A struggle in Bangalore

Print edition : March 02, 2002

UNCLEARED garbage is piling up in Bangalore city as the 6,000 contract powrakarmikas (municipal workers) of the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP) continue the strike they started in November 2001 demanding minimum wages and other benefits they are eligible for as per the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970. About 80 per cent of them are women and the majority of them Dalits, factors that add to their social and economic vulnerability. Currently, each woman is paid Rs.800 and man Rs.1,000 a month, which is only two-thirds of what they are legally entitled to. Permanent workers of the BMP, who do similar work, are paid around Rs.4,000. The contract workers are exploited by the contractors, who have denied them for many years benefits that they should have enjoyed according to the contract with the BMP. They have not been provided even the protective gear, that is their due.

The Labour Department is yet to fix a minimum wage for the contract workers since their work does not come under any existing category. However, according to Labour Commissioner Narasimha Raju, a draft notification was issued in November 2001, proposing the monthly wage at around Rs.1,800 for an unskilled worker. The BMP is yet to implement two orders issued by its Commissioner, Ashok M. Dalwai, dated August 13, 2001 and December 14, 2001, directing that the workers be paid the current minimum wage as fixed by the government and provided other social benefits. The BMP's previous efforts for a settlement between the contractors and the workers' union, the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike Guttige Powrakarmika Sangha, by fixing the wage rate at Rs.1,550, fell through. The union rejected the offer on the grounds that it was too low and the Labour Department refused to accept it on the grounds that it was below the legal minimum wage. Subsequently, the union demanded that the amount be paid to the contract workers as interim relief with effect from November 2001, until a minimum wage was decided upon.

THE BMP adopted the contract system in the early 1990s, when it started sub-contracting the cleaning work on the assumption that it would increase efficiency. The working hours of the contract powrakarmikas are from 6-30 a.m. to 1-30 p.m. from Monday to Saturday and until 11 a.m. on Sundays. In busy areas like markets, they work evening shifts too, from 2 p.m. to 6-45 p.m., after the usual working hours. In the absence of protective gear and proper equipment, their working conditions are quite unhealthy.

A study conducted by the Support Group for Contract Powrakarmikas, formed by various Bangalore-based non-governmental human rights organisations, social activists and prominent citizens, revealed that the powrakarmikas worked in almost bonded labour-like conditions. It revealed that they were not provided with any social security benefits like medical compensation and pension. They have no rest-rooms or canteens though the Contract Labour Act stipulates that these be provided. Also, the workers are denied weekly holidays and leave facilities, which are available to permanent workers. According to the report, the different standards that are evident in the working conditions of the contract and permanent employees violate Rule 25 of the Contract Labour Act, which states that if "workmen employed by the contractor perform the same or similar kind of work as the workmen directly employed by the principal employer of the establishment, the wage rates, holidays, hours of work and other conditions of service of the workmen shall be the same."

Despite most of the workers being women, there is no provision for maternity leave. At the current wage rate, most women are paid about Rs.21 a day. Many of the women are the sole bread winners in the family. The conditions of work violate the BMP's own tender agreement for the contract. As per the tender document, workers are to be paid "fair and reasonable wages, which shall not be less then the minimum wages fixed by the government". The document also stipulates that the contractors' responsibility includes providing medical aid and compensation, "first aid facility at site, uniform and badges, protective wherewithal like hand gloves and mask and also gum boots for lorry loaders". However, none of these are provided.

Muniyamma, a contract worker, said: "Our equipment consists of brooms, mumtis and a sickle and, for men, a spade." The workers have not even heard of protective gloves. Many of them have fashioned glove-like gear out of plastics bags. However, "if we use these, it slows down work. Therefore, the maistry (contractor's agent) doesn't allow it," one of the workers pointed out. As a result, the workers are forced to handle waste, including decomposed animal bodies, with bare hands. This often results in skin infections. A health officer from the BMP is supposed to inspect the working conditions every day at 6-30 a.m. during roll-call, and take necessary steps in case of any shortcomings. According to one worker, during his rare visits the health officer just talks with the maistry.

Until recently very few powrakarmikas were aware that the maistries were not the highest authority in their case and that they actually worked for the BMP. Taking advantage of the fact that most of the workers come from villages and are unlettered, the contractors have not issued them with written proof of employment. There is no fixed place or date for payment, and the workers do not receive wage slips though it is stipulated under the Contract Labour Act that they should. Says Rajamma, a contract worker: "If we don't come for two or three days, the maistries throw us out of the job. If we are two minutes late for roll-call, we are not allowed to work that day and Rs.40-50 is cut from our wages. If we drop garbage on the road, again the same punishment." She adds that the only way one can take leave and still keep the job is by sending in a replacement. There have been allegations of sexual harassment by the maistries. However, they rarely get reported officially since the workers are afraid of losing their jobs.

The lack of job security has also led the powrakarmika union to urge the BMP to hire the workers directly. The union argues that the work should not have been contracted out in the first place since it is perennial in nature. Under the Contract Labour Act the government is empowered to abolish the "employment of contract labour in an establishment where work carried out by the contract worker is necessary to the establishment and is also perennial in nature."

However, according to a BMP official, who does not want to be identified, the Corporation is planning to sub-contract more and more work. He explained that the BMP did not have the finances to employ permanently all the manpower it required. It, he said, currently spent about 90 per cent of its revenue on salaries. "Sub-contracting work means that we will have to pay much less since the wage rate for contract workers is lower than that of permanent employees," he added.

Said B.A. Keshavamurthy, secretary of the workers' union: "The minimum wage is just one part of the problem. What about the lack of equipment and other civic benefits?" Another problem, which is emerging now, is that of job cuts. Following the BMP's decision to cut down on manpower, 30 to 40 workers have lost their jobs. Also, owing to the strike, many of the contract workers have practically nothing to live on. Keshavamurthy said, "There has to be some sort of assurance that once the agreement is signed, the conditions will improve." For now, in the absence of any concrete steps from the BMP, the union has no plan to withdraw the strike. "Even the payment of an interim relief of Rs.1,550 will be considered a positive step," he said.

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