After a decade-long legal battle, the Supreme Court ruled in April 2017 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. Excerpts from an interview.
Q: 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?
A: 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. 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. So, of 6,500 (workers on contract), 5,000 now have permanent jobs through the various cases.
Q: When did the BMC first use the contract system to hire sanitation workers? In what way does the contract system deny benefits?
A: BMC started hiring contract workers in the 1980s. They were meant to lift debris. The word "debris" was used to camouflage the fact that they were lifting garbage, since debris is not the responsibility of the corporation, but lifting refuse and garbage is.
After we won the case in 1999, the BMC stopped all contract work, then they restarted it in 2004. This time they called it the Hyderabad pattern. What is the Hyderabad pattern? Each contractor employs less than 20 workers. If you have 20 workers, all the labour laws are applicable. So, to get out of the purview of the labour laws, they kept it at 18 workers. In BMC, there are now more than 350 contractors, every employer using less than 20 workers.
In some places, you find Brahmins are permanent workers, but they are not actually doing it (sanitation work). The salary is Rs 21,000, he is paying a Dalit to do the work at Rs 5,000, while on paper the employee is marked "present" and gets Rs 15,000, while Rs 1,000 is given for officials as dasturi (commision) to keep quiet.
So, all over India, workers who are working for sanitation department are Dalits, that is there is 100 per cent reservation, and no one has challenged this. No one asks why there aren't Marathas, Thakurs or Kayasths (upper castes) working in this field.
Everywhere in India, these Dalit safai workers are getting less than minimum wage: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra. Under this (Hydeabad) pattern, workers are called volunteers, a salary is termed honorarium. The contract is for seven months, so that you don't complete 280 days. If you complete 280 days, you have some grounds to ask for permanency. So, you are kept from every benefit.
Q: How many contract workers are there across India?
A: No one knows, but the numbers are in the thousands.
Q: How do companies with contract workers manipulate the system so these workers are kept from regular jobs?
A: When we formed the union, all (contract) workers in Mumbai were paid Rs 2,000 less than minimum wage until 2005. So, 6,500 multiplied by Rs 2,000 is Rs 1.3 crore per month. This amount was siphoned by municipal officers and contractors. This is how the nexus was created. These are Dalit workers, they have migrated from drought-prone areas, they live in jhuggi-jhopdis (slums), which are demolished every now and then, so they have no ration cards. These are most vulnerable workers and being Dalits, they are the easiest to exploit.
The BMC's own study in 2015 revealed that 1,386 sanitation workers died in six years due to poor working conditions. This figure doesn't include contract workers, only permanent workers. Their life expectancy is shortened, many die between 40 and 55 years of age and among those who do the full length service, very few reach 70.
Q: Have the lives of sanitation workers been affected in any way after the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?
A: Yes, they are required to do more work. No one bothers whether they (sanitation workers) get full payment or not. If their provident fund is deposited in their accounts or if they get ESIS (Employee State Insurance Scheme). No one comes if there is an accident. Who is keeping Bharat swacch (clean)? The Prime Minister, who holds the broom for five minutes? It is the worker, and the contract worker works even more than the permanent worker.
(In arrangement with IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform, with whom Swagata Yadavar is principal correspondent. The views expressed are those of IndiaSpend. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org)