The regularisation battle of Contract Safai Workers

The Supreme Court on 7 April 2017 upheld a Bombay High Court order of 22 December 2016, regularising 2,700 contract workers employed by the solid waste management department of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

In 2007, the Kachra Vahatuk Shramik Sangh had filed a case for permanency with the Industrial Tribunal on behalf of 2,700 BMC contract safai workers. The tribunal ruled in favour of these workers after seven years on 13 October 2014 and ordered the BMC to regularize all 2700 workers with arrears from 2007. The BMC challenged this order in the Bombay High Court.

The High Court, on 22 December 2016, after two years ruled in favour of the workers and declared the BMC contract as “sham and bogus”. The BMC challenged the High Court order in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, while upholding the Bombay High Court ruling stated, that BMC engaged in such a paper arrangement only to avoid giving permanency to the workers and hired them through labour contractors. The SC further noted that the work performed by these workers is integral to the services of the municipality, is done round the year,  and is directly supervised and controlled by the BMC, the principal employer in this case.

By the order, all 2,700 contract safai workers have been declared permanent employees of the BMC, with retrospective effect from 2014. This means the workers should be paid their arrears from the date of the Industrial Tribunal order.
A permanent BMC safai worker earns around Rs 22,000 a month against Rs 10,000 of a contract worker. The arrears (difference in salaries paid to permanent and contractual workers) would work out to about Rs 3.6 lakh per worker if calculated from October 2014 and to about Rs 7 lakh if calculated from 2007.

Apart from the 2,700 workers who have just won permanency, 3,000 contract workers of BMC wait in line in three separate similar industrial disputes.

State of Safai workers in some other cities

Bhopal: Contract safai workers work for 9 hours every day, with 1 hour of mandatory unpaid overtime. There are two shifts of work – the first shift begins at 6:00 am and ends at 3:00 pm and the second shift begins at 5:00 pm and ends at 2:00 am.

The wages are paid according to 2 different kinds of work contracts: (1) a 25 day contract and (2) a 89 day contract. Though the workers are always paid at the end of a month and each worker works for 30 days every month, their contracts differ and their payments too, based on the contracts. The workers on 25 day contracts work for 30 days but are paid for only 25 days in the month. These workers are hired through contractors and these contracts were first floated in 2003. 5 days of wage are lost by the workers every month.

But why do they accept this deduction when wages are so low? The choice and the number of jobs available to a dalit (SC) worker continue to be extremely limited and this employment option, since independence, has been one of the largest absorber of dalit workers in regular government employment with job security and dignity. Their hope is to move to the 89 day contract and then to be regularised as a permanent safai worker with retiral benefits.

The 89 day contract is, as the name suggests, a contract that spreads over 3 months in which the wage loss is for 1 day in 3 months as against 15 days in the 25 day contract. However, even in the 89 day contract, a worker has to work 30/31 days every month for full wages. The 89 day contract workers are workers who were on the rolls of the municipal corporation as casual workers in 2003 when the first contract was floated. They are, today, contract workers directly employed under the Municipal Corporation, while the 25 day workers are employed by contractors. The one day in their 3 month contract is treated as a break in employment or a layoff and then they are rehired. This is to ensure discontinuity in service in order to ensure no claim can be made for regularisation under the Contract labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 and subsequent Supreme Court orders.

In Bhopal Municipal Corporation, the Statutory Minimum Wage for unskilled workers in local authority work in August 2015 was Rs. 239.95 per day. But the safai workers were paid as per the “collectorate rate” (a rate fixed by the collector of the city) which was fixed at Rs. 197 with no paid weekly off.

Rajkot: The contract workers in Rajkot are provided work for 4 hours daily. There are three systems of contract in Rajkot: (1) Mitra Mandal – Self help groups of men; (2) Sakhi Mandal – Self help groups of women; and (3) Contract workers under Contractors. Their shift begins at 6:30 am and ends at 10:30 am, except for the Sakhi Mandal for whom the shift starts at 6 am.

Sakhi Mandals: According to the contract of the Rajkot Municipal Corporation with the Sakhi Mandals, each unit of a Sakhi Mandal must complete a door to door garbage collection from 300 households/shops. Each unit of a Sakhi Mandal comprises of 8+1 members who should be paid Rs.13 per month from each door they collect the garbage from.  

 

Over and above this payment, the Sakhi Mandal is paid an additional Rs. 2000 by the Municipal Corporation for their services. This means, each unit of a Sakhi mandal is paid a total of Rs. 3900 + 2000 = Rs 5900 per month for their 4 hour service every day of the month. This further means that each member of the Sakhi Mandal earns a maximum of Rs. 655.55 per month, which is nowhere near the minimum wage. In fact, it is less than 2 days of minimum wage for safai work in the city the Rajkot.

The monthly fund earned by the members of the Sakhi Mandal is kept in a bank and the members can borrow from this fund at times of economic exigency at a nominal interest rate which again becomes an earning for the Mandal. Thus, the members of the Mandal are not paid a wage on a monthly basis at all.

Kanpur: In Kanpur Municipal Corporation, the statutory minimum monthly wage for a Safai worker in August 2015 was Rs. 8741 (Rs. 7500 monthly pay + 885 PF + 365 ESI). But, the contract awarded to the contractor was signed at a rate of only Rs. 5969 per worker, inclusive of all government taxes. There was no additional provision of PF or ESI specified in the contract.

Delhi: The erstwhile unified Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) was trifurcated in 2012 into NDMC, SDMC and EDMC. There are around 60,000 safai karamcharis working in the 3 Delhi Municipal corporations.

There have been several strikes since 2015 of the municipal safai workers. The reason for the strikes have primarily been – non-payment of wages and arrears due to lack of funds.

Workers hired through private contractor are the worst off. They are paid about Rs.5,000 a month and have no protective equipment and are made to perform the most hazardous tasks. More than 3,500 sewerage workers have died between 1996 and 2015 in Delhi alone. The 2008 Delhi High Court order on a public interest litigation petition directed the civic bodies to provide adequate protective gear and free medical care, compensate for occupational diseases, and create separate funds for statutory provisions like provident fund and gratuity. The civic authorities have hardly followed any of these judicial instructions properly.

The East Delhi Municipal Corporation where the longest strikes have taken place employs around 25,000 sanitation workers out of which around 17,000 are permanent. The EDMC has renamed the municipal contract sanitation workers as ‘paryavaran sahayaks’ but the payment of wages has not regularised.