After 10 years of litigation to demand permanent jobs, a Supreme Court order on April 7 signalled a triumph for 2,700 sanitation workers in Mumbai. The workers, who were forced to work on short-term contracts for the past 10 to 20 years, are now not only entitled to permanent jobs with the Mumbai municipal corporation, but will also receive two years payment as arrears.
Getting permanent employee status with the civic authority means that the workers will now also be able to claim the right to take weekly offs, medical leave and other leave without a salary cut.
Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh, a union of sanitation workers in Maharashtra, had first filed a case in the industrial tribunal of Mumbai, in 2007, on behalf of the 2,700 workers. The tribunal took seven years to rule in favour of the workers, granting permanent employment to the sanitation workers in October 2014. The Mumbai municipal corporation, however, immediately challenged the tribunal order in the Bombay High Court, which also ruled in favour of the contract workers in December 2016.
The corporation appealed once more, but on Friday, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition.
“This is a double victory – not just for these 2,700 workers but for contract workers in general,” said Milind Ranade, general secretary of the Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh. “At a time when the country’s labour laws are under threat and when employers have the right to sack contract workers for joining a union, this judgement will boost the morale of those working under contracts.”
An exploitative system
Mumbai’s civic body employs more than 35,000 sanitation workers who sweep streets, clean sewers, collect garbage and transport it to dumping grounds. The majority of these workers, however, are not permanent employees of the corporation. They are hired through a complex network of contractors and sub-contractors, many of whom claim to be non-profit entities.
According to the union, it is routine for contractors to deny labourers timely wages, protective masks and gloves, paid leave and medical expenses for injuries sustained at work. The poor work conditions take a severe toll on the health and life expectancy of workers. In 2015, a study by the Mumbai civic body found that 1,386 sanitation workers had died in just six years.
To keep workers tied to this exploitative contract system, contractors employ a range of devious manipulations of the law.
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, because by law, contract work cannot be perennial in nature. To skirt this law, contractors often hire workers on short contracts of 210 days, after which they are made to sign new contracts.
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. But the Mumbai civic corporation has been outsourcing its sanitation work to more than 200 different small contractors, who hire less than 20 people in order to be exempt from the Contract Labour Act.
Unions like the Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh have been hesitant to demand a complete abolishment of the contract system out of fear that thousands of workers could lose their jobs. Instead, the union has been approaching the labour court with a series of petitions, seeking permanent jobs for different batches of workers.
A long litigation
The Mumbai industrial tribunal, however, has noted the illegalities in the contract system with respect to sanitation work. In its 2014 judgement, while granting permanent jobs to the 2,700 workers, the tribunal noted that sanitation work in a city is squarely the responsibility of the municipal corporation, and cannot be outsourced through contractors. It further noted: “This tribunal has turned down the entire contract system by holding it as sham and bogus.”
When the municipal corporation appealed this order, the High Court not only upheld the tribunal’s judgement but also pointed out that the appeal reflected the lengths to which the corporation had gone to “deprive the benefits of permanency” to the sanitation workers.
The corporation took the case further nonetheless, only to be ordered by the Supreme Court to grant permanent employment to the 2,700 contract workers. The apex court also ordered the corporation to provide employment to relatives of sanitation workers who died during the pendency of the long litigation.
Finally, the corporation has been ordered to pay the workers the additional wages they would have received had they been granted permanent jobs after the tribunal’s judgement in 2014. “This amounts to around Rs 2.5 lakh per worker for the past two years,” said Ranade.
‘I will be able to take holidays now’
For sanitation worker Kailash Kale, who has been collecting garbage from suburban housing societies since 2004, a permanent job would mean being able to finally send his three children to English-medium schools.
“When I started work under a contractor in 2004, I got paid just Rs 60 a day, which rose to Rs 550 in recent years,” said Kale, who currently manages to make Rs 14,000 a month by working six days a week. The concept of paid leave was non-existent for Kale’s contractors, and he did not even get paid for the one-day leave he was granted every week. “Now as a permanent employee, I should get paid at least Rs 25,000 a month, and I will also be able to take holidays without worrying about losing pay.”
Ranade, meanwhile, has more hope for 2,980 other sanitation workers whose petitions for permanent jobs are still pending in the industrial tribunal, in three separate cases. “The Supreme Court judgement should make it easier for us to get favourable orders in the remaining cases,” he said.