched before Diwali to avoid giving them a Diwali bonus and other facilities. No compensation was given to them. All the contract workers went on a hunger strike inside the plant for 3 consecutive days protesting against this retrenchment. The permanent workers’ union assured the protestors that the management had given assurances to take back the retrenched workers after some period and no contract worker will be retrenched before a proper compensation policy is formed. On the basis of that assurance, the contract workers took back their hunger strike. But such assurances proved to be false. Thus, when the contract workers were retrenched on 4th November, the union had no assurance to offer. The union was also disturbed by the shifting of production from Manesar plant, which had clear consequences for the union and its activities.
They also knew that if the old contract workers are gone, union’s control over production and its bargaining capacity will be considerably reduced. Also, the management has refused to reach settlement with the permanent workers’ union for the last one and a half years since the union placed their Charter of Demands. That is one of the reasons why the union supported the contract workers struggle against management, without themselves engaging in any militancy to disturb production. But that support of the union and the dependence of the contract workers on the union for the future direction of the struggle, has proved to be expensive for the contract workers’ struggle. It diffuses the militancy and the agency of the contract workers after a point and restrains it to get a more generalized form of contract workers’ struggle in this belt. This was what happened on the 18th of November when the contract workers were asked by the union to evacuate the plant.
In this industrial belt, there have been very, very few militant struggles of contract workers against retrenchment before. In 2013-14, the contract workers of Asti International, a Japanese auto parts company in Manesar, launched a protracted struggle against the sudden retrenchment without any compensation of all 310 contract workers, most of whom were women. They had formed ‘Asti Theka Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti’, elected a body of 7 members, and held a 44-days long dharna and a 14-days long indefinite hunger strike in front of the factory gate, demanding reinstatement. Ultimately, the issue was not settled.
Some workers took monetary compensation and remaining workers are fighting cases in the courts for reinstatement as permanent workers, refusing monetary compensation. Another long struggle took place when Hero MotoCorp Gurgaon plant retrenched around 1,000 contract workers in January 2017. The struggling workers also formed ‘Hero MotoCorp Theka Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti’, elected a body and had a protracted struggle for reinstatement. That struggle also ended with a promise for monetary compensation, which a section of the workers accepted, and court cases were filed by remaining workers, demanding reinstatement as permanent workers. In 2017-18, the struggle of 478 retrenched contract workers in Omax Dharuhera plant saw a retrenched worker commit suicide. That struggle also ended up unresolved.
The common aspect of all these struggles were that these had no support from the permanent workers’ union inside the plant, had no support from the trade union council or the central trade unions and enjoyed very little support from some factory union workers. In all of these struggles, the contract workers themselves decided the course of struggle. Though contract workers of other plants felt sympathy for the struggles, they were in no position to support them. In this respect, the struggle of contract workers of Honda has been successful in terms of attracting the attention of the entire industrial belt, the mainstream media, and the workers’ organizations and pro-working class people in different parts of the country. One reason is the militancy of the struggle, as for the first time contract workers occupied a major plant for 15 days. Another reason is the economic and political context, where almost 3.5 lakh workers have been retrenched with the excuse of economic slowdown in the auto industry and its associated industry alone and has drawn national attention. The third reason is the location of the struggle. Honda is a major nodal point in the auto production networks in this industrial belt and any struggle at the node of the network has its ripple effect across the supply chain and the entire network, and thus has the potential of becoming a nodal point in the area-wise struggle.
The initial support of Honda permanent workers’ union and the support from other unions has helped the Honda contract workers to highlight their struggle, but after a point that ‘support’ starts to ‘control’ the contract workers’ struggle and becomes a fetter in itself. Until and unless the contract workers can decide the course of the struggle themselves, the struggle cannot reach the next level and there are only two options that it is left with. Reach some monetary compromise, or fizzle out. Without the support of some permanent workers’ unions, only contract workers of a single plant cannot struggle on their own for a long time. But the permanent workers and their unions have lost their militancy and are unable to help a militant contract workers struggle reach its conclusion. The Honda contract workers’ struggle has achieved the first part, i.e. to transform its struggle to a general struggle of this belt, but it shows weakness in terms of the next part, that is, to decide the course of the struggle themselves. Till now, there is a dependency in terms of decision making on the permanent workers’ union. There is no elected body of contract workers to sit together and decide the course (only 3 workers have been chosen to accompany the permanent workers in negotiation). But as the workers have been experienced and hardened by the struggle for a month, and their spirit of struggle still seems to be high, there is possibility that the struggle may show potential for a more generalized and militant direction, if the futile negotiations clear the illusions and yet fails to exhaust their fighting spirit. The movement, therefore, is now at a crucial crossroad.
If the workers show the intent of a more generalized and militant struggle, it may become an opportunity and responsibility for the really struggling forces to carve out a new direction for the workers’ movement based on a generalized form of contract and temporary workers’ struggle. As the contract and temporary workers now have the real burden of production, a new wave of successful trade union struggles cannot be imagined without their real participation. They are the force that holds the promise of an uncompromising struggle against the neoliberal offensive of capital, if they develop as a formidable area-wise force. The Honda workers’ struggle has ignited some hope for that possibility. But the subjective and objective challenges are still many. If they can break through those, they can contribute to the emergence of a new militant subject in trade union struggle in the coming days.