It is no secret that labour laws in India are routinely violated. But if labourers with permanent jobs have a hard time ensuring their rights, those working as contract labour are at a double disadvantage.

For the thousands of conservancy or sanitation workers in India who are illegally employed by government bodies through private contractors, the fight for basic rights is an endless cycle of filing cases in industrial courts. For every fresh batch of contract workers joining the field and enrolling in a union, a fresh case must be filed to demand permanent jobs, minimum wages, medical expenses or even protective gear.

Last month, when the industrial tribunal of Mumbai ordered the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to give permanent jobs to 2,700 conservancy workers, it was a major victory for those labourers.

The BMC currently has 28,000 conservancy workers with permanent jobs who sweep streets, clean sewers, collect garbage and transport it to dumping grounds. Labourers employed by contractors do the same work for the city, but, unlike the BMC employees, they are not provided protective masks, gloves or boots, are not entitled to paid leave or medical expenses if injured at work. They are not paid on time. And frequently, they do not even get minimum wages.

There are at least 5,000 such contract workers in Mumbai city. The November 13 judgement of the Mumbai tribunal has served justice to 2,700 of them, who will now get better wages, arrears, leaves and other rights. But what happens to the many thousands such workers in other Indian cities and towns?

Caught in loopholes

The Industrial Disputes Act of 1947 allows all contract workers the right to demand a permanent position if they have worked continuously in a particular job for 240 days. Meanwhile, the Contract Labour Act of 1970, which specifically provides labour rights to contract workers, is applicable only to establishments that employ more than 20 workmen.

These provisions provide the authorities convenient loopholes to skirt the law and in Mumbai, activists say, contractors and the municipal corporation go to great lengths to do so.

“Workers are often given contracts for just seven months – 210 days – after which they are made to sign new contracts under a different company name, while the work remains the same,” said Milind Ranade, general secretary of Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh, the union that was fighting the case of the 2,700 workers for the past seven years. “This is done just to ensure that workers do not complete 240 days of service.”

The municipal corporation, meanwhile, has its own ways of steering clear of the Contract Labour Act.

“The BMC routinely outsources its sanitation work to some 200 different small contractors hiring less than 20 people, so that it is exempt from the provisions of the Act,” said Ranade.

An official from the BMC’s solid waste management department, who did not wish to be named, claimed that contractual work is awarded to around 100 different establishments. “We give them temporary work as and when there is a need for it,” the spokesperson said.

Most sanitation workers in the KVSS union, however, say they have been working continuously for 5-15 years on a contract basis. Many of them suffer injuries or illnesses from working without masks, gloves or boots, but have to bear the treatment cost themselves, while taking pay cuts for the days they miss work.

Fatalities, too, are common. In May, for instance, three contract labourers in Mumbai died after inhaling poisonous gases while cleaning a sewer.

Long road to justice

Because of the way in which the loopholes in the law are manipulated, unions are forced to fight multiple cases in industrial tribunals.

“The state’s labour commission allows our union to approach the industrial tribunal only with specific cases about specific workers,” said Ranade. “We cannot file a general case asking for all contract workers to be given permanent jobs.”

In Mumbai, KVSS has two pending cases, one for 1,300 workers and the other for 580 workers. In Thane, there is a pending case for 880 workers. In Nashik, a case for 400 workers has been pending for the past 15 years. Even if all these cases end in favour of the labourers, the union would have to file new cases for new contract workers in the future.

“The situation is very similar in other cities,” said Gautam Mody, secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative, a national body of labour unions in India. In Navi Mumbai, he says, nearly all sanitation workers are hired on contract. In Uttar Pradesh, government agencies enter into contracts with individual sanitary workers.

“Thousands of workers across the country are fighting cases in bunches based on when they feel secure about joining a union,” said Mody.

Elephant in the room

The key point about contract-based sanitation work is that it is – categorically – illegal.

According to the Contract Labour Act, government agencies are prohibited from employing contract labour for work that is “perennial” in nature. Sanitation, by definition, falls in this category, and the authorities are the first to admit it.

“It is a fact that the law is being violated and contract labour is being employed for sanitation work, which is perennial in nature,” said Arvind Kumar, principal secretary in Maharashtra government’s labour department.

There seems to be no sincere effort on the part of the labour commission, however, to do anything about the violations. Reporting defaulters is a part of the commission’s role, but Kumar claims that abolishing the illegal contract system is a long procedure that has been taken up with an advisory committee of the state government in the past few years.

Kumar also claims it is the responsibility of the “principal employer” – the municipal corporation, in Mumbai’s case – to ensure that contract workers are not employed. “We don’t have any mechanism to force the BMC. The labour commission cannot be everywhere,” said Kumar. “The BMC is headed by a senior officer, so it should do its own job.”

Before last month’s judgement in the case of the 2,700 conservancy workers, the BMC had a colourful cover-up for its actions. It claimed that the contractors it hired for sanitation work were not private companies but “societies” or “trusts” registered under the Societies Registration Act.

“These 2,700 workers are not ‘labourers’ but ‘members’ of these societies,” said the official from the BMC’s solid waste management department. “We pay a lump sum to these societies for the entire work, but, according to us, only labourers are entitled to masks, gloves, boots or other privileges,” he said.

Unions and activists find this preposterous. “Many of the contractors employed by the civic body are big companies,” said Sharit Bhowmik, a national fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research and a labour rights activist based in Mumbai.

According to Ranade, 800 of the 2,700 contract workers were employed at Ramky Enviro Ltd, a Hyderabad-based firm that describes itself as “Asia’s leading provider of comprehensive environment management services”. While a spokesperson at Ramky confirmed that it had employed the 800 workers on a contract for the BMC, the company did not answer an email from about the nature of the contract.

Good news and bad news

Fortunately, by the BMC official’s own admission, the industrial tribunal did not accept its arguments while ordering permanent jobs to the 2,700 workers. In its judgement, of which has a copy, the tribunal came down heavily on the contract system:
“The nature of duties which are discharged by the concerned workmen are certainly permanent and perennial. It cannot be said that this work is temporary in of a city is everlasting work.... this Tribunal has turned down the entire contract system by holding it as sham and bogus system...”

But the court stopped short of penalising the civic body or the contractors for violating the law. One group of sanitation workers have won their battle, but many other groups remain in line.

Labour unions can, technically, approach higher courts for justice, but they are hesitant. “If we file a case asking for the abolishment of the contract system itself, thousands of workers could lose their livelihoods,” said Ranade.