The Life of Labour: Number of Manual Scavengers Increases Fourfold Since Last Survey

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Calendars may recognise domestic work, Indian law yet to fully stamp its recognition

June 16 marks the International Domestic Workers Day in the UN calendar. It is also the day on which ILO passed convention C189, asking member nations to pass legislation that will recognise domestic workers’ rights and regulate their wage and working conditions. It has been seven years and India is yet to ratify the convention. In the absence of legislative and administrative protections, domestic workers have faced numerous abuses, violation of their rights, poor working conditions and low wages. An article in The Indian Express captures the multiple dimensions in which this legal limbo and an inadequate effort by the government to provide welfare support has led to exploitation of this class of workers in Tamil Nadu. While highlighting the lack of minimum wage protections, or the danger of abuse and violence at the workplace, it also highlights how urban development actions such as slum clearance could have debilitating effects on these workers. The article also discusses the emerging forms of collective action among women and a recent attempt by domestic workers’ union to attempt self-regulation. In a similar discussion from North East India, an article in Morung Express highlights the need for a recognition of households employing domestic workers as work-places. It also references the work done by NGOs in setting up and sustaining unions for domestic workers.

Illustration by Aliza Bakht

Illustration by Aliza Bakht

Ironically, this week also witnessed a case of physical assault on a domestic worker in Gurugram, Haryana ostensibly for not cooking a good meal. She was assaulted severely leading to bleeding wounds. It triggered a protest by relatives of the maid as well as the Gharelu Kamgar Union forcing the police to register their complaint and file an FIR. This is in no measure an isolated incident. A year ago, the case of Zohra Bibi had made headlines when the maid was forcefully locked up in a posh neighbourhood on the pretext of theft. When the workers protested, it led to a major clash with the police and even the eviction of an entire low-income neighbourhood where Zohra Bibi and her family resided. After the outcry from unions and civil society, the government promised to draft policies to protect workers’ rights. A draft bill is under preparation and hopefully will see the light of day soon.

53,000 and counting: Number of manual scavengers increase four-fold after new survey

An inter-ministerial task force survey of manual scavengers has identified 53,236 workers reporting as manual scavengers in 121 districts of 18 states. This is a fourfold increase from the last survey in 2017 which counted about 13,000 workers being employed in manual scavenging. The earlier survey had come under severe criticism for underreporting.

Even this survey seems to be plagued with loopholes that leave out vast sections of workers employed in manual cleaning of sewage from its ambit. The sanitation workers employed by Indian railways are not counted as part of this survey even when they form the largest section of manual scavengers under one employer cleaning human waste off the rail tracks and stations. The survey has only covered 120 districts and even here, the workers who are employed in cleaning sewage tanks and sewer lines are not counted as manual scavengers. The Indian Express quotes an official from the ministry of social justice stating, “Sewer and septic tank cleaning has not been included as it can’t be completely done away with but can only be regulated with the use of protective gear, which is allowed under the law.” This is a major inconsistency when most of the deaths due to manual scavenging occur when workers are forced to clean sewers and septic tanks.

The Wire has launched #GRIT, a section dedicated to covering the issue of manual scavenging.

Construction workers cess too meagre to cover welfare benefits

Even as the central government is planning a comprehensive welfare scheme for unorganised workers, the National Committee on Central Legislation – Construction Labour (NCC-LC) has calculated that the cess collected by the government as part of the construction workers’ welfare is too low to pay for all the welfare benefits offered under the existing scheme. Using NSSO data on the number of construction workers, NCCLC has calculated that the all India average cess comes to Rs. 477 per worker and the per capita cess crosses Rs. 2,000 only in four states. It points to the case of Tamil Nadu which has one of the highest numbers of construction workers yet is far behind in the collection of cess at Rs. 135 per capita. NCCLC, using a daily wage of Rs. 300 per worker, estimates that the per capita yearly cess should be around Rs. 4,000. The significant shortfall only exposes the poor state of cess collection by state authorities. The organisation argues that the only reason that the welfare boards have not collapsed financially is that of the poor registration and disbursement processes. “If worker registration goes up without cess collection also increasing, it could lead to a collapse of the tripartite board system involving workers, employers and government,” warned Subhash Bhatnagar, coordinator of NCC-LC. In light of these facts, it’s ironic that the government has failed to disburse even the collected amounts leading to huge cash balances with the welfare boards running into thousands of crores.

Bangalore’s garment workers continue to struggle for minimum wages

The new Karnataka CM will meet with garment workers’ unions and manufacturers on June 18 to discuss the issue of minimum wages. As reported earlier, the state government had initially circulated a draft notification for an increase of around 4,000 rupees but then recalled the notification after manufacturers said that they couldn’t pay the proposed increase. Speaking to Newsclick, Prathiba of Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) said, “This is the pattern. There will be a notification issued and within a month or so, for no appropriate reason, the notifications are retracted. If they do not pay minimum wages for a month, the profit that these industries make is anywhere around Rs. 160 crores. This obviously is in the interest of the management – to make profits. What does this pattern indicate? It is the management and government lobby.” Newsclick also reports that 45% of the women working in the garment sector are from women-headed households.

Tech Mahindra in focus for retrenchment once again

Chennai based IT Employees Union, affiliated to the New Democratic Labour Front, has taken Tech Mahindra to the labour department for unfair labour practices and illegal retrenchment for laying off 1,500 IT workers. While Tech Mahindra has denied such a move, maintaining it added 1,700 workers, Money Control’s report reveals that the company has used the infamous appraisal system to under rank workers’ performance before seeking their resignations. It has also documented the force used by HR managers in obtaining employees’ consent on separation agreements. While laws in various states do recognize IT employees under the ambit of the Industrial Disputes Act, a labour lawyer who spoke to Money Control felt that “…The situation is further complicated by the fact that IT companies in India have offices across states, and if a number of people from a project are asked to leave across five locations, they will have to deal with five different labour authorities.” While retrenchments continue across the IT sector, unions are becoming increasingly adept at challenging these measures.

Anganwadi workers in Kashmir narrate agonising tales; say many on verge of starvation

“Almost every Anganwadi worker and helper in Kashmir has spent on an average a sum of Rs. 50,000 in the past one year during the protests against the social welfare department: the amount that exceeds their annual income”, writes Musaib Mehraj in Rising Kashmir. Most of these Anganwadi workers are women, many are the sole breadwinners of their families. For the last six to eight months, their salaries which are as low as 1,800 rupees have not been paid. They have been forced to hit the streets in protest just to receive their promised salaries. “Let alone the luxurious things of life, we are not able to afford the basic necessities of food, medication and clothes for our kids. When all of Kashmir is busy with Eid festivities, we are left high and dry,” says Aamina of the Anganwari Workers Association.

Labour data shows increasing unemployment

Citing data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy(CMIE), a private research unit that works with the Bombay Stock Exchange to collect data on labour force participation, Devangshu Datta writes in Scroll that the unemployment rate has risen from 4.7% in March 2017 to 6% in April 2018. Mahesh Vyas of the CMIE says that 1.26 crore jobs were lost during demonetisation and that there has been no recovery yet. This is despite India’s GDP growing so fast that we claim to be the world’s fastest-growing economy. The benefits of the rising GDP don’t seem to be translating into jobs.

Mudra/PMMY did not boost self-employment, BJP just being creative about branding

In an article for The Wire, Abhishek Mishra, former IIM-A professor and current member of the Samajwadi Party, writes that the BJP’s claims around entrepreneurship and loans are misleading. Amit Shah has said that “more than 7.45 crore small entrepreneurs received loans worth more than Rs. 3.17 lakh crores” thus becoming ‘self-employed’ through the Mudra scheme. If that were true, it would be a good comeback. But Mishra points out that the Mudra scheme is for repackaging existing credit and cannot give new loans. The Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana (PMMY) scheme to give new loans is just a rebranding of already existing lending schemes and the data shows no increase. “PMMY/Mudra is an example where the name Mudra is used to denote all loans from across a range of government and private financial institutions even when not financed and provided for by the government. It’s a classic case of re-categorisation, rebranding and inventive renaming”, writes Mishra.

Other news

Kerala to honour health workers who fought off Nipah

The Kerala state government is set to honour the nurses and government health workers at the panchayat level who did a commendable job in handling the Nipah outbreak. Hopefully, this will set a precedent for the acknowledgement of workers on the ground.

DOJO centres by Maruti Suzuki and its vendors for skilling workers

Maruti Suzuki and its vendors will partner to establish over 400 DOJO centres to skill, reskill and train workers in automobile manufacturing by 2020. Named after centres of martial arts training, the DOJOs will help improve the productivity of the workers and keep them up to date with changing customer demands and expectations. MSIL said that it will provide the conceptual inputs while the vendors will bring the investment for this endeavour. The company has said that it will induct the best-qualified trainees from these centres and it will also be used to reskill existing workers.

International news

UK Supreme Court rules plumber in gig economy entitled to worker rights
Reuters reports that the UK Supreme Court has ruled that a plumber hired on a self-employed basis was entitled to workers’ rights as “the firm imposed restrictions on the work [he] could do and that he was obliged to perform a certain number of minimum hours on agreed days, meaning he was a worker.” This is a landmark event in the story of the gig economy.

Weekend reading

Underpaid and exhausted: The human cost of your Kindle

“Five o’clock in the morning and the young woman’s eyelids are drooping. All night she has been removing spots of dust from Amazon smart speakers with a toothbrush. Time seems to crawl. Now she is overwhelmed with exhaustion. She works on, more and more slowly, until she can do no more. She looks around the workshop. Other workers have rested their heads on the bench. She slumps forward and falls asleep.

Let’s call the young woman Alexa. Alexa, what are you doing here?” Read more here.