Over the course of 20 days last year, between 27 September and 16 October, Honda allegedly colluded with the trade union and made 545 workers at its Greater Noida factory sign pre-filled voluntary retirement forms.
“Jo union workers ke bhalai ke liye hota hai, unhone hi management se mil kar hamare saath aisa kiya” (The union that is supposed to look after the workers joined hands with the management in betraying us),” says Hem Chand Nagar, who was working with Honda Cars India Limited since 2008. Honda workers say the company did not consult them before deciding to roll out the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS).
Voluntary retirement is usually accepted by workers’ unions simply because it is ‘voluntary’ in nature. Private and public sector firms use it as a cost-cutting measure, but recession, merger, acquisition or joint venture with a foreign firm can also make a company take this route to let go of its employees. In 2019, BSNL and MTNL had offered VRS to their employees as part of the merger between the two bleeding telecom companies.
Honda argues that it offered VRS to its workers because its Greater Noida plant was incurring losses and faced a possible shutdown. Workers deny the claim and say production was going on as usual. Lawyer Prateek Sangwan says that it is mandatory for a company to make its workers aware of the reason VRS is being offered and also give them time to fill the forms. Honda allegedly didn’t do either.
The company’s public relations executive, Saba Khan, refuted the allegations and shared Honda’s official statement on the matter. “The allegations made against the company are completely false, baseless and devoid of real facts. They are intended to malign the image of the company and we refute all the charges. With this statement, we would like to reiterate that we are a brand that is built on trust,” the statement read.
Collusion with trade union
In January 2020, about 200 Honda employees had voluntarily retired by availing the VRS. But the company reintroduced the scheme in September that year – only this time, it ‘forced’ the employees to take it. It even asked employees under quarantine due to the Covid-19 pandemic to come to the office and sign the papers, workers say.
So why did the employees do it despite knowing what VRS entails?
“We were told that if we did not sign the papers, we wouldn’t be paid our dues and won’t be allowed to enter the company premises,” says Sonu Kumar, 35, who had joined Honda in 2007.
This is where the trade union could have come to the workers’ aid but Honda already had the union on its side, workers allege. The Trade Unions Act, 1926 aims to protect the rights and privileges of the unions. But in Honda’s case, it was party to a collusion with the management that resulted in hundreds of employees losing their job.
Members of the trade union ThePrint contacted declined to comment on the matter.
Honda’s trade union, which first came into existence in 2004, is formed every year in February when the election is held, according to Mangal Singh, a former employee. But the election was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic. According to Honda, though, an election was held on 22 March 2020 at its Greater Noida factory where 627 workers were present, and 460 of them voted to elect the union, which coincidentally comprised the same members as the union formed a year ago.
This is where things get dodgy. On 22 March 2020, India was under a day-long Janta Curfew as declared by the Narendra Modi government. So, the question is, how could Honda conduct an election with a gathering of 600 plus workers?
The mystery over the election is such that none of the workers ThePrint spoke to were aware of it. They only learned about it through a request filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
Hem Chand Nagar, Sonu Kumar, Mangal Singh and many others said they also sent an RTI request to the DCP, Gautam Buddh Nagar, which informed them that they had not received any request from Honda to oversee the election, which is how union elections have always been held.
Workers said officers at Beta-II police station didn’t register an FIR against Honda, after which they filed a complaint at Uttar Pradesh’s Integrated Grievance Redressal portal. The chief judicial magistrate, which is now hearing the matter, has asked the police to explain why the FIR was not registered.
ThePrint contacted Gaurav Katiyar, manager and head of associate relation at Honda’s Greater Noida unit, who said he was not authorised to speak to the media. He, too, guided ThePrint to refer to the company’s official statement.
“The company executed the VRS programme last year ethically and adhered to all guidelines of corporate governance and legal compliance. We have always focused on the overall welfare and wellbeing of our associates. We are confident that our VRS scheme was best in the industry and there should be no reason for any dissatisfaction,” the statement read.
But is that so? The company sent paycheques to the employees it allegedly forced to take VRS. It even credited three years of salaries to 10 employees who say they never signed any VRS-related documents but were still paid and relieved from their jobs. Sonu Kumar, who is 35 years old, said the last payslip he received from Honda mentions his age as 40, which, incidentally, is also the age criteria for VRS.
Sonu also rubbishes the company’s claim that the Greater Noida plant was incurring losses. A permanent employee at Honda’s utility department, he said production had returned to normal since 15 June 2020, after the nationwide lockdown was lifted in parts. The production was later shifted to Rajasthan, and in September, the company announced the VRS.
‘What do we do now?’
Many workers who were ‘laid off’ at the Greater Noida factory were just a few years away from retirement, with home loans and other liabilities to take care of. “Bacchon ko ab school se nikala ja raha hai. Kaun naukri pe lega is umar mein? (Our children are being thrown out of schools because we could not pay the fees. Who will hire us at this age?),” says Sunil Kumar.
“We just want our jobs back,” says Mangal Singh, 40, “and we want Honda to listen to its employees who have given their sweat and lives to it.” The workers say they and their families will take to the streets if Honda does not reinstate them.
(Edited by Prashant)
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