Days and Nights in Manesar – Reflecting on the ASTI Workers’ Struggle: Anshita & Arya

Guest Post by Anshita & Arya (Krantikari Naujawan Sabha)

All 310 contract workers in ASTI Electronics factory in IMT Manesar in Gurgaon, Haryana have been on dharna since 3rd November 2014 after they were laid-off on 1st November 2014 citing low work demand. Seven of them are on fast-unto-death from 24th November, while ten workers and pro-worker activists each everyday sit on relay hunger strike.

 In a context where contract workers, increasing exponentially as a demand of the capitalists gleefully forced down by the government through labour law reforms, are finding it ever harder to organize/unite and sustain spontaneous outburts of discontent, due to the precarious nature of their life and work conditions, workers at ASTI Electronics (as a continuation of the 60-70 strikes in various factories in the industrial belt of Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera-Bawal in the last few months) are fighting back and keeping the flame of new emergent struggles alive.

These workers are raising important questions on contractualisation and informalisation within the organized sector which even Central Trade Unions have constantly avoided. Over 250 of these 310 workers are women whose militancy in struggle and leadership is redefining the overall struggle and changing the gender relations within the workers movement.

This struggle for work-livelihood-life is unmasking the heart of the developmental model on DMIC (see current projects in which Mr Modi under the supervision of the capitalist class is proposing as the solution to all ills before so-called ‘progress of the country.What follows is a short reflection from the factory gate on the ongoing struggle.

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Days and Nights in Manesar

Raju was irritated the entire day, as we gathered from others sitting on strike. He had stayed up the entire night the previous day, during his turn for night-vigil and heated water for all his fellow strikers to take a shower. However, despite him working, the others didn’t want to take a shower, really, especially because winter had set in, as most them rationalised.

By yesterday night, Raju had calmed down, after all the others apologised, though jokingly. They kept pulling his leg, calling him the nagging child.

Well, he is young, all of twenty years old, like most of the workers sitting on a dharna in front of the ASTI Electronics factory in IMT Manesar, Gurgaon, Haryana. Most of the workers are in their early- and mid-20s. While most of them are unmarried, others have the pressure of kids and families to worry about too.

The five women and two men who have been sitting on an indefinite hunger strike since the 25th of November are tired now, their bodily strength deteriorating, and the pressure from the families weakening them mentally. While some of the parents, husbands and siblings are coming in solidarity, there are others, whose parents are asking them to come back, or discouraging the women to stay the nights out with others on the streets. But they are resilient, often against the will of their families, to continue this struggle.

The Present Struggle

The contract workers of ASTI have been sitting on a dharna since November 3rd, after the management issued them notices on 1st November of ‘7 days off’ citing less work, a ploy often deployed to terminate workers in this belt. On 25th of November, they launched a fast-unto-death, after two rounds of negotiations failed, where the company just offered them a paltry two months salary after firing them at the management‘s whim. Now the workers are raising important questions against contractualisation and informalisation within the organized sector which even Central Trade Unions have constantly avoided. They are angry that the permanent workers in their company aren’t coming out in their support, this, especially when it is on their strength and striking capacity that the Right to form a Union was established during a uniuted struggle of permanent and contract workers in the beginning of the year. This however they know is not merely related to the will of the permanent workers in the factory alone, but under direction from the Central Trade Union they are affiliated to, whose leadership acting almost as a second-class management, is stopping this solidarity from materializing.

Attack against Segmentation

The ways in which this segmentation- between contract and permanent, women and men, migrant and local, between castes – is acknowledged, attacked and broken by workers during struggles has seen a long history, the most significant being the second of the three strikes by workers in Maruti Suzuki Manesar just nearby in 2011 when permanent workers struck work inside the factory while contract workers sat on dharna outside, to unite later and unsettle tested divisive mechanisms of the managements in the area. This time, it is again been acknowledged and tested by the pressure from contract workers on the permanent workers to come unite with them, because it is clear that its not for long that they too will remain with any secured employment given the overall move in the country towards contractulaisation and informalisation even within the organized sector.

The management had been on an offensive since the struggle few months back fought unitedly by contract and permanent workers during the demand of formation of a Union. While the management is constantly plotting to further the segmentation between the permanent and the contract workers, the workers say that the speed of the assembling belt would keep increasing then and again after the Union formation. The intensifying of attacks during attempts at formation of Union and even just after that is a common phenonmennon in the belt.

Women on the Assembly Line

ASTI factories located in India, China, Japan and Vietnam supply products like wire harnesses and air conditioner panels to various first tier auto-companies. ASTI Electronic India Pvt. Ltd., a subsidiary of ASTI Japan in IMT Manesar, Haryana, India regularly supplies wiring harnesses to Maruti Suzuki, Honda and other Automobile manufacturers. Wire harnessing involves the process of assembling wires on a board in different stages that are completed in three shifts. First, wires are cut using a machine. Huge chances and number of real instances of accidents are involved in this process. Severed fingers of innumerable hired-and-fired contract workers testify to this. The wire is crimped i.e. the wires are squeezed from their ends manually using a crimping machine to obstruct air pockets, these air pockets cause corrosion of copper wire leading to damage of machinery. Terminals are later attached to the ends. All this takes place in the machine shop. The most tedious part of this process involves assembling of wires on a board. This process takes place on a conveyor belt. The workers in assembly lines produce harnesses according to designs provided to them.

Here in ASTI’s Manesar plant, more women workers are employed for this tedious process. Number of women workers exceed the number of male workers in this final process. Both mentally and physically challenging, this final process takes place only during the daytime shift A from 7am to 3:20pm. Forced overtime in illegal single rate is another unsaid rule. The pressure of meeting targets, the be-all of production work, has been increasing rapidly. Reducing toilet and tea breaks and increasing the speed of conveyor belt gradually on an hourly basis are normal ways of increasing work pressure on the workers by the management. During the summertime, cases of workers fainting have been reported often. A pregnant woman had a miscarriage while working on the conveyor belt. These over 250 of 310 contract workers now are women whose militancy in struggle and leadership is redefining the overall struggle and changing the gender relations within the workers movement.

The Ground Shifts Beneath the Feet of Central Trade Unions

The local Gurgaon Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) leader came to the dharna site only on the 28th of November, almost a month after the dharna has been on, that too after being threatened by the contract workers. One of the female leaders of the strike, Pushpa threatened him by calling him up and said, “We will all commit suicide here, and put your name on the note, as the person answerable for our deaths” and it is only after such a conversation did he even turn up, again for once. The HMS leader had to face irreverant questions by contract workers openly: “How much money does it take to register a Union?”, a clear statement on what CTUs do- take money to feed the bureaucratic machinery of ‘registration of Unions’ and dissapear from site of struggles on the ground. They asked, “Does your own affiliate –the permanent workers Union- not listen to you, Pradhanji?”, pointing to these dinosaurs acting as second-class management to feed the segmentation of workers. Other Central Trade Unions have also been conspicous by their absence, while the ground of new struggles has shifted under them.

New, Emergent Solidarities

However, there is solidarity pouring in from workers and other factory Unions in the industrial belt. Not mere sympathy, but similar exploitative work conditions and repression on legitimate demands have led the permanent workers at Munjal Kiriu 2km nearby to be on strike from 24th September 2014, from whom ASTI workers have received most concrete solidarity in their gate meetings. While these two strikes have been on, workers –contract, casual, apperentice, permanent united- of Omax Auto in Dharuhera, Manesar and Bhiwadi and in Automax Binola went on a one-day occupation strike on 20th November, erupting possibilities of contrete solidarity in generalizing struggles.

Various independent Unions from nearby factories have been coming in solidarity, contributing financially, carrying out collections at the factory gates to support the ASTI workers. The gate of Endurance factory nearby is being used as the charging station for the microphone and mobiles, the common kitchen is being run from contributions of this sort and a system of night vigil has been established, to ensure each other’s safety and well being, given the frequent and increasing instigations and threats from anti-social elements and contractors It is an open secret that apart from the legal and police machinery, ‘Bouncers on hire’ across Gurgaon are well employed regularly by various managements in many strike scenes in the past few years.

During gate meetings, one only sees the ‘formal’ aspects of things, workers agitated and protesting against the barricades, a sea of other Union leaders and representatives from nearby companies addressing the gathering. Even in these, apart from the speeches, the little sense of victories are important, like when the buses for the staff had to recede inside the factory when the juloos of workers of ASTI and Munjal Kiriu combined reached the gate for such a meeting on 14th Novermber.

In the evenings, there is a different sense of solidarity, of collective sharing of joy and pain, gossip, jokes and songs. Many workers had to be repeatedly reassured by others, to not feel sad for eating, as energies needed to be mobilised for other tasks to carry on the struggle. Apart from cleaning and cooking, they also have to be on their feet, either trying to increase the forging of solidarity among other workers in the belt, trying to arrange a meeting with other Unions, the labour department, or even the Chief Minister and still some of them don’t eat, in solidarity with their fellow comrades on an indefinite hunger strike.

Raj Kumari had tears in her eyes when we ate dinner last night. She said she can’t be eating, when her friends had been going without food for 4 days now. On asking her why she was doing this, she said that in a couple of years, say in one or two, she would be married off, and she really wants to remember that she had done something radical like this. Well, maybe she didn’t remember then that there are others amidst her, who have left behind their kids and husbands and are participating in the strike.

Most of these young women are also migrant workers, 20 something olds hailing from Nepal, Arunachal, Assam, Jharkhand, who live alone here in rented accommodations in nearby Aliyar Gaon or Gurgaon or Dharuhera, on a meagre salary of around 6-7 thousand per month. Local migrants from Haryana migle with them at work and in the struggle, At this point, they haven’t received their salary from October onwards and are bearing the expenses of travel, food, rent etc., without compromising their commitment to this struggle.

It is this spirit of struggle that has been most inspiring, irrespective of the bleak future that even they see for themselves, sometimes. This spirit refuses to yield, struggling, sustaning, inspiring against the seeming impossible.

 Anshita and Arya are activists with Krantikari Naujawan Sabha


3 thoughts on “Days and Nights in Manesar – Reflecting on the ASTI Workers’ Struggle: Anshita & Arya”

  1. In any contest involving labor and the varna system, labor and capital, labor and the state, labor and landlords, labor would lose. Workers struggles offer a heart wrenching picture of the social world but such pictures are increasingly becoming boring because the result of the match never wavers from the script.

    India has a lot of labor but India does not have labor power. The combine might of labor pales before even a fraction of the might of the capital. The continuous reportage of events involving labor does not result in generation of empathy rather it makes for a bad copy. The middle class are as much part of the capitalist system as labor. Capital does not make it easy for any class of people to enjoy pleasures of life. Stories about loss of work concerning labor does not make one express solidarity with labor, rather such stories induces a light fear to work harder and if needs be for lesser pay.

    With the centralisation of political power in the hand of one man, conditions have become favourable for the centralisation of capital in the hands of few men. No labor works against the interest of society. No capitalist works in the interest of labor. And the state will always work against the interests of labor in a liberal capitalist formation. Capital will not relent until its interests are at stake. What measures can shake the confidence of capital? What thoughts can make capital lose ground? What conditions can weaken the capital? These questions need to be thought through.

    A demand for justice sounds hollow as it presumes a faith in a notion that institutions of a liberal capitalist state will listen. The state leans towards hyper-capitalists now, its ears are for them only. The gentle push of the state is towards creation of a society where capital can flourish. An ideal capitalist society is one where few large capitalists and millions of labor can live peacefully ever after. In the next few years the Indian middle class will slowly lose its buying power, owing to concentration of capital, like it has in the US since the seventies and would it not then make for a great tragic story? Till then we will have nothing but boredom as an accomplice to look out for while reading sad tales of sincere krantikari yuvas!

    1. Thanks for the misplaced brahmagyan Saurabhji. One emphatizes with the concern against boredom and banality within the present. Just wondering, how do you propose “the questions to be thought through” be done?

      The tales of krantikari naujawans might be filled with ‘sadness’, but its not a nostalgic static sadness. It is a partial assesment from a direction of small attempts to forge/witness/mould very closely, organic linkages with where this anti-capitalist counter power is seeking to breathe within the womb of the present, to speak from one of the core sites where the real movement to abolish the present state of things might just be underway.

  2. The moral of the story is that the established trade unions are losing ground among the workers.Now the workers whether contractual .casual ,permanent .organised or unorganised are losing faith in the entrenched leadership.They find themselves left in the cold to fend for themselves.In such a case as enumerated above the workers will have to be think afresh.What has to be realised that struggle has to be connected with the way as to how the state power has to be captured in the present context of capitalist-imperialist democratic structure.Any struggle unrelated to this angle is bound to fail and frustrate.It will also help the capital and its owners to strengthen instead.

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