Why Sanitation Workers at This Delhi Hospital Have Been Protesting for a Year

Nearly 400 workers were summarily fired from the Kalawati Saran Children’s Hospital, and only 150 reinstated despite the court ordering that they all be given their jobs back.

New Delhi: May 17, 2023, marks the 351st consecutive day of protest by the sanitation workers of Kalawati Saran Children’s Hospital, New Delhi.

Starting June 1, 2022, these workers have gathered in front of the hospital complex every day to demand that they be reinstated after nearly 400 workers were laid off without prior notice on May 31, 2022.

Despite a Delhi high court order that the workers should not lose their jobs even if the contractor is changed, workers’ organisations allege that only 150 people were on-boarded when such a change happened – but they had to pay Rs 30,000 to get their jobs back. The court petition filed by the workers on April 27, 2022 too refers to the ‘cut’ taken by the hospital and contractors. The 250 workers who did not make the payment have been denied their jobs.

What has happened so far

After forming the Kalawati Saran Contract Karamchari Union in December 2017, the workers secured a few victories for themselves under the aegis of the All India Central Council for Trade Unions (AICCTU), a central trade union.

The main issue was the non-payment of the workers’ minimum wages. Before unionising, the workers were only being paid a third of the scheduled minimum wages with overtime. After a series of litigations, the workers campaigned to increase their wages to the minimum wage in 2019.

As a result, the Regional Labour Commissioner (Central), ordered the release of unpaid wages on December 29, 2021. The unpaid wages at the time amounted to Rs 1.61 crore – and this amount still remains to be paid.

On May 31, 2022, nearly 400 workers were sacked without notice. This was despite their continuous and laborious work throughout the COVID-19 waves and lockdowns.

“When some of us fell sick, we were not even given attention in the hospital ward. We were just told to go home,” said Sauraj, a former sanitation worker. The workers said that two people died during this period. “As it is, we had been handling syringes and bio-medical waste by hand,” Sauraj continued.

Workers protesting outside the hospital. Photo: Author provided

“We continued to work without any break,” said Jitender Kumar. “We even slept on the roads in front of the hospital because we were needed at any time and wanted to maintain social distance. In the end we got nothing for it.”

Despite a Delhi high court verdict on May 31, 2022 saying that the sanitation workers’ must be allowed to keep their jobs, the hospital administration has not reinstated the workers.

“The administration refuses to speak with us,” said Sevak Ram, the union’s organiser. “After the high court order, they said they have followed everything. Except that they got a new contractor and replaced everyone. Now they say it is the contractor’s problem. But it is the director who has all the power.”

The workers were initially hired through the contractor Sulabh International. The new contractor goes by the name Gorakh Security.

“They took no responsibility for us,” said Sevak Ram, who was hired by Sulabh International. “They simply left. Despite a high court order, the hospital administration has done nothing.”

The prevailing feeling amongst the workers is that the administration has sacked them for unionising and fighting for higher wages, and that the change in contractor is being used as an excuse for union busting.

Since June 1, 2022, the workers have staged a protest in front of the hospital. Most of the workers claim to have been detained at least three to four times by the police. On June 20 last year, a large gathering of workers was broken up by the police–at least 80 were detained. After that, only 10-15 workers have been allowed to gather outside the hospital premises.

Minimum wage as a fundamental right

A few things must be said about the importance of minimum wages and the non-payment of minimum wages when the workers were employed by Kalawati Saran Hospital. Cases are being fought to retrieve the workers’ due wages from June 1 to November 30, 2022. The next hearing for the due wages for this period is scheduled at the Patiala house court on June 5.

The International Labour Organisation defines minimum wage as the least amount an employer is obligated to pay to employees for their work during a specified period, which cannot be lowered by either a collective agreement or an individual contract.

In India, both the Union and state governments fix minimum wage rates to protect the interests of unorganised sector workers and specify the minimum payment for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labour. Minimum wage guarantees the basic needs of wage earners, including food, shelter, education, medical care and some degree of comfort. It also ensures work efficiency.

Despite the government’s various attempts to address this problem, many employers continue to refuse to pay minimum wage.

Additionally under the Directive Principle of State Policies, the Indian Constitution provides significant labour rights, including the right to work under Article 41, the right to a living wage for both men and women under Article 43, and the right to organise and form unions under Articles 19(1)(c) and 23.

Aside from this, over a prolonged period, the Supreme Court of India has established a series of rulings, the latest being the Reptakos case, that have defined the law on the matter.

In its ruling in the Reptakos case, the court included an additional criterion, namely, that 25% of the total minimum wage must cover children’s education, medical needs, basic recreation such as festivals and ceremonies, and provisions for old age and marriages.

Effects on the workers’ lives   

Despite such provisions, and despite a high court order for their reinstatement, the workers are paying for trying to secure their minimum wages and unionise.  

When asked how they have been sustaining themselves for nearly a year, the workers replied that they have mainly relied on the free food from a langar in front of the hospital. Sometimes they have taken dal in polyethene bags from a gurudwara.

Workers protesting outside the hospital. Photo: Author provided

The workers report that being denied work for a year has created a series of personal problems for their families. In addition to being unable to pay their landlords, they are struggling to keep their children in school.

“If it goes on like this, my children will grow up to become thieves,” said Surinder Kumar.

His nephew Jitender agreed and restated their demands, “The hospital has to listen to the court order and hire us back. We are facing all sorts of problems at home and our future is uncertain.”

“The whole design is to bust the union,” said Surya Prakash of AICCTU, who has been organising the workers since 2017. “These workers have refused to pay the bribe to get their jobs back. Even when employed, these workers were denied any possible social security measures like ESI or PF. That too in one of the hospitals of the central government—a hospital which claims to be the best centre for paediatric care.

These problems faced by the Kalawati Saran Hospital’s sanitation workers are representative of similar cases throughout Delhi. Contract workers are often forced to renew their jobs under the pressure of paying a sum of money, even as while working they are not paid their minimum wages.

The fact remains that contract workers in all sectors are denied their wages. The issue at Kalawati Saran is an egregious instance of a problem that is widely seen across sectors.

Verika Mani is a human rights lawyer based in New Delhi and Sidharth Singh is a writer based in New Delhi.