Bawal/Haryana: It was only half past noon on a February day but it already felt like the cruel sun will send the swelter meter spinning across the Industrial Model Township, located at the outskirts of Haryana’s Bawal city, where women workers of an auto-mobile parts manufacturer have been staging a protest.
“Look,” said a woman with a local accent, attending a phone call, “Mummi ne bhul jaa thode dina ke lie. Wo ni ghar aa ri abhi (Don’t think about your mother for next few days. She won’t be coming back home right now).”
This woman, apparently in her 30s, later introduced herself as Asha Devi; it was her three-year old son whom she was consoling on the phone. The scorching Wednesday marked the 10th day of Devi’s absence at her home as she was camping at the protest along with over hundred other women, outside the company’s gate.
The women, almost all of whom have over ten years of toiling work experience in the same company as ‘permanent workers’, are protesting against the suspension of their “committee members”, while demanding an early settlement of their wage pact, pending since May last year.
On February 13, the fateful day, ten “committee members” were suspended by the Bawal management of Keihin Fie Private Limited, an Indian subsidiary of a Japan-based private company.
There is no union body representing the permanent female workforce of 164 in total out of a much larger manpower strength of the factory. Hence, a committee was formed and it was holding talks with the management over a three-year wage deal. The negotiations effectively ended after the suspension of workers.
“All of us attended a meeting with the management over our wage settlement on that day (February 13),” said Devi, who is among those suspended. “Soon after the meeting, we were escorted out of the factory premises by security guards and female bouncers. They told us that we are suspended without providing us with any reasons.”
She stressed that nothing untoward had happened during the meeting, even as no breakthrough in the talks was achieved.
The women, with a monthly cash-in-hand payment of Rs. 25,000, have been demanding a total increment of another Rs 25,000 in the next three years, against the management’s proposal of Rs. 6000 increase, Newsclick was informed.
After the suspension of their co-workers, the company management further made it mandatory for the rest of the women to sign a ‘Good Conduct Undertaking’ form, which was feared as a disciplinary move to suppress the anger among the workers. The women had to sign the form before entering the factory premises on the following work day. This move finally triggered the protests outside the company gate.
One protesting workers said on the condition of anonymity, “We are camping here round-the-clock since that day – every day. We are not allowed to put up a tent here. The company management also denied us permission to use their toilets; we had to defecate in the open for the first few days.”
A mobile toilet van, along with a company’s ambulance vehicle, were present when Newsclick visited the protest area on Wednesday. The women had brought ration from their home, with arrangements already been made to cook food at the protest area itself.
“Last time, the management had agreed upon an increase of Rs 11,750 – at least they should give us that much now,” said another women who did not wish to share her name fearing job loss.
“Itni mehangayi mein company ko thoda to hamara bhi sochna chaiye. 8-9 ghante kaam karne par bhi bacchon ka pet bharna mushkil ho raha hai (In this time of rising prices, the company should be more thoughtful towards us. It is becoming difficult to feed children even after toiling for 8 to 9 hours),” she rued.
Company Cites ‘Corona Impact’
A representative officer of the Bawal management of Keihin Fie told Newsclick that the company is unable to accept the demands of the protesting workers due to “various reasons”, one among them being the “Corona impact”, which is a reference to the pandemic-induced economic challenges.
“There was a production slowdown and the production was reduced to 50% level [which] caused a big monetary loss to the company,” the official said, in reply to a questionnaire sent to them through a messaging service. He also added that the company has been discussing the wage settlement, which is pending at Additional Labour Commissioner, Gurugram.
When asked about the suspension of workers, the official added that it was “due to disciplinary issues,” without specifying what they were.
More Issues Emerging
On the other hand, as the days progress, the protesting women are also raising issues pertaining to what they call “inhuman” working conditions at the factory. According to them, the workers are not even allowed to take “proper breaks” due to “huge work pressure” -- an allegation that was termed as “fake” and “baseless” by the company representative.
As on Wednesday, one protesting woman was admitted to hospital due to being exposed to extreme heat, while a section of women joined back their duties allegedly due to the pressure that was being mounted by the management on their families.
However, the company said, “Despite many requests and many meetings there was no improvement. All other members are sitting outside in support of the suspended employees. We are requesting all female employees who are not suspended to resume duties after signing a Good Conduct Undertaking. Around 50+ female members have already resumed their duty. The plant is working in its full capacity.”
Despairing over the conditions, Devi said, “We worked for so many years for this company and this is how the management is treating us. This is not what we deserve.”