City Sunday

Sanitation workers clean our cities, but they are denied even minimum wage

After a decade-long legal battle, the Supreme Court in April 2017 ruled that permanent jobs be given to 2,700 contract workers of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), India’s richest municipal corporation.

These contract workers, who sweep streets, collect garbage and clean sewers, were not entitled to health and other benefits, vacation, rest days and pension. They will now get back pay of two years and employee benefits, such as weekly offs and medical leave without a pay cut.

Milind Ranade, a textile engineer who is a general secretary of the Mumbai’s sanitation workers’ union–he got involved when he once saw workers eating lunch perched atop a pile of garbage, found they were on contract and not entitled to a lunch room–told IndiaSpend that the contract system was exploited by municipal corporations nationwide, encouraging exploitation, perpetuating poor working conditions and apathy towards the workers, who are usually Dalits.

Indeed, on July 12, 2017, 6,000 contract sweepers in Bangalore struck work on similar grounds. Paid Rs 5,000 a month with no sign of a promised hike, toilets and safety gear, they said they were treated like bonded labour, with passbooks and ATM cards confiscated by contractors, who are supposed to pay salaries directly into bank accounts. The government later promised that these workers would get regular jobs.

The Mumbai union, called Kachra Vahatuk Shramik Sangh (KVSS), first challenged the contract status of sanitation workers in a Mumbai industrial tribunal in 2007, but the BMC challenged the order in Bombay High Court. In December 2016, the High Court dismissed the BMC’s case. The BMC appealed to the Supreme Court and lost again.

Ranade was (and is) a member of a communist outfit called the Lal Nishan Party (Red Flag Party), when he and other colleagues formed the KVSS in 1997. Its first demand they had was that the BMC provide drinking water to contract workers. These workers did not have changing rooms or baths, which they particularly need because working with the city’s trash and filth makes them smell. Since then the union has succeeded in getting workers raincoats, boots, provident fund, medical leave, minimum wage (Rs 13,936 per month; 536 per day for Zone A which includes Mumbai, according to April 2017 notification), drinking-water taps and wash areas.

Ranade quit his job at a pharmaceutical company, Extrusion Processes, to launch the KVSS and works on a voluntary basis. His wife, Ashwini Ranade, is also a member of Lal Nishan Party but she is also a lecturer at Acharya Marathe College, supporting the family while Ranade continues his battles with the government.

Ranade spoke to IndiaSpend in trade union’s office at Shramik, Dadar, which serves as a party office for many trade unions in Mumbai.

How many workers are on temporary contracts in the BMC? What does the April 2017 Supreme Court verdict that 2,700 such workers get regular jobs mean for them?

So, there are 28,000 permanent workers in the BMC and 6,500 contractual workers. The Kachra Vahatuk Shramik Sangh is the biggest union among contractual workers with more than 5,000 contractual workers as members. There are four cases filed by us pending (in courts) for their permanency–to become permanent workers. First, we have to approach the labour commissioner, then the industrial tribunal, then the High Court and then the Supreme Court. Apart from this case of 2,700 workers which is settled, there is another case of 580 contractual workers pending in industrial tribunal, and two other cases of 1,300 workers and 1,100 workers. The first case which was filed in 1997 was settled in 2003 and 1,204 workers were made permanent. We went for an out-of-court settlement, even though we could have won it because it took 20 years, and at the end of the 20 years, the BMC would have to pay Rs 200 crore as compensation to the workers. So, for us, it was a matter of time; for the BMC, it was a matter of money. With the sanction of the government of Maharashtra, there was an out-of-court settlement. So, of 6,500 (workers on contract), 5,000 now have permanent jobs through the various cases. (MR, Inputs: Agencies).


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