Protesting farmers and Kundli workers support each other in fight for their rights

A tent set up by the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan near the farmers' protest site at Kundli, on the Delhi-Haryana border. A banner on it reads: “On non-payment of dues by a company owner or contractor, contact [mobile number].” Pranshu Pareek

Rinku Kumar, a 35-year-old labourer, told me that when the coronavirus lockdown was imposed in March, he was working at a steel-manufacturing company, one of the many industrial units at Kundli, a city in Haryana’s Sonipat district. Like several other migrants, he went back home to Bihar’s Khagaria district. Kumar said his employer owed him wages for 17 days at that time and refused to pay him when he returned to Kundli. “I had accepted that I will not get my dues,” Kumar said. But things changed on 27 November, when thousands of farmers began a sit-in at Kundli’s GT Road, which is flanked by industrial units. Kumar said farmers and the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan—a workers’ union in Kundli—negotiated with his employer and helped him get his wages. Several labourers who worked at these industrial units told me that the farmers had supported and empowered them to fight for their rights.

“Company owners do not give money, even if you work for them for 15 days. But now, due to the pressure of farmers and labourers, they are paying wages for even two days of work,” Kumar told me. He was standing with other labourers near a tent set up by the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan, surrounded by the many tractor trolleys that the farmers had brought with them to Kundli. The labourers explained why they supported the protesting farmers and also appreciated their hospitality. “We sit with farmers, and they feed us,” Kumar said. “Not just that, the blankets and quilts that had been brought for the protest, they share those with us too.”

About forty or fifty farmers who had parked their tractor trolleys near the tent were helping the labourers. Multiple people told me that these farmers had begun supporting the labourers organically. Among these farmers was Jasminder Singh from the Gohana area in Sonipat. “Company owners and contractors do not give these labourers their hard-earned money,” he said. “Even farmers do not get the full price for their crop. The pain of not getting due compensation is the same for labourers and farmers.” Satwant Singh, a 56-year-old farmer from Patiala, also reiterated this. “If farmers help labourers get their money, what is wrong with that?” he said. “Many farm labourers from Punjab and Haryana have also come with us to protest—they have come here because of this unity between farmers and workers. If the workers are standing with us in our movement, then we farmers must also join their struggle.”

Shiva Kumar, a member of the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan at the tent, told me how the labourers at Kundli came to understand the farmers’ movement. Since the sit-in began, the protesters had been inviting labourers who worked nearby for langar. “On 29 November, we spoke to workers about the farmers’ presence and how they were feeding people,” Shiva said. “After speaking to the farmers, we understood why they were agitated. On 2 December, in a workers’ meeting, we decided to stop our work and join the protests in support of the farmers. That day, about 1,500 workers marched to the stage set up at the farmers’ protest and voiced their support. Some of the workers spoke from the stage too.” 

The next day marked the anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984, a chemical disaster. Workers at Kundli led a mashal jaloos, or a torch procession, in the memory of workers who had died in the disaster. “The farmers also participated, and marched with us, holding torches,” Shiva told me. “After that day, we have had great confidence in fighting with them for our rights.” 

Sahil, who works at the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan, told me, that the workers at Kundli and the farmers discussed their struggles. “The point about non-payment of dues by company owners and contractors was raised,” he said. “Many farmers volunteered to accompany the labourers in approaching the company owners and asking for their dues.” Sahil said that like Kumar, several workers at Kundli were forced to head home without their wages and when they returned, “the owners not only refused to pay them but even refused to recognise their workers.” Once this issue was discussed, a white banner was hung in front of the tent which read: “On non-payment of dues by a company owner or contractor, contact [mobile number].”

“Workers who cross this area to go to their workplaces, contact us,” Sahil said. He told me that if they raise issues of non-payment, Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan and farmers meet the company owners and contractors, and try to get them to pay the workers. “So far, we have been successful in getting them to pay more than 2 lakh rupees,” Sahil said. Monu Kumar, like Rinku, told me he had not been paid Rs 2,660, wages for six days of work at a manufacturing unit. But on 22 December, farmers and labourers accompanied him to meet his contractor and he was paid.

Navdeep Kaur, who works with the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan, said that industrialists at Kundli made it difficult for labourers to get basic rights. “Earlier, labourers couldn’t even distribute pamphlets, forget going on a strike,” she said, referring to an incident where labourers were stopped by industrialists from distributing pamphlets to observe May Day. “An organisation of company owners, Kundli Industries Association, has formed a ‘Quick Response Team,’ which has bouncers. They threaten and beat workers,” she told me. “Not just that, factories do not even allow labourers to unionise,” Kaur added. 

A group of about 12 labourers and farmers told me that on 28 December, around noon, about 100 of them were heading to a company’s office in the industrial area which owed money to a labourer. Shiva, who was among the group of farmers and labourers, told me 10–15 bouncers showed up to deter them. He—and other labourers and farmers—said that one of the bouncers “fired a bullet.” Shiva said, “After this, the QRT’s bouncers ran away. We went to the Kundli Police Station to complain about the matter, but the police refused to file a first-information report. We then sent an application to the Superintendent of Police, Sonipat”—JS Randhawa. 

The next day, Subhash Gupta, the KIA’s president, told me that the lockdown had been tough on them and now the labourers are “troubling” them for payment. Bijender Garewal, the KIA’s security in charge, claimed that the QRT had been formed to stop “ugar pradarshan”—violent demonstrations—and theft. He alleged that on 28 December, one bouncer had fired into the air as “self-defence” when the labourers attacked them, and that the KIA had registered an FIR regarding the matter. But when I asked Ravi Kumar, the station house officer of Kundli, about this, he claimed that no firing took place on 28 December. He further said that under the guise of supporting farmers, labourers were engaging in “money extortion” and a FIR had been registered against them. 

According to Kaur and other workers, a group called the Hindu Jagriti Manch also deterred workers from mobilising and unionising. During the lockdown, they said workers had held a gathering to collect ration. “But members of Hindu Jagriti Manch and attacked them and shooed them away,” Kaur had told me on 26 December. “Because of the support we have from the farmers now, both the forces are silent.” When asked about the allegations, Narendra Khatri, the pradhan of Hindu Jagriti Manch’s Kundli unit, said, “They are not labourers, they are ugrawadi”—extremists.  “They are a threat to the country,” he added.  

At the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan’s tent, I met Ashok Kumar, a middle-aged worker, who said that the company he worked at was not paying him. “I had given up, but now that the farmers are here, I have some confidence. Now, I think I will also get my money,” he said.

Ramswaroop, a middle-aged man who picks up the plastic waste from industrial units, told me that he has been visiting the protests almost since the day they began. “I was heading towards my workplace on my rickshaw on 28 November, when a sardarji standing beside a tent of langar asked me to stop my rickshaw and said, ‘Prasada chhak kar jaayo ji.’”—Have some prasad before you go. “I stopped there, and the farmers made me sit with them and fed me. I saw many people like me there, who worked for daily wages nearby.” As he narrated how he has been eating with the farmers since then, his eyes began to well up. “They are very nice people,” he said. “The government does not feed us. These people do.”