Mohan Singh, 47, sat in the shade of a tree outside the labour office in Sector 12 of Faridabad, Haryana, visibly distraught. The company he toiled and, literally, shed his blood for had sacked him without cause, depriving his family of their sole source of income in the midst of the pandemic.
He was at the labour office to challenge his sacking and seek restitution, as were 64 of his former coworkers laid off along with him.
Mohan, who is from Almora, Uttarakhand, worked at Venus Industrial Corporation, which makes motor vehicle parts, in Faridabad’s Sector 24. He lost three fingers while working at the factory. “I worked for Venus for a long time before I was made a regular employee in 2012, after my hand went into a machine and I lost nearly all of it.”
Mohan Singh's left hand.
After prime minister Narendra Modi declared the nationwide lockdown in March, Venus sent all its workers on leave. When work resumed, the company fired 65 of them while hiring new workers. Twenty six of the sacked employees, including Mohan, have lost multiple fingers in accidents at work. And most were dissuaded from filing formal complaints with the police or the labour courts with promises of financial assistance and secure employment. Now that the company has betrayed its promises, the workers wish they had taken the assurances in writing.
“When I lost my fingers, the company’s management and people from its labour union told me not to file a formal complaint. In exchange, they promised me Rs 1-1.5 lakh as compensation and a secure job till the age of 58,” said Mohan. “They told me I was being regularised and would be made a permanent employee after some time. I trusted them, thinking I would not be able to find another job in my condition. But after only a few days, they started making my life difficult.”
He continued, “They gave my wife Rs 1,000 when I was recovering so I could afford to have juice regularly. When I returned to work, they tried to deduct that amount from my salary. I protested and managed to negotiate it down to Rs 600. I never received a single rupee as compensation, all I got was unending mental harassment. The coronavirus crisis gave them an excuse to get rid of me, and they did.”
Mohan still has a copy of the accident insurance claim he had sent to the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation with the help of a lawyer.
Mohan Singh's accident report.
After imposing the lockdown, Modi appealed to all employers not to sack staff during the pandemic. But few have paid heed as revenues have fallen sharply across the economy, rendering lakhs of workers jobless almost overnight. And given that economic activity is only just restarting, a large population of the workers laid off in the past three months will have a hard time finding secure employment.
It is a prospect that terrifies Mohan, who is his family’s sole breadwinner. He earned Rs 14,000 a month after eight years of working as a regular employee. “One of my sons is in class 12 and the other in class 10. Our house in the village is dilapidated and uninhabitable. We live in a rented room here which costs Rs 3,000 a month. After work stopped during the lockdown, my savings were spent on food rations. I haven’t paid my rent in two months. Now the landlord is asking for it and I have no money. We go to our company and politicians in the hope that we’ll get our jobs back, but we are turned away from the gates every day.”
Tearing up, Mohan added, “This misery is unbearable. I cannot do much physical work with my amputated hand, so no one is hiring me and I have no land back home to farm. Sometimes, I want to die. The employer has betrayed me.”
Twenty six workers lost their fingers working at the factory.
Hearing this, his former coworkers admonish Mohan, “How can you die like this? Don’t talk rubbish. We’ll claim what is owed to us, no matter what. We gave our youth to that company, we won’t go scrounging for pittances in this old age.”
Pretext for firing
Venus pays Rs 14,000 to Rs 18,000 a month to its “permanent” and “regular” workers. Most of them have been with the company for over 15 years, and live with their families in Faridabad.
Arvind Kumar, from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, said when their savings began to dry up during the lockdown, the Venus workers went to the management seeking some financial help. There, they had heated arguments with some senior executives. Though the workers apologised subsequently, the management retaliated by sacking the ‘regular’ employees.
“There are 70 permanent employees and 70 office staff at Venus,” said Arvind, who is in his 50s. “The 65 of us were regular employees. There isn’t much difference between a ‘permanent’ and a ‘regular’ worker. When work resumed after the lockdown, some of us were given passes to the factory but that stopped after a while. All of us were waiting to be called back to work when the company began hiring people to replace us. We have been betrayed by everyone. Our permanent coworkers had promised that once they got in they would call us back too, but they have abandoned us as well.”
Arvind added: “They aim to bring in new labour on lower wages. A lot of us have some injury on our hands, so our efficiency is less. They seized this chance of throwing us out.”
Rajbir Singh, 49, one of the workers fired by Venus, watched silently as his friends consoled Mohan. Rajbir, who is from Tehri Garhwal in Uttarakhand, came to Delhi in 1995, looking for work. He worked several jobs before ending up at Venus in 2003. Nearly four years later, on January 5, 2007, his left hand was caught in a machine. He lost two fingers and one was permanently bent. “I kept quiet about it and believed the management’s false promises. Look at my condition now.”
Rajbir, like Mohan, was promised monetary help and secure employment by the company and its workers’ union to keep him from complaining, but not in writing. He never received any financial assistance and has now been terminated from his job.
“I have three daughters and a son, all of them are studying. My parents are dead. I have a small plot of land back in the village, but for farming we are heavily dependent on rains,” he said. “We live in a rented house, which costs us Rs 4,500 a month. Whatever savings we had were spent during the lockdown; we barely managed to pay the rent. Now, getting food every day for the family is becoming increasingly difficult. I already owe money to the ration shop.”
Rajbir added: “I went looking for work in a different company but they refused to take after looking at my amputated hand. Here, the components are small so we manage. We have been running pillar to post to get them to take us back but we are turned away from the gates. ‘Don’t stand here,’ they say, ‘move away from here.’ We are trying to be taken back by the company so our lives regain some normalcy, otherwise a dark abyss lies ahead.”
Showing receipts of the annual fees he paid the company’s workers’ union, he accused them of betraying its members.
“We gave them the money every year and they betrayed us,” Rajbir said. “The union is not even willing to stand with us for our rights.”
Rajbir Singh's accident report.
Receipts of Rajbir Singh's contributions to the company's workers' union.
Fantush Thakur, from Munger in Bihar, was only 26 when he lost two fingers working at the factory. “My hand got stuck in a machine while I was working and I lost two fingers. I cannot lift heavy things with this hand,” he said.
The accident happened on July 22, 2009. “I had been married just about a year when my brother-in-law brought me to work here. After six to seven months, the accident happened. They admitted me to ESI hospital in Sector 3 of Faridabad. Nobody looked after me or even cared. My brother had to come from the village to look after me,” he said.
Yet, when he came out of the hospital, Fantush recalled, the union’s representatives pressured him to not lodge a formal complaint. “They assured me that they would convince the management to help me in every way, that they would get me some financial compensation. They did help once or twice, but then I was left to fend for myself. Whatever little money they gave me was later deducted from my salary,” he said.
After his accident, he was only assigned lighter work but that didn’t last long. He was soon made to do heavy work, he said, in what he saw as a “deliberate move” to “nudge him” to quit. He kept working, however, fearing he wouldn’t find another job.
“The coronavirus pandemic ruined us. It gave our employers an excuse to get rid of us,” Fantush said. “I live with my wife and daughter. We somehow managed through the lockdown, but now we are struggling. Wherever I go to look for work, people decline after looking at my fingers. I am not educated enough to do a desk job. What else can I do besides manual labour? For that too, I need strong hands which I don’t have anymore. If we don’t get our jobs back, the life ahead seems terrifying. I owe about Rs 9,000 to my landlord, Rs 15,000 to the grocer. I don’t know how I would pay them.”
Fantush Thakur's accident report.
“Prime Minister Modi asked the people to turn this crisis into an opportunity, he might have meant it as a positive message but the wealthy and some politicians and industrialists of this city have used it as an excuse to exploit people,” the MLA told Newslaundry. “They have illegally started firing their workers without the permission of the government. Any organisation with 300 or more workers has to take the government’s permission before firing anyone. The Haryana government has gone deaf and dumb in our district. We are trying to wake the government up for these workers’ rights.”
He added: “I will fight for these workers until they get their jobs back. If there is less work, they can call the workers on alternate days. The situation might be bad today but it will improve. At least, when they go looking to work elsewhere, they would be seen as being more employable if they show they are working somewhere. These workers have lost their fingers and their youth, who will employ them now?”
Neeraj Sharma with the workers.
Asked about the matter, Bhagat Pratap Neeraj, the deputy labour commissioner of Faridabad, told Newslaundry. “MLA Neeraj Sharma has given us a memorandum concerning Venus Industries. This is a matter related to sector 24 and 25. Sector 24 comes under my jurisdiction and I will send a notice to the company today. Whatever action is required will be taken in a timely manner.”
Asked about the accidents involving the fired workers and the company’s treatment of them, he said “action will be taken on all the complaints”.
Can the workers file complaints against Venus now? They will have to prove that the accidents occurred at work, said Brijesh Upadhyay, general secretary of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, a labour union affiliated with the Sangh Parivar. “If they can prove that, the matter would go to court and their chances would improve,” he added.
Silence of the company men
At the Venus factory in Sector 24 in Faridabad, Newslaundry asked to speak with a representative of the company about the sacking of the workers and their allegations. The chief guard, Jaiprakash Pathak, went in, and returned to say no executive was available to speak to the press.
What about the workers’ union officials Harveer Singh, Mishri Lal and Manoj Kumar? The chief guard went back in. “Because of the coronavirus, they won’t come out,” he said, and told us to go back in the evening.
It's business as usual at the Venus Industrial Corporation's office in Faridabad, Haryana.
Another guard hesitantly admitted that they had driven away the sacked workers from the gates. But the guards were simply following orders from the management, he added.
Newslaundry tried contacting the three union officials on the phone. We could only reach Manoj Kumar. Asked if he was aware of the 65 people being fired from his company, he answered in the affirmative before disconnecting the call.
We also spoke to the company’s head of human resources, Veg Pal Chaprana. “This matter is sub judice so it would be imprudent of me to speak on it,” he said. “The matter was heard yesterday in court and there’s also a hearing today.”
Asked why the company deemed it necessary to let these go, he laughed, “You speak as if you have come from someplace else. Everyone knows the state of the industry. Fifty people are working where two hundred are needed, what else can we do?”
Among the fired workers are 26 men who lost their fingers working for Venus. Couldn’t the company have shown them some gratitude at least? “They are not ours,” Veg Pal claimed. “The matter is in court, it will be decided there."
The website of the Venus Industrial Corporation displays a message from its chairperson, DN Kathuria: “Our employees and suppliers are our associate members and with their support and cooperation, we have reached these heights.”
That the company appears apathetic to the plight of the 65 fired workers, several of whom have shed their blood for it, gives the lie to this grand claim.
A version of this story was previously published on .