Labour

The Life of Labour: Manual Scavenging in Karnataka, Flip Side of Formalising the Indian Economy

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Illustration by Aliza Bakht

Illustration by Aliza Bakht

Will religious custom override the law on manual scavenging in Karnataka?

Shravanabelagola in Karnataka is preparing to host the Mahamastakabhisheka festival, a once-in-twelve-years occurrence, on February 17. Mahamastakabhisheka is an important Jain festival, involving the consecration of a Bahubali Gommateshwara statue by important religious leaders. The last one was held in 2006 and 30 lakh devotees attended the festival.

As a part of the preparations for the festival, toilets have been built for the huge crowds that are expected. While most of these are regular toilets, The Hindu reported that “ unsanitary latrines have been constructed at Tyagi Nagar for religious leaders and require manual cleaning.” These have been built at the request of the Jian mutt in charge of the festival. Hassan Deputy Commissioner Rohini Sindhuri told The News Minute that “The Tyagis are Digambar Jains and are set in their ways. They don’t use the sanitary toilets that we use. The township has been divided into 12 Nagars and Tyagi Nagar is being looked after by the Jain Mutt. The Safai Karamchari Commission and the Revenue Secretary has issued a notice to the mutt, but the religious leaders said that they will defecate in the open since it is their custom.”

Who will clean these insanitary latrines and the space marked for open defecation? It looks like an old religious custom will supersede the law that bans manual scavenging.

The Hindu spoke to Santosh Kumar, a Dalit man who heads a team of 24 workers in Tyagi Nagar, “We have worked wherever such mega-events are held. Our team went to Ahmedabad, Haridwar and other places, wherever big events are held. We have now come here to handle cleaning work. Each employee gets ₹8,100 a month. We sweep the streets, clean toilets and remove the filth in the township,” he said. He is one among the 300 people, mainly from the Chitrakoot district in UP, who work in Shravanabelagola on cleaning jobs.

While Hassan district was previously declared open-defecation free in a moral victory for the local government, the claim now looks ridiculous. It’s also important to note that in October 2017, The Hindu had reported that the Karnataka State Safai Karamchari Commission visited Shravanabelagola and received complaints from 3 municipal workers that they were forced to go down manholes and clean them. So, this is not a temporary phenomenon caused by a once-in-12-year festival.

SICAL Coffee Day workers on protest demanding equal wage

Workers at the SICAL warehouse in Chennai are on an indefinite protest outside the warehouse demanding that the company reinstate them to work. Workers claim that SICAL management denied work to 29 workers who demanded that they are paid the same wages as new recruits and contract workers are confirmed as payroll staff. SICAL is a logistics and freight handling company with operations across all coastal states of India. A majority stake in the company was bought by Coffee Day Group in 2011. The workers allege that while they have many years of experience and adequate educational qualification, the company pays them only half the wage of the new recruits. Even after repeated demands to bring parity in wage, the company has failed to respond positively. In July 2017, when the workers refused to leave premises until the issue was resolved, the company involved the police to evict them. It refused to provide work to about 80 workers. Later after the intervention of the labour commissioner, 51 workers were taken back but 29 workers including the most vocal workers have not been provided work.

Victimisation of state transport workers by the Tamil Nadu government

Thousands of transport workers across Tamil Nadu participated in a week-long strike last month. Due to intervention by the High Court, the strike ended without a decisive outcome. In a move that has further angered workers, the transport corporations have cut wages for the seven-day strike period and have issued charge memos, including transfer orders and have withheld pension benefits to workers who participated in the strike. Further, the Tamil Nadu government has also announced a substantial bus fare hike, shifting the burden on to commuters who are primarily wage workers. The hike has been criticised by transport workers’ unions.

Bajaj Auto update: Workers claim victory as their demands are met

The auto workers at Bajaj Auto in Chakan and Akurdi plants have won their demands to revise wages and provide arrears for the delay in wage revision. They have also forced the management to reinstate 6 workers fired in 2016. The company has also agreed to review its decision regarding 8 workers terminated in 2013. The workers have maintained that these workers were terminated for union activities. The success comes after a four-day intense hunger strike that led to a negotiated settlement mediated by the labour commissioner on February 2.

Bawana Fire: How a profit machine thinks

On January 21, a fire accident in a makeshift factory in Bawana led to the death of 17 workers including 10 women workers. One of the workers was also pregnant at the time of her death. Ever since many articles have highlighted the dirty and dangerous conditions of work in India’s small-scale manufacturing sector. The cramped and inhumane conditions in which work is extracted from the migrant contract workers and also the lack of fire safety and prevention mechanisms, including fire exits have also been discussed. Two articles that were published this week help us piece together the underlying reasons behind such ongoing calamities. An article in The Hindu points out that apart from the structural problems in the area, the owners’ fear of theft has led to the closure of multiple exits so that it’s easy to guard the premises. But this creates grave hazards in the event of accidents. Continuing its coverage of the Bawana case, The Indian Express has published another article delving into the abysmal wages and lack of safety equipment. The article also highlights the poor staffing of the labour and industrial safety departments that allows factories to defy labour laws with impunity. These articles expose the plight of the vast majority of India’s informal working class who are caught in death traps as a profit-motivated ownership gamble with the lives of workers while an apathetic government fails to enforce labour laws as a way of encouraging industries.

Formalising the informal economy at the cost of workers’ rights

The latest budget has once again turned the attention of policymakers, academics and public towards job creation. The government has touted Demonetisation and GST as reforms that would bring the workforce from informal to formal employment. It has also brandished a study by IIM that maintains that Indian economy created a healthy level of jobs by using a much-criticised data series from EPF and ESI. While the dispute over the numbers rage, it is also important to look at the quality of these ‘formal’ jobs. A sustained push to relax and retract labour laws through executive and legislative action has led to a significant weakening of the rights of formal workers. This decline in the quality of formal work is well articulated in this article in The Wire in which the authors argue that formalisation does “absolutely nothing to mitigate the informal and precarious existence of labour.” The article also traces the history of the workers’ movements and the origins of the labour laws. It also accuses state policies to protect small industrial capitalists as having eroded both labour protection and rights as well as India’s global competitiveness in manufacturing.

Garment workers clash with their bosses

It is not often that we see the conditions of Indian workers reported in western media. Especially when it comes to outsourced jobs or industries whose primary market is first-world countries. The garment sector is a good example of the latter. Here, Anuradha Nagaraj writes for Reuters about garment workers in Chennai clashing with their bosses over court-affirmed dues.

International

German metalworkers win limited 28-hour week concession

We’ve reported earlier on the ongoing strike in Germany by the metalworkers’ union for a list of demands to recapture work flexibility. After a series of negotiations, a compromise was reached between the unions and the companies. One major victory is “the right for more senior employees to cut their working week to 28 hours for a limited period of six to 24 months.” But despite the union demanding otherwise, “the reduced working week comes with a commensurate salary despite union demands — but employees are guaranteed their full-time position when they return.” “For too long, work time flexibility has been a privilege of employers,” union chief Joerg Hoffman said. “From now on, employees will have the right to opt for a reduced working week, for themselves, their health or their families,” he added.

A death reveals the dark side of gig economy

“On Monday morning, Doug Schifter, a livery driver in his early 60s, killed himself with a shotgun in front of City Hall in Lower Manhattan, had written a lengthy Facebook post several hours earlier laying out the structural cruelties that had left him in such dire circumstance. He was sometimes forced to work more than 100 hours a week to survive, he said; when he had started out in the 1980s, a 40-hour week was fairly typical.” This is one of the examples of how Uber has ‘disrupted’ the taxi industry in New York. Read more here.

State of the Unions

In a response to an article in the Atlantic about what ‘type’ of worker opts for unionisation and why it works for them, Noah Hurowitz writes that comparisons between organising white collar and blue collar workers cannot be made without taking the sociohistorical context into account. Hurowitz is one of the 115 journalists (working at DNAinfo and Gothamist) who was fired as a consequence of voting in favour of joining the Writers Guild of America, East. Writing for the Baffler, he discusses the dangers of pretending all white-collar workers are ‘entitled millennials’ and that blue-collar workers in the south are all conservative and anti-union. He argues that union formation in the American south is less successful than in places like New York because of the freedom that companies have in the south to engage in violent and repressive schemes.

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