About 500 workers gathered for a Mariyal Por (road roko) at Chengalpet bus stand on the morning of September 2nd. Workers from a variety of sectors attended the protest, which included auto drivers, transport workers, conservancy workers, employees of electricity board, Chennai Airport cargo, Kalpakkam power plant, water board and St. Thomas Mount cantonment board. The protest was under the leadership CITU and AITUC. When workers occupied the road, the police quickly brought in vehicles to round them up. They were detained till the evening. The traffic was affected for a period of fifteen minutes. At the start of the road roko, one of the office-bearers said that the goal of the protest was to build awareness and visibility for workers’ demands, and that after the road roko, the workers will court arrest, and be detained till the evening. We had conversations with workers from different sectors who attended the protest to understand the demands of various sectors.
One of the most important demands is a minimum wage of Rs 18000. Airport cargo workers, who work for the contracting company Bhadra, make as little as Rs 6500 a month, and they work 12 hours a day. One of them said he paid Rs 4000 for rent, and there was a measly amount left for other expenses of the month. Another demand repeatedly brought up by various public sector workers is that they want the old pension scheme back, which was in place before 2003.
Auto-drivers and transport workers demanded the repeal of Motor Vehicles amendment of 2014. They said that the amendments imposed rules that were not fit for Indian roads, and were just copied from corresponding laws in other countries. One problem was the fines are inordinately high. An auto driver said that the Act required that spare part replacement in vehicles be done only by authorized dealers, which would be a severe blow to many small auto-mechanic shops.
A worker from the water board (Kudineer Variyam) said that they demanded that the jobs in their board not be contractractualized, as the jobs of contract workers don’t come with appropriate safeguards – they do not get ESI, PF, and there is no job security, and they do not get equal pay for equal work (compared to the permanent workers). A worker from the Electricity board said that there are about 500 vacant posts, that should be filled, and also that the Electricity board should not be privatized.
Karpagam, a conservancy worker, talked about various issues faced by them. “We do a variety of tasks like collecting trash, disposing off carcasses, removing wastes from hospitals. The work is too much and the pay too little. We are asked to have only 4 workers per 1000 population. In Chengalpet area has a population in lakhs, but there are only 110 permanent workers. The others are employed on contract. With contractors taking away half the wage of the worker, the worker gets very little. When there are so many educated and qualified people seeking employment, why can’t they be given permanent jobs? This would also improve services, and cut down mosquitoes, and bring down cases if dengue, malaria etc. We are not given safety equipment likle gloves and masks, and we are not treated with respect. People collecting trash are not respected. Dr. Ambedkar said manual scavenging should be abolished, but this practise persists in various places in this day and age.”
Another converancy worker Sampath (Kancheepuram district CITU officebearer) also criticized the practise of contractualization in their line of work. He pointed out that their work is of a permanent nature, especially as the PM calls for a Swachh Bharat (Thooimai India). The effect of contractualization is that, the energy of youth between the ages of 18-24 is sucked out, and then they are thrown out of employment.