Rahul Kumar Sharma, 22, worked in the welding department of an auto-component company in Manesar, Haryana, fixing nuts and bolts that would be later assembled to form a car door. He had joined the company in June 2017.

The work hours were gruelling. For a nine-hour shift, he earned a monthly salary of Rs 9,765 – only a shade higher than the Rs 8,827 minimum wage for unskilled workers in Haryana. On days when he worked round the clock, he earned Rs 80 for every extra hour he put in.

Still, he was grateful to have the job. “There are no jobs otherwise for freshers like me,” Sharma said.

In November 2018, the company began to lay off workers. Sharma lost his job on December 31, 2018. Another worker in the same department, Pradeep Kumar Singh, 24, was asked to leave on February 2, 2019.

The job losses did not make news until the automobile sector began to report a slowdown in sales. In July, passenger vehicle sales fell by 31%, the worst decline in two decades. One of the contributing factors was the liquidity crunch created after several non-banking financial companies went bust. This limited access to credit for purchasing houses and vehicles. Maruti Suzuki, the largest car manufacturer in India, cut its temporary workforce by 6% in June, Reuters reported.

But conversations with workers reveal the lay-offs in the automobile sector began much earlier – and are possibly much wider in scale.

The company where Sharma and Singh worked – Bellsonica Auto Components India Private Limited – is partially owned by Maruti Suzuki. At least 400 contractual workers were asked to leave the company from November 2018 till February 2019, said Ajeet Singh, vice president of Bellsonica Auto Components India Employees’ Union.

Bellsonica did not respond to Scroll.in’s queries about the scale of retrenchment of contractual workers.

Kuldeep Janghu, general secretary of Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union, estimated more than 1.5 lakh workers had lost their jobs this year in the automobile hub spread across Gurgoan, Manesar and Rewari in Haryana. “These are workers that make small parts like locks, glasses, boxes, engine components and other parts of automobiles,” he said.

Pradeep Kumar Singh, the Bellsonica worker, said the company told them the retrenchments were because of the slowdown in the auto sector.

Rahul Kumar Sharma was laid off from Bellsonica on December 31, 2018.

Shock among permanent workers

It is not just contractual workers who have lost their jobs in the recent slowdown.

Twenty-four km from Manesar, in the industrial town of Dharuhera, 260 permanent workers in an auto-component company called Speedomax were laid off in February. The company makes chassis parts that form the outer frame of motorcycles. These parts were primarily supplied to Hero MotorCorp.

Before they were laid off, the workers claim the company had sent them on leave for 15 days starting December 17, 2018. This was extended till February 3, 2019.

“When we came back on February 4, we saw that there were police standing everywhere,” alleged Nagesh Yadav, the head of Speedomax Workers’ Committee and one of the permanent employees laid off. “We were told by the unit head that our services were no longer required.”

Nagesh Yadav (centre) and his colleagues were laid off from Speedomax in February.

Yadav said the company officials informed them that Hero had cut down on orders. They were asked to leave without a severance package, he alleged. The workers filed a case against the company at the Gurgaon Labour Court on December 22, 2018. Two months later, Yadav claimed the company sold off its Dharuhera unit to another auto component company called Hema Engineering Industries Ltd. The management of the company remain unchanged, he claimed.

Speedomax did not respond to queries that Scroll.in sent regarding the allegations made by workers.

But for these workers, the job loss came as a surprise. “The production was always increasing,” claimed Bhupender Singh, 44, who joined Speedomax in 2001 as a contract worker. He became a permanent employee in 2005 with a salary of Rs 28,100. “I had not heard of any slowdown,” he said. “If I knew then I would have arranged for another job for myself.”

Another Speedomax worker Jitender Singh, 39, expressed similar disbelief. “The sales from our end had been increasing,” he said. “The company was never facing any losses.”

The disruption jolted many plans. Bhupinder Singh has had to abandon the construction of a home for his family in Siwan, Bihar. “Only two rooms were completed,” he said. “The roof, walls and so much else is left to be constructed.”

Jitender Singh found that he would not be able to pay his daughter’s college fees for an engineering course. “She is so intelligent,” he said. “I have now applied for a loan. But if I had a job then there would be no need for it.”

Unemployed and looking

Factory workers who got laid off from automobile companies have been searching tirelessly for jobs – most of them unsuccessfully.

Pradeep Kumar Singh sent his wife and two children back to Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, after he lost his job at Bellsonica. He is currently living with a friend in Manesar. “Every auto factory rejects me when I ask for a job,” he said.

Pradeep Kumar Singh has been in search of job opportunities since February.

Some workers have managed to find temporary jobs in the service sector. After losing his job at Speedomax, Kailash Joshi, 35 currently works as a delivery person for Zomato. He earns Rs 25 for each delivery. In a day, he makes up to 10 deliveries. “In a week I am only working for three to four days,” he said.

His daily earnings as a delivery person pale in comparison to the monthly salary he received at Speedomax: Rs 24,500. It is also not enough to pay rent of Rs 3,000 and monthly school fees of Rs 3,500 each for his two children. “I never thought this would happen to me,” he said.

Armed with a polytechnic diploma in civil engineering, Sharma looked for opportunities within the automobile and construction sectors for a month after he was laid off. But he struggled. “I was only getting offers for a security guard and for salesman and I did not want to take them,” Sharma said. “There are jobs but no salaries.”

Pradeep Kumar Singh also turned down the job of a security guard for Rs 6,000 a month. “The salary for that is so low compared to the hours they want us to work,” he said.

Some workers turned to the construction sector for daily wage work. Dev Rath, 39, who was laid off from Speedomax in February, stands at Keshav Chowk in Dharuhera from 7 every morning, hoping to be picked up by construction contractors. “I do not get work every day but when I do I get Rs 300 for 10 hours of work,” said Rath, who earlier earned a salary of Rs 25,000.

Rath felt that he let down his children the most. “I wanted to give them an education,” he said. “I am very sure they feel sad that I have lost my job. I am not able to do anything for them.”

Dev Rath found some work as a daily wager in the construction sector.

An unexpected opportunity

Some auto workers have found temporary jobs with political parties.

Since January, Rahul Kumar Sharma, the worker laid off from Bellsonica, has been working as a campaign volunteer for Bharatiya Janata Party’s Gurgaon MLA Umesh Aggarwal.

In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in May, Sharma worked to gather mobile numbers, addresses and other details of voters in Gurgaon. After BJP’s resounding victory, his tenure was extended and his salary raised to Rs 13,500.

Sharma is now preparing for the Haryana Assembly elections. He is responsible for organising meetings and other events for Aggarwal. “Look at this,” he pointed to filled up forms he carried in his hand. “I am helping people fill forms for a Char Dham Yatra on behalf of the MLA. He is doing it to build his image.”

Similarly, another worker laid off from Bellsonica, Sanjay Kumar, 29, found work in Gurgaon as a campaign volunteer for independent candidate Mohit Madanlal Grover for the Haryana elections. Kumar said he enjoys having more flexible work timings and a higher salary of Rs 15,000, compared to the Rs 9,756 salary he earned at Bellsonica.

But Sharma knows political jobs are temporary in nature. “We have been promised a permanent job with the party after elections,” he said. “But this is politics. We have to wait and watch. For now, I am only doing it for the money.”

Kumar on the other hand was more certain of his fate: “Til there is an election, there is a job.”