The Life of Labour: Manual Scavenging in Lutyens' Delhi, National Policy for Domestic Workers

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May Day

Every year on the 1st of May, we remember the historic general strike of 1886 when three hundred thousand workers took to the streets in the U.S. to demand an eight-hour workday. Though that first May Day ended in tragedy in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, the tradition of May Day continues and has become a day for workers across the world to take to the street in solidarity with each other.

Thousands of people participated in May Day rallies around the world this year as well. Though specific demands might vary slightly from region to region, the overall call is to end the persecution of labour and union activists, end contractualisation, better working conditions and wages, and better (and free) healthcare and education.

India began commemorating May Day in 1923 when Malayapuram Singaravelu Chettiar, a prominent communist leader, held meetings in Chennai to talk about the significance of the day and why India should participate in remembering it. Read Thozhilalar Koodam’s coverage of Chennai’s May Day demonstrations 95 years later.

The stories that become important on May Day are important on every other day too. On that note, we’d like to present this week’s Life of Labour no differently than on any other week, because the ‘May Day stories’ are also those that repeat themselves week after week: stories about manual scavenging, contractualisation of formal work, and working conditions in the informal sector.

Even Lutyens’ Delhi has its share of manual scavenging; two more perish at Taj Vivanta

Two workers at Taj Vivanta’s Ambassador hotel in Lutyens’ Delhi died due to asphyxiation after they had attempted to plug a leak in the sewer of the hotel. Three other workers who attempted to rescue them were also hospitalised. The company and the investigation officers have maintained that Ravindra Kumar (40), a contractual maintenance worker, had been called to plug a leak in the sewage plant. The STP itself was being operated by a separate company under contract. The workers had no additional safety gear. According to Indian Express, Ravinder had been called to fix a leak at the sewage treatment plant. The others followed him in after they heard him cry for help. When rescuers found them, they were frothing at the mouth. The other person who died in the incident was Vikram Singh (26), a contractual security guard.

The hotel management and Eco PolluTech, the company operating the STP, have been charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder but not under the more stringent Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act.

No job, no PF: The plight of garment workers in Shashikar factory

Over 600 workers at Shashikar garment factory in Peenya, Bangalore were forced to resign from their jobs in April this year as the company claimed to have made huge losses. They later realised that the company had also not paid the PF dues. The workers have also alleged systemic sexual harassment at the factory. Exposed to unsafe work environments in a sector facing huge pressure on its profit margins, the predominantly women workforce in the garment sector have to endure many problems to earn their livelihood. Recently, 500 workers at Shahi Exports, another major company in the region, suffered a similar loss of employment. The lack of regulation and the fear of capital flight into the hinterlands of Karnataka or the neighbouring states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh has only made matters worse for the workers.

There is the board, there is the money; where is the welfare?

While the non-performance of numerous informal sector welfare boards are well documented, the issue came to focus yet again with the Supreme Court rapping the central and state governments for failing to provide the promised welfare to construction workers. Pulling up the government for failing to comply with its orders of March 13, the SC asked if ‘this was a joke’ when the government said it had appointed a committee to finalise a timeline to implement the court order. The court also pointed out that the government was sitting on more than Rs. 25,000 crores that should have been used for the welfare of the ‘poor’, ‘exploited’ construction labourers.

RTI information accessed by India Today has revealed the poor disbursal of welfare benefits across the states. Over Rs. 15,000 crores remain unutilised in the boards due to poor implementation. Instead of making amends, the central government has announced a moratorium on cess collection due to excess cash, in a move to ‘ease business’. RTI activist Dinesh Chaddha told India Today, “There are about two crore labourers registered with different labour boards in the states and their Rs. 27 thousand crores are lying unutilised. This way, the government owes close to Rs. 10 thousand to each labourer, states like Goa owe Rs 5 lakh per labourer.”

The pain of this government failure is borne disproportionately by construction workers and other informal labourers. There is no dearth of effective schemes to use this money for the relief and welfare of the workers. From investing in housing to health centres and primary education systems, governments can utilise this corpus to improve the lives of migrant construction workers. In an article in The Wire, Smita Khanijow writes about the travails of women construction workers in dealing with maternity and child care, even as this money that could greatly benefit them sits idle in bank accounts. Highlighting the poor implementation of the welfare schemes, she states “t doesn’t come as a surprise then, that in the last ten years, only 1,552 women construction workers have availed maternity benefits under the Act in Delhi. Given that most women in the construction sector are in the reproductive age group, these numbers reflect the rather poor implementation of welfare schemes meant for women in the sector.”

Domestic Workers Policy draft

The central government will announce a draft national policy on domestic workers later this month. The policy, when adopted, will ensure minimum wages for domestic workers, fair working conditions and safe workspaces, while also providing maternity benefits and other social security measures for registered domestic workers. These measures are to be implemented through regulatory bodies set up at the state and district levels.

The draft policy comes after a decade-long struggle by domestic workers and their unions to force the state to recognise them as ‘workers’ and provide them with basic legal protection against exploitation. While the draft policy is a welcome development, unions have expressed their disappointment. According to them, the policy will allow states to evolve grossly disparate standards creating unequal working conditions even within India. They also claim that the standards set here are well below internationally applied standards.

Contract workers lose out on safety at work

Accidents don’t discriminate between contract workers and permanent workers, Why then do employers discriminate in providing safety training? A report from the India Responsible Business Index 2017 reveals that less than 50% of the responding companies had any form of safety training for contract employees. This article in Livemint attempts to understand this conundrum. The reason, quoted by the industry experts and HR managers, is not an issue of cost, but the short-term nature of contractual tenures, the role of contractors and other intermediaries without the adequate expertise to provide safety training. While the article discusses some positive developments from the side of businesses in addressing this issue, it is silent on the role of regulation and government policy to address this endemic. The NDA government has reduced monitoring and inspection in the name of ‘ease of doing business’. In the absence of any significant sanction against poor safety at workplaces, margin starved companies might not invest in safety training, especially for workers who will stay but for short periods of time.

EPF contribution by government only for new employees registered till March 2019

A Labour Ministry notification has made changes to the Pradhan Mantri Rojgar Protsahan Yojana’s employers’ EPF contribution subsidy scheme. The government will pay the full employers’ contribution of 12% of basic wage of every new employee with a salary under Rs 15,000 for three years of employment. It has also fixed the registration date for new employees to March 31, 2019. While this measure will further reduce employers’ burden of hiring formalised workers, the cut-off date will incentivise immediate recruitment. It will definitely help the government boost job creation data before the next general elections, given the criticism it is receiving for failing on its promise of creating over 1 crore jobs every year.

International news

Okayama buses strike by continuing to run and refusing to take anyone’s money

Most strikes by public transport corporations across India follow a similar pattern – the workers protest, the government accuses them of betraying the public, the public sides with the government. In Japan, bus drivers use an interesting strategy. They continue plying their routes except they do not take money from the public. This strategy has been tried in Australia and various times in the US, beginning in 1944.

GM Korea’s temporary workers left out

Contract workers at GM Korea were left out of negotiations with the company on wages as well as talks with the government on recapitalisation. Their story is another example of the lack of solidarity between permanent and contract workers in the same factory. Despite doing the same work as their permanent counterparts, the contract workers have different wages and no job security. After 73 workers were fired in December and January, the workers from 3 of GM Korea’s factories have been on strike.

Mine workers win R5bn in historic silicosis settlement

In “SA’s largest and most expensive class action to date”, 7 gold-mining companies will pay out R5bn to miners who were exposed to silica-laden dust while working. There are possibly 50,000 to 100,000 affected miners who are keen to receive their payouts rather than fighting a long-drawn court battle. According to Business Day, “In the silicosis settlement, the mining companies would pay a lump sum into a trust that would locate, verify and assess former miners with silicosis and occupational tuberculosis. Once confirmed, the trust would make a payment to former miners or to the families of miners who had died and who had had a confirmed occupational lung disease.”

Weekend Reads

Interventionist internationalism from the Left: Reflections on the battle of Cuito Cuanavale

In Pretoria’s Freedom Park, the names of the 2,070 Cubans who fell in Angola remain inscribed next to those of South Africans who died fighting against apartheid rule. What contribution did the Cubans bring to the war against apartheid from a hemisphere away? In ‘A War of Solidarity’, an article in Jacobin, Jorge Tamames explores the forgotten story of Cuba’s intervention in the Angolan civil war and its influence on the struggle for freedom and justice across the southern African continent, be it Angola, Namibia or South Africa. This year marks the 30th year of the victory of Cuban supported Angolan forces led by MPLA at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale against the South African forces that supported SADF. This directly led to the independence of Namibia from the apartheid South African regime and the strengthening of the African National Congress, that eventually ended the apartheid regime in South Africa. The Cubans not only won the war with violent weapons but during the decades of the civil war had also engaged to improve health, education and economy of Angola through their volunteers. That a small nation, reeling under an imperialist economic blockade by the US, could successfully engage internationally for a just cause remains truly motivating. But the article also urges us to understand the later degeneration within the liberated nations and also the political impact of such intervention within Cuban society.

Karl Marx’s relevance on his 200th anniversary

May 5, 2018, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, and his writings are being seen as more important than ever.

Yanis Varoufakis, economist and former minister in the Greek government, writes persuasively about Marx’s foresight in the Communist Manifesto, “To see beyond the horizon is any manifesto’s ambition. But to succeed as Marx and Engels did in accurately describing an era that would arrive a century-and-a-half in the future, as well as to analyse the contradictions and choices we face today, is truly astounding. In the late 1840s, capitalism was foundering, local, fragmented and timid. And yet Marx and Engels took one long look at it and foresaw our globalised, financialised, iron-clad, all-singing-all-dancing capitalism.”

Oscar Rickett, writing in VICE, argues that Marx has never been more relevant and summarises the economic state of the world, “In the countries that birthed capitalism (Europe, North America, Japan), wages have not grown for decades. Work is increasingly precarious. Affordable housing is in short supply. Meanwhile, those at the very top get richer and richer, with Oxfam finding that, in 2017, 82 percent of the wealth generated went to the richest 1 percent of the global population.”

Marxism is often seen as an ideology that leads to authoritarianism. But as Howard Zinn wrote in a review of a biography of Marx, “Those who would doubt Marx’s commitment to a truly democratic society should study his eloquent (second in literary brilliance only to his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) description of the 1871 Paris Commune. The Commune abolished rents and debts, equalised wages, hailed culture and education, made leaders subject to immediate recall by the people, destroyed the guillotine. Women played a crucial role in all of its activities (see Gay Gullickson, The Unruly Women of Paris). It was, Marx said, “the most glorious achievement of our time.”