New Delhi: As COVID-19 deaths surged, crematorium workers in Bengaluru, many of whom are Dalits, have been subjected to inhuman conditions – including non-payment of wages, denial of statutory benefits, under protection from the coronavirus and forced to work long hours, finds a report by the All India Central Council of Trade Union (AICCTU), Karnataka.
The report notes that whether a crematorium is run by the municipal body Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) or a religious institution, criminal neglect of workers is “rampant”. In fact, none of the World Health Organisation (WHO) or government guidelines about COVID-19 precautionary measures are being followed at any facility, it says.
A team from AICCTU, including two members and a volunteer, visited 26 crematoriums/burial grounds between May 4-8 and interviewed workers. They found that crematorium workers were working 14 hours a day, staying over in crematoriums for days and sleeping on gunny bags to deal with the surge of COVID-19 deaths. “This is apart from the denial of minimum wages, leaves, insurance and a choice of livelihood,” it says.
According to news reports, there were 1.51 lakh cases and 1,119 deaths in Bengaluru between May 1-7, and 1.2 lakh cases and 1,756 deaths between May 8-14 in the city. On May 25, the capital reported 25,311 fresh cases of COVID-19 and 529 deaths.
The report is based on interviews of crematorium workers and other publicly available information, including circulars issued by the government regarding COVID-19 related deaths and burials/cremations.
Long working hours
Prior to COVID-19, the bodies to be buried or burnt were around zero to five bodies a day in the crematoriums, the report says. After COVID-19, notably post April 2021, each site receives a minimum of five and stretches to approximately 75 bodies a day.
In electric crematoriums, workers start their day around 6-7 am and continue working till late in the evening around 7-8 pm. In the three crematoriums where wood is used to cremate bodies, the process takes much longer. Workers start work around 5 am and sometimes finish at 1-2 in the night. However, not a single circular issued for burials speaks of measures to be undertaken to address the impact on workers due to this overload, the report says.
AICCTU says that workers are not even paid minimum wages or are paid arbitrarily – once in three months, once in six months and sometimes, wages are delayed by up to a year. They are paid Rs 1,000 per month to Rs 10,500 per month – much less than the minimum wage of Rs 13,132.60, violating the Minimum Wages Act, the report notes. They are mostly dependent on tips given by the families who come to perform last rites.
The report says that in a complete violation of all labour laws, benefits such as leaves, insurance, provident fund, bonus and gratuity have been denied to the workers. The labour department has not even taken note of the same, the report found.
The report documents a few specific instances of health hazards and workplace injuries. It observes how the workers suffer from slip disc, burnt hands, crushed fingers among other occupational hazards. However, they neither have any health insurance nor are they provided other medical facilities.
These workers have also not been vaccinated, and not all crematorium workers get the required personal protective equipment (PPE) from the BBMP, AICCTU said.
The trade union’s team found that none of the grave-diggers wore PPEs, either while digging a grave or closing it. None of them were provided with sanitiser or soap solutions to maintain hygiene levels after handling dead bodies. Even testing is not made available to all workers, the report says.
The report also highlights the unhygienic conditions that crematorium workers live. In some facilities, they do not even have access to water or toilets and even women are forced to go out in the open to relieve themselves. Some do not even have proper facilities to sleep, with some workers using gunny bags to sleep on.
In one of the facilities, the living quarters of the workers were very close to the spot where the bodies arrive and recent burials have taken place, AICCTU said.
The report also suggests various measures that should be taken to ensure the physical and financial safety of the workers, including providing them with PPE kits, free testing, vaccination, job security, compensation for working overtime, social security and housing facilities.
The AICCTU team also recommends setting up a committee to look into the working conditions of crematorium workers, aimed at recognising that the occupation is caste-based and taking concerted steps to ensure that the children of these workers have adequate access to education and employment, among other opportunities.