Pon Vasanth Arunachalam, Asian College of Journalism
The function organized by Conservancy Workers Union(affiliated to CITU) to erect a name board and flagpole near Corporation Zonal office at Saidapet was disrupted allegedly by goons on 20th December (Friday). According to the workers, the goon squad, which included both men and women, indulged in verbal abuse and also physically attacked some of the workers. The function, attended by former CPI(M) MLA S. K. Mahendran, proceeded later in the evening after police intervened to defuse the situation.
The workers were from Zone 9, 10 and 13 of the Chennai Corporation. They are employed by Chennai Municipal Solid Waste Private Ltd (CMSW), a subsidiary of Ramky Enviro Engineers, which has been contracted by the corporation to manage the solid waste in these zones. The workers wanted to to form a union in order to raise their grievances that include poor wage rates, lack of safety equipment, the deteriorating condition of tools that they have to pay to replace and job permanence as many have been working since 10 years. The workers present during the function claimed that the goons were arranged by CMSW as the company which had tried to sabotage union formation even earlier.
Mr. M. Sampath, acting president of the union said, “We obtained all the required permission for the function. The zonal manager of the company, Mr. Ravi, was informed three days before. He did not raise any concerns at that time.” According to him, while preparation for the function was in progress in on Friday morning, the company dumped rubble in the venue to obstruct the proceedings. The workers removed the rubble and proceeded with the arrangements. Later, they saw several unknown faces, men and women, assembling near the zonal office. In the evening, couple of hours before the function, the assembled men and women started creating ruckus. Sampath said even though some of the workers were beaten up by the goons, who called themselves as conservancy workers from other zones, they did not retaliate. As per Sampath, while all this was happening, the zonal manager Ravi conspicuously did not try to intervene.
Another worker , who got beaten up by the goons, said that later when the police came, they tried to persuade the workers not to erect the name board to avoid escalation of the issue. Some senior officials from the Chennai corporation also arrived at the spot. The senior leaders from the CITU union and the CPI(M) party, including former MLA Mr. Mahendran, who had reached the venue by that time negotiated with the officials and the police. The police asked majority of the workers who had gathered to disperse. The function proceeded then in the presence of few workers and the leaders.
Mr. Mahendran said the company did not want the workers to unionize as it would prevent them from indulging in unethical and illegal activities and hence orchestrated this incident. He said the people who disrupted the proceedings were in fact workers from other zones who are under the company’s control and when he and other leaders explained the situation to them, they left the venue. He said while the conservancy workers directly employed by the corporation are being made permanent, the workers in these three zones who are working under different contractors for more than a decade are not yet made permanent.
Mr. Sampath alleged that this was not the first time CMSW has arranged goons for union busting activities. When the workers formed the CITU union around four months back, the company immediately appointed some goons as workers for namesake. A “company” union, without any name or registration number, was apparently formed with these goons as office bearers and many workers were arm-twisted into joining this union. Sampath said whenever the workers raised legitimate demands about things like provident fund (PF), increment or bonuses, the office bearers of this other union hijacked their demands and later sided with the company.
CMSW, previously Ramky Enviro Engineers, took the contract for waste management in Zone 9, 10 and 13 two years back. Prior to that it was done by Neel Metal Fanalca for about two years and even before, it was done by Onyx for about seven years. The workers allege that the working conditions have deteriorated steadily after Onyx left. Ms. Regina, a sweeper with CMSW, said, “Previously we used to get gloves, cap, mask, shoes, shovel etc. Churidhar was the uniform for ladies. We had some dignity. Now, CMSW gives low quality sarees. They do not give us any protective gears except for a broom and a basket. We need to handle the waste with bare hands. The worst part is when the brooms wear out, we need to replace it at our own cost.”
Echoing the concerns, a helper in the compactor truck who did not want to identify himself, , said even the workers who operate the tricycles had to bear the repair costs themselves. Lack of clarity on the PF deductions seems to be another major concern for the workers. Sampath said, “For the last two years, we are demanding the company to provide our PF numbers. But they always give evasive replies. Though the workers contribution towards the PF is getting deducted every month, we do not know whether it is being deposited properly.”
Mr. Raghavan (name changed), another helper, said the salary had not changed much from the time of Onyx. He said, “The little increments we received were also only after a lot of struggle, especially by the truck drivers. While the cost of everything is going up, it is very difficult to survive with the salary we get now.”
Mr. Venkatesh, General Manager of CMSW, however, denied all the allegations. Talking about the incident on Friday at Saidapet, he said the premises belonged to Chennai Corporation and therefore the workers were violating the rules by trying to erect a name board there. He added that when the workers sought permission, they were clearly warned about this violation. He denied the allegation that the company set up goons to disrupt the function.
When asked about the PF issue, Mr. Venkatesh assured that the PF amount was being deposited as per procedure in employees’ account. He said protective gears like gloves, masks etc were provided to the workers and they were sensitized about the importance of using them. However, the workers do not use them as they do not appreciate the importance. He said the company also arranged health and awareness camps occasionally. He cited an eye checkup camp arranged for the truck drivers recently and also the health awareness camp arranged by the Chennai Corporation about a month ago during which CMSW encouraged all its employees to attend.
Regarding the union, he said, the company speaks only to the workers’ representatives who were nominated by the employees themselves. According to him, the representatives are in constant touch with the workers and they are aware of their legitimate demands. He said the company does not engage with workers organizing under any other banner.