They demand permanent jobs and payment of insurance to their deceased comrades.
Garbage collection came to a halt in Chennai on 9th Feb, as 65% of the corporation sanitation workers went on mass casual leave demanding that Chennai Corporation fulfill its promise to absorb them in the permanent workforce. The workers had been agitating at Rippon Buildings, headquarters of Chennai Corporation, since 7th Feb. On 8th Feb, when the officials did not assure them of taking positive action, they decided to continue their protest with over 1,800 workers sleeping along the corridors and open spaces within the complex. Attempts by police and officials to evict them having failed, the protest continued onto the 9th, when more than 2000 workers from all zones of Chennai Corporation joined them. The permanent workers and workers classified as ‘Non Muster Roll’ workers also joined them. They were demanding:
- Sanitation and health workers who were assigned to Corporation of Chennai, after amalgamation of neighbouring municipalities into Chennai Corporation in 2011 (NMR Workers), be confirmed as permanent workers;
- Families of the 19 workers who had died in the past few years be provided their insurance pay of 1.5 lakhs, which has not yet been released due to bureaucratic delays;
- The Corporation stop the further privatization of solid waste management; and
- Contract workers across all zones, who were employed under Swarna Jayanthi Scheme, be re-employed as corporation workers under National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM).
While the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioners were reluctant to act given the political vacuum in Tamil Nadu, the intensification of the protest compelled them to negotiate. Union leaders from Red Flag Union, which represents the sanitation workers, said that three Deputy Commissioners from various departments under the Corporation discussed the demands raised by the workers. They have sought three months time to fulfill all the demands and promised to take action regarding the disbursal of insurance to the kin of the deceased within 15 days. One of the chief engineers addressed the workers at their sit-in and assured them that their demands would be considered. He also insisted that workers should be grateful to the Corporation for offering them jobs and should not refuse to work. The police, who had gathered in strength and even threatened to arrest the protesters, began to appeal to them to disperse.
Having obtained the assurance that the issues will be looked into, the union leaders were willing to conclude the sit in protests. They also felt that it would be impossible for the officials to do anything more in the prevailing political scenario. But the workers remained unconvinced about the assurances. Particularly, the workers enrolled as contract workers through Swarna Jayanthi Scheme, were agitated that the officials did not mention their demands in their address to workers. “While the others have got what they wanted, we have not been even heard” said a woman contract worker.
“It was we who sat for two days and a night for our demands. We want to be re-classified as NMR workers and employed directly by the Corporation. They are trying to privatise garbage collection in all zones. We will be transferred to them. We will have no rights or permanent jobs. We have worked for 10 years here. But even after promising to regularise us last year, they have not done anything. We will not withdraw without proper assurances,” said another worker. Workers broke into small groups seeking answers from the zonal leaders.
After many rounds of discussions, including with the officials, the workers finally relented and concluded their agitation at 8:30 pm on 9th. They have decided to have a meeting of all zonal union representatives on 22nd Feb to discuss further action and options if the officials fail to deliver on their promises. This protest comes in the wake of similar strikes by sanitation workers in other cities including New Delhi.