PEOPLES UNION FOR DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS (PUDR)
9 October, 2023, Monday
Why was the registration of Bellsonica Union cancelled for including contract workers as members?
Approximately two weeks ago, on Saturday, 23 September 2023, the Labour Department, Haryana, issued a notice cancelling the registration of the Bellsonica Auto Component India Employees’ Union at Manesar. Bellsonica is a Tier-1 company which produces components (chassis) for Maruti Suzuki India Limited. The ground cited is that the Union had made a contract worker a member, to which the management had strongly objected. The Labour Department has played a dubious role in the Union-management conflict over including contract workers. The following sequence of events amply illustrates this:
(1) 13 August 2021: Haryana Labour Commissioner-cum-Registrar Trade Unions approves the formal amendment in Rule 5 of the constitution of the BACI Employees’ Union allowing “any worker who is working” at Bellsonica the right to become a member upon payment of subscription and admission fee.
(2) 29 July 2022: In its annual returns filed with the Registrar of Trade Unions, the Union includes a contract worker’s admission as an ‘ordinary member’.
(3) 23 August 2022: The Bellsonica management writes to Registrar Trade Unions, Haryana, objecting to the inclusion of contract workers and demanding that the Union’s registration be cancelled.
(4) 5 September 2022: The Labour Commissioner-cum-Registrar Trade Unions’ office issues a letter to the Union seeking an explanation for this, disregarding its previous approval for the same.
(5) 28 September 2022: The Union responds that the Trade Unions Act does not differentiate between permanent and contract workers who could apply to become ‘ordinary members’ of the Union. The Bellsonica Union Constitution followed the same.
(6) 26 December 2022: The Labour Commissioner-cum-Registrar Trade Unions’ office expresses dissatisfaction with the Union’s position and gives the Union 60 days to explain its position or else have its registration cancelled.
(7) 27 February 2023: The Union replied to the Labour Department, reiterating that all workers could become ordinary members.
(8) 23 September 2023: The Labour Department cancels the Union’s registration. It reasoned that the contract worker was the contractor’s employee and not of Bellsonica. So they could not become members of the Union of Bellsonica workers. The de-registration was carried out notwithstanding a pending case in the Punjab and Haryana High Court by a contract worker whose membership had been cancelled by the Union.
(9) Four other contract workers had joined the Union during the last year or so. The Union cancelled their membership, and these workers subsequently filed a writ petition in the High Court at Chandigarh. The Labour Department has cancelled the Union’s registration despite this pending matter.
It must be noted that Section 2 (g) of the Trade Union Act in India defines ‘workmen’ for a trade union as “all persons employed in trade or industry whether or not in the employment of the employer with whom the trade dispute arises”. As such, the law does not distinguish between permanent and contractual workers in forming a trade union. This is in recognition of prevailing employment practises in the industry, where the proportion of permanent workers is less than the contractual workforce. Given that most workers at Bellsonica today are contractually employed, excluding contract workers from the right to membership of the trade union amounts to denying them the protection of labour laws and the right to collective bargaining. Here, the Labour Department has raised a specious argument that contract workers and those employed by the principal employer do not share a community of interest. This misrepresents the reality of the shop-floor where all the workers are at par in the nature of their work, engaging in the same or similar operations.
The history of the cancellation of registration and its implications can be traced to the arbitrary practices of the management and the workers’ Union’s struggle against these, especially over the last two and a half years. PUDR had carried out an investigation into the issue when the workers were protesting peacefully outside the factory in May 2023. We learnt that like other vendor companies in the Manesar area in the automobile sector, the Bellsonica management has also been increasing numbers of contractual workers with varying contract periods in an attempt to absolve themselves of liability towards this workforce, where several contractually employed workers are engaged in the same work as permanent workers. By mid-2023, the total number of contract workers/apprentices/trainees, etc., at Bellsonica had grown significantly (from 192 in 2017 to between 744 and 844 in 2023) while the numbers of permanent workers have remained static and even declined slightly (from 705 in 2017 to 692 in 2023).
The Bellsonica management has also been arbitrarily retrenching even permanent workers since 2021, especially citing reasons like ‘indiscipline’ or on the pretext that workers (including those who had been employed for eight years already) had allegedly submitted ‘fake documents’ at the time of employment. The Union has been vociferously protesting against the management regarding these retrenchments. Not only has it consistently been representing the rights of contract workers, but it has also included them in the Union as members, enabling them access to the right to collective bargaining. This explains why the Union has been becoming particularly inconvenient for the management. The cancellation of the Bellsonica Union’s registration by the Labour Department comes in the immediate context of this struggle led by the Union, raising legitimate questions of the management.
It must be noted that following the cancellation of the Union’s registration on 27 September 2023, the management terminated three remaining union members who were still on the Company’s rolls. They had been suspended in the course of the 2023 March-April agitation. In the days before the cancellation of the registration, the management had escalated its intimidation of workers and threatened them with termination on various grounds. The cancellation of the Union’s registration will serve to intimidate workers further.
In a context where there is an overwhelming shift towards contract labour on the ground, the rights of labour unions to extend their membership and organise different categories of workers becomes all the more imperative. The Bellsonica Union’s efforts have been remarkable and must be encouraged rather than curbed. While the Bellsonica management’s attempts to limit the Union’s actions may be seen as acts to protect their profits, and in the interests of ensuring a more docile workforce, the Haryana Labour Department’s particularly narrowly and technically legalistic stance against the Bellsonica Union’s inclusion of contract workers as members, shows its utter failure in fulfilling its proper role and intervening fairly and justly in the context of a labour dispute. By its order, the Labour Department denies, by implication, the right of the majority of the workers in Bellsonica and the entire automobile sector in the Manesar-Gurgaon belt to collectively organise and demand their rights.
In light of the above, PUDR demands the withdrawal of the Haryana Labour Department’s order cancelling the registration of the Bellsonica Auto Component India Employees Union. We demand that Bellsonica Trade Union’s Constitution, which allows all workers to join the Union as ordinary members, be upheld and the membership of contract workers not be made into a reason for cancelling registration. We also demand that all terminated and suspended workers of BACI, Manesar must be reinstated immediately, and the Company must, with immediate effect, stop its policy of arbitrary terminations and suspensions and cancel the show-cause notices issued to workers.