Bangalore: On June 5, more than 2,000 pourakarmikas gathered outside the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) head office in Bangalore. The pourakarmikas on strike are sanitation workers employed by the BBMP, the city’s municipal corporation, to sweep the streets, collect solid waste from residential areas and public spaces, and transport it to sanitation trucks for disposal. Those who had gathered were demanding that their unpaid dues be released by the BBMP and their labour be recognised. After six hours of protesting through sun and rain, Sarfaraz Khan, the joint commissioner (health) of the BBMP, addressed the workers. He promised to meet their demands and pay all salaries within the next three days, by June 8. He also gave them the same assurance in writing.
None of the changes promised in Khan’s circular have been implemented within the time period mentioned in the wards surveyed by this writer. The workers continue to organise and fight against the administration’s unjust treatment under the banner of the BBMP Guttige Pourakarmikara Sangha, a sanitation workers’ union affiliated with the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. The union is organising workers in different regions of Bangalore and holding protests outside the BBMP’s various zonal offices, demanding that the administration’s promise be fulfilled.
No wages for months on end
The biggest struggle of the powrakarmikas today is for their wages. Workers in wards 82, 91, 114, 80, 26, 54 and others have not received their wages for several months now. While some workers claim to have received wages for only three months since the beginning of this year, others haven’t received wages for half a year now.
Shanmugam, a Tamil migrant from ward 54, Mahadevpura says, “I haven’t received wages for six months now. I have no idea how I’m still surviving.” Another worker from Koramangala says, “The landlord of our hut is threatening to throw all our things outside because we haven’t paid rent for five months now. The school where my child studies has also asked us to stop sending her because we haven’t been able to buy books or pay the school fees.”
Apart from not being paid regularly, the BBMP has also failed to provide safety equipment and uniforms to the powrakarmikas in most places including Shivajinagar, Koramangala, Indiranagar, Mahadevpura and RR Nagar. The workers are often forced to buy their own gloves and brooms, or resort to picking up garbage with their bare hands.
Confronting the BBMP about their actions is like a game of snakes and ladders. The excuses given by the authority for not paying wages range from a disruption caused by the new system of direct payment and biometric attendance introduced at the beginning of this year, to shifting blame to other individuals and institutions involved in the transaction like banks and contractors.
The new biometric system of attendance that was rolled out at the beginning of this year with the stated intention of weeding out ‘’ghost workers’’, or fictional names recorded by the BBMP’s sub-contractors to appropriate funds illegally, and ensuring that all salaries are paid on the basis of thumbprints registered. Muniamma from ward 91 in Shivaji Nagar says in Kannada, “Me, along with four other members are still not registered in the system. We come to work every day but haven’t received wages for six months now.” Mani, who is a worker in Shivaji Nagar, says, “We have approached the joint commissioner (health), Mr Sarfaraz Khan, three times to request him to register mine and a co-worker’s details in the new biometric system, but the trips were futile.’’
Not only does the attendance system lack biometric information of many workers, it also does not function properly in several zones surveyed by this writer such as Koaramangala, Indiranagar, Shivaji Nagar and Dasarahalli. The salaries received are not in tandem with the number of work days. Very often, money is cut for holidays that the workers have not taken.
In a situation where the bare minimum is not provided for the workers, other entitlements like healthcare and sanitation, education and maternity leave seem like a distant dream. Though, legally, the workers are entitled to all these benefits, the BBMP has failed most workers. For instance, under the Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Act 2017, Section 11A, it is mandatory for any organisation employing more than 50 women to set up a crèche facility. Further, Section 48 of the Factories Act, 1948 mandates establishments with 30 or more women to set up a crèche facility. As expected, there is no ward in Bangalore that provides crèche facilities for pourakarmikas.
It is no surprise that most pourakarmikas tend to belong to lower castes and Dalit communities, and a majority of them are women. The “double oppression” faced by the workers cannot be quantified. They are asked to pick up animal carcasses with their bare hands and refused entry into public toilets. Moreover, the workers claim that they are subjected to sexual abuse by health inspectors, contractors and mestris. One of the workers from Koramangala says, “We are all asked to be a part of the Swachh Bharat Mission, but who is the Swachh Bharat for? We live in unhygienic conditions and cannot use public bathrooms because of our caste and occupation.”
The circular issued by the joint commissioner on June 5 states that no worker will be forcefully removed from their job, the biometrics of all workers will be registered correctly and the Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) and Provident Fund (PF) numbers of the workers will be provided as soon as possible. It promises that weekly offs and state holidays will be granted to workers and “ghost workers” will be removed from all musters. A point in the circular also states that “stricter action” will be taken against instances of sexual harassment in the workplace. But for now, these promises remain only on paper.
The fight continues
The BBMP Guttige Pourakarmikara Sangha has been handling the elusive task of organising and mobilising workers for ten years now. The process started by individually talking to each worker out of sight of their contractors and convincing them to join hands.
On June 19, the pourakarmikas working in the RR Nagar Zone protested outside the zonal BBMP office. They found that the joint commissioner in this zone had not been assigned. The members of the workers’ union met the deputy commissioner, Jagdeesh N.C., and asked him to address the problems of the workers. The DC could not make significant headway due to his “lack of authority”.
The workers of Mahadevpura followed suit and protested outside the Zonal BBMP Office on June 20, 2018. After a few hours, the zonal joint commissioner, Vasantha Kumari, addressed the workers and promised to pay all wages within the week and clear the technical malfunctions present in their biometric attendance system. A week later, the pourakarmikas of Mahadevpura have still not received their wages.
The difficulties and standard of living of the pourakarmikas can be seen as a reflection of the BBMP’s incompetence; but the organised workers continue to point out this incompetence in their struggles. The protests continue.
Yogita Suresh is a student of English at Delhi University and an independent researcher.
#Grit is a new initiative of The Wire dedicated to the coverage of manual scavenging and sanitation and their linkages with caste, gender, policy and apathy.