Protest by Chennai’s Sanitary Workers

Abhishek Shaw, Student of Asian College of Journalism

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Around fifty workers from the Solid Waste Department protested outside the office of the Assistant Commissioner, Municipal Corporation Zone V Office in Royapuram on 3rd October. They were protesting for drinking water facility at the work site, changing rooms for employees, toilet facilities, raincoats, uniforms and other facilities. This is their second protest on these demands. The workers united under the Red Flag Union (affiliated to CITU) had already presented 6 petitions for which no action has been taken.

Paidy Srinivasulu, the Secretary of the Red Flag Union of Tamil Nadu, led the protesters. The union represents workers in Chennai Corporation and have been mobilizing workers and taking up their demands. The worker protesters were mostly permanent employees (Group 4) of the Corporation. Workers from various divisions in Zone 5 were present. They were shouting slogans and sitting on the floor of the office. They were protesting outside the office of the Assistant Commissioner, Zone V, K. Thirumangai Alwar. The representatives of the workers submitted a petition to the Assistant Commissioner.

The workers were demanding for drinking water facilities at their work sites. These workers are spread out in different areas where they sweep and collect garbage. They are forced to arrange for their own drinking water, or have to ask around in their area of work for water. The workers said that this has been a long-standing demand and has not been provided for.

Women employees have been given uniforms, but most of the men complained that they had not received their uniforms. The women complained that they were given sarees without blouses. They further demanded changing rooms and toilets for them to change into their uniforms. Women, especially, complained that the lack of changing rooms and toilets made it extremely inconvenient for them. Besides, the nature of the work is such that there is a requirement for washrooms they can use for changing and washing. Currently they do not have any facilities to even change into their uniforms.

The lack of these facilities is affecting workers the most in divisions 49, 50, 54 and 59.The Corporation has not provided for this, even after repeated requests from the workers and unions. Other requests involved raincoats for the rainy season.

The Assistant Commissioner refused to comment, upon being questioned, and said that he is “not in a position to answer any questions to the press”. He declined to comment on the repeated protests by these workers.

Workers who attended the protest complained of several other problems. There is a general overload of work. Even though the norm is 500 mts per worker, they complained that they are forced to sweep more. One aged lady sweeper complained that she is often forced to sweep over one kilometer. Another worker complained that he has to sometimes push over 150kgs of garbage in damaged wheeled containers singlehandedly. This, they said, is mainly due to the general shortage of workers engaged in garbage cleaning, and also due to malpractices by Conservancy Inspectors.

Workers have to sign attendance twice, once when they report and once when they leave for home. This they have to either report to a mesthri or directly to the Conservancy Inspector. According to the workers, the inspectors try and extort money from workers. The usual threat is of assigning extra work to them. If they do not do that work, the Inspectors can transfer them to other areas for work. This has brought about a culture of shirking work, by bribing Conservancy Inspectors.

Workers complained that the problem is acute in divisions 55 and 56, where the Conservancy Inspector, is extorting money from workers. There are about 150 workers in division 56 and about 100 in division 55. Out of these divisions about 60 workers shirk work by paying about Rs.100 or a little more per day. Upon paying this, workers need not come to work. In exchange, the Conservancy Inspector handles their attendance. It is said that about 60 workers are into this practice in divisions 55 and 56 together. If a workers pay about Rs.1500 per worker per month, the workers can shirk their work partially, and need not sign in the register when their shift ends.

Almost all the workers involved in garbage collection are from either adi-Andhra or adi-dravida castes both of which are scheduled caste groups. Adi-Andhra comprises Madigas and Maalas. These are the castes from Andhra Pradesh. There are more Madigas, than Maalas engaged in garbage collection. They are consistently abused on the basis of their caste. A woman worker complained that caste abuses are a common feature, and they are forced to bear with such abuse as they are at the mercy of the Conservancy Inspectors.

While women and male workers engaged in sanitary work, men are usually engaged in any kind of work, from sweeping, to loading trucks and women are mostly only in sweeping, and are given a half meter long broom for their work. They are forced to bend and sweep. They say that providing a longer broom would make the work more efficient and less tiresome for them. But this along with the other demands has not been addressed so far.

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