Sewage Cleaning Workers protest in front of Chennai Metro Water Office

Workers from Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewage Board protested  in front of the headquarters in Chintathirpet on October 4th. The protest followed the death of sewage cleaning worker and an engineer in Perambur on September 25th. The use of manual worker in sewage cleaning has continued in Tamil Nadu in spite of a Chennai High Court Order banning the same in 2008. The hazardous working conditions of this work has taken the lives of several sewage workers in the past. In a data that has been collected by citizen groups, 15 deaths have been documented due to manual sewage cleaning between February 2011 and August 2012 over a period of 18 months. This does not include workers ‘ death due to health impacts of the occupation itself i

Worse, the sewage cleaning workers are employed as contract workers with no benefits. The workers claim they get paid Rs 130 per day for their work. They work from 9AM to 12 PM but are not paid overtime charges. They do not have ESI or PF. Workers who have been working for more than 10 years have still not been regularized. They are put under various contractors to make it seem like contract work. The workers say the contractors keep changing but their work remains the same. They also claim that the Metro Water Union pays the contractor Rs250 per day but the workers get paid only Rs 130. ‘We are asked to sign a voucher which is kept by them so there is no proof that we work here. In case of accidents such as what happened to Sankar, we get nothing’ said one worker. Regularization of work and a wage of Rs10000 per month are some of the core demands of the protesting workers.

Mr. Krishnamoorthy, Vice President of the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewage Board Workers Union affiliated to CITU said that in addition to these core demands, they were asking for regular holidays, leave and bonus. He also stated that as the workers are treated as contract workers, the Metro Water department does not take any responsibility in terms of compensation when the these workers die. However this is illegal as they are the primary employers and hence are liable under the Act to pay compensation under the Workmen Compensation Act. He said that the union is demanding Rs 10 lakh compensation each for the worker and the engineer who died on September 25th. They are also demanding work for the kin when workers die in accidents.

The workers said that with Chennai expanding from 10 to 20+ zones, the number of depots in Chennai has increased from 159 to more than 200 depots, but the number of workers have reduced almost half. Due to the hard nature of the work, the workers leave before their term is over. The vacancies due to retirement, voluntary terminations are not being filled claim the workers. Due to this the work load has increased. Said one worker, “ I sign at 9AM and can get back only in the midnight”. Sankar, the sewage cleaning worker and Venkatramanan, the engineer were clearing the sewage at midnight when the gas fumes killed them.

The workers said that the sewage system with its 6 to 9 inch pipes were built for older Chennai. With the increased population, the workers say the sewage has increased very heavily and hence the gas buildup is also much higher, increasing the risk to their life and health. Due to heavy criticism of using manual work in sewage, machines have been introduced recently, but the workers say that these machines clean the surface only and if the blockage is deeper, then they have to get inside invariably. Nowadays these workers are termed as field workers to disguise the nature of work.

Mr. Palani, a sewage cleaning worker and secretary of the Union stated that the ‘Metro Water Office claims that training is provided to sewage cleaning workers. However only permanent workers are given training. Contract workers are never given training.’ Mr. Krishnamoorthy stated that earlier the workers were employed after passing a test where they need to be submerged for upto 40 seconds. This practice has been discontinued after the protests by the union. Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewage Board employs contract workers in water supply. These workers are also fighting for regularization under the union.

i Letter dated August 21, 2012 to Managing Director. Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board from Member of Committee with regard to issues involving Sewerage lines and Septic tanks constituted by Madras High Court

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