Conservancy workers, employed by Corporation of Chennai, struck work on September 2nd in solidarity with the National Strike and also placing important demands to the Corporation of Chennai. Over 300 workers assembled at the gates of Ripon Buildings (Chennai Corporation Head Office), while hundreds others struck work across the 15 zones of Chennai Corporation. Having advance notice of the protest and strike action, corporation officials closed all entrances and invited a large posse of Police within the campus. Even in the face of stern police action and possible arrest, the workers went ahead with their protest with many of the workers caught outside the barricaded gates.
The conservancy workers, led by Chennai Corporation Red flag Union, were demanding the implementation of minimum wages of atleast Rs 320/- a day, offering permanent jobs to over 500 workers who have been kept off muster rolls (NMR), housing for the workers, repeal of the new pension scheme and the implementation of the old pension scheme. They were also in solidarity with the 12 demands raised by Central Trade Unions.
Loganadan, a conservancy supervisor, said that there are many vacant posts that are not being filled while a lot of them are in contract work. When Chennai Corporation was expanded in 2011- 2012, many workers from the erstwhile municipalities were drawn into the corporation. Speaking about these workers, Loganadan said that they did not have proper ESI/PF records all these years, even though deductions were being made for these schemes. “We are demanding that these be fully paid by the corporation and proper medical benefits be guaranteed to all workers. We have also demanded that minimum wage of contract workers be raised to Rs 320/- as recommended by the committees.
Emphasising the need for just minimum wage, M.Shankar, a conservancy worker, said that the committee recommendation of Rs 320(which has been increased from Rs 300) is grossly inadequate. With no ESI and PF for contract workers, he asked how they can expect to spend medical care in a work dealing with waste from such a meagre salary. He demanded the minimum wage of atleast Rs 15000 for conservancy workers.
As the workers began to assemble, they found the gates locked, a few who had managed to enter sat in front of the gate, while the rest began to raise slogans from outside. Over four large vans, full of police with batons, headed by senior officers were posted inside the premises. Srinivasulu, office bearer with Red flag union, told us that they had informed the corporation officials of their intention to have an explanatory meeting at Ripon buildings and duly presented the notice over 15 days before. Yet their right to enter the premises and conduct the meeting was being forcefully resisted. He insisted that they were not here to be arrested and if police react violently then the will be forced to escalate their struggle.
Highlighting the issues, he said that when the corporation expanded its limits, staffs from the amalgamated municipalities were included ‘Non Muster Roll’ staff. While 400 were drawn into Metro Water, over 500 were to be made permanent in Corporation of Chennai. Inspite of a Mayoral order dated Feb 2015, they are yet to get confirmation. This is an important demand. He also said that they have been insisting that the minimum wage for conservancy staff, both contract and otherwise, be raised to Rs 600/-. While a committee formed from all four corporations in Tamilnadu, had recommended Rs 500/-, collectors order had specified Rs 320/-. Yet workers were getting as low as Rs 240/- a day and even here, there were lot of commissions and illegal deductions. Speaking about the National Strike, he said that price rise was an important issue that is affecting workers enormously and as wages stagnate they are finding it difficult to make ends meet. While appreciating the need for national strike to draw state attention, he said that the struggle will be much bigger next year if such conditions persist.
Even though the police were ready and fully equipped to handle the workers, the resolve of the workers, their righteous demand to hold a meeting at their office gate, the large number of women workers and their refusal to give into the police, made the officers hesitant to act. After long negotiations involving the corporation officials, leaders of Red Flag Union, the police opened the gates and allowed the workers to have their meeting inside the premises. The slogans went on for over an hour, after which the workers dispersed. This was in stark contrast to many other actions in Chennai, where the leaders led the workers in courting arrest within minutes of the action.