On September 25, for the 25th day in a row, Surekha sat outside the Labour Commissioner’s office in Pune, refusing all food and drink except for some nariyal pani. Five other women have been on strike with her since September 1, lying on iron beds under a temporary shed made of corrugated metal sheets. Every day, sitting on plastic mats on the ground, a rotating group of more than 100 other women keep the strikers company.
What sets this apart from other strikes is that the women aren't workers themselves. They are sitting on protest to plead the case of their husbands, who work at the Akurdi factory of the automobile company Force Motors.
The wives of the workers have created an organisation called the Force Motors Mahila Committee, which alleges that the company has not given its labour force any salary increments for the past 11 years, even though it has been doing well for itself. At least 450 current employees and 1,300 retired employees have allegedly been affected by abysmally poor wages.
“Since 2004, our husbands have been earning just Rs 10,000 to Rs 13,000 a month, while other auto companies have raised wages to Rs 40,000 and more for the same kind of work,” said Surekha, who didn’t want to reveal her full name for fear of her husband losing his job. “It is impossible to run our homes on such pittance, and if our husbands strike, they won’t even earn that much. So we are fighting for them.”
In March, when the women first went on a nine-day strike, they placed three demands before Force Motors: bring workers’ wages on par with those in other auto companies, pay arrears to those who have retired and re-hire the 80 employees who were dismissed for unionising.
“At that time they told us our demands would be met, but they’ve done nothing so far,” said Surekha. “Now we have been on hunger strike for 25 days and neither the company nor the government has showed any interest in communicating with us. All the Labour Commission has done is give us this space to protest.”
Force Motors could not be reached for a comment. Meanwhile, Surekha and her five co-strikers refused to budge, despite failing health.