Lata Rani, 32, is a caretaker at a Delhi government school in Jhandewalan. She joined in 2015 for a salary of Rs 7,300 a month which was raised to Rs 11,000 in March 2017. When she went to collect her pay this month, Rani was in for a shock: her salary had been cut by almost half.

“My husband and I took a loan of Rs 50,000 because this money is too little for us to survive,” she said. “With just Rs 6,000, I cannot pay for water, electricity and food. It all costs about Rs 10,000.”

Ramji Yadav, 35, a security guard at another school, also received just Rs 6,000 this month instead of the usual Rs 13,000. “Our Diwali is gone,” Yadav said. “The rent of my house alone is Rs 6,000. But we still come to work every day. We cannot afford to leave.”

Rani and Yadav are among thousands of contract workers, including security guards, caretakers, sanitation staff, who suffered steep pay cuts this month. The reason? The Delhi High Court in August set aside the state government’s March 2017 notification raising minimum wages for them. The notification fixed the gross salary at Rs 13,350 per month for unskilled workers, Rs 14,698 for semiskilled ones, and Rs 16,182 for the skilled.

The High Court’s order came on a batch of petitions filed by employer associations in sectors as varied as hospitality, medicine, publishing and real estate. They challenged not only the March 2017 notification but also a September 2016 decision of the Delhi government to reconstitute the Minimum Wage Advisory Committee. The petitioners claimed they were not adequately represented in the committee and cited media reports to accuse the state of unilaterally deciding that “minimum wages in Delhi would be the highest in the country”.

While agreeing that revisions in minimum wages were “sorely needed”, the court said the constitution of the committee was “completely flawed” and suffered from “non-application of mind”.

On October 18, though, the Delhi government decided to continue paying the earlier enhanced salaries to contract workers that it employs directly. It also said the money deducted from their October salaries will be paid by the end of the month.

There is no such relief for contract workers employed privately, said a spokesman for the All Contractual Employees Ekta Mission, which represents contract workers of the Delhi government. “Had the court decided to increase the minimum wages, even a factory worker would have benefitted,” said the spokesperson who asked not to be named.

While contract workers under the government are organised and have launched a protest despite the October 18 announcement, privately employed workers can do little.

JS Majumder, vice president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, called the High Court’s order “totally wrong”. Citing a 1992 Supreme Court judgement on minimum wages, he said, “Any industry that cannot pay the minimum wage has no right to run the industry. All workers are suffering because of this judgement [of the Delhi High Court]. There is no wage below the minimum wage. Wages can vary depending on if the worker is unskilled or skilled. The High Court’s order is a wrong interpretation of the 1992 judgement.”

Interestingly, last year, the High Court had delivered a similar ruling to the Supreme Court’s 1992 judgement: it had asked the Central Secretariat Club to pay its gardener the minimum wage prescribed by the state government.

‘We were not even informed’

The protest by contract workers under the government will continue until October 22 to press for fixed salaries and an end to the contract system. “Today, when everything is so expensive, how will a worker make do with just Rs 11,000?” the Ekta Mission spokesperson asked. “It would be better if government gave us the money directly instead of paying private companies.”

The Delhi government outsources some of its work to private agencies, which then employ workers on a contractual basis. Although they are paid by the government, through companies that engage them, these workers are not state employees.

A senior official with the Directorate of Education explained how this works. They sign an agreement with private agencies to supply sanitation staff, security guards or caretakers that stipulates the workers will be paid minimum wages. “The agencies raise their bills every month,” the official said. “We then verify if all workers have received the money. After that is done, we reimburse the agencies for the amount they have paid to the workers.”

The official said none of the contractors that work with the Delhi government were among the petitioners to the High Court. “Some private agencies went to court, but those who work with the government have not faced any issues,” he said.

After the High Court’s order, the salaries were revised down to Rs 8,858 for sanitation workers and Rs 9,800 for guards. But the workers spoke with said they did not receive even this amount in October because the contractors recovered arrears since August. They also said their contractors never informed them about the steep cuts.

Mukesh Kumar, a sanitation worker at a government school, said his agency did not tell him about the deductions despite his asking. “We were hearing something of the sort would happen but we thought it was a rumour,” Kumar, 45, said.

A security guard at another school said he found out the reason for the pay cut from fellow workers. “From my earlier salary of Rs 13,000, I would save Rs 1,500 a month for my daughters,” said Ranjit Singh, 44. He received only Rs 6,900 in October.

A manager at Krystal Integrated Services, a contractor with the Delhi government, insisted they had informed their workers about the salary reductions and claimed there was “no problem” at the agency when it came to workers and their salaries. tried contacting other contractors such as Orion Security and Solutions and Sainath Sales and Services, but they did not respond to calls or text messages asking about the pay cuts and the recovery of arrears.

‘Motivate them to continue working’

After contract workers employed by the government learned about the cuts, some continued to work while others began a protest on October 12. Principals of a few schools told their sanitation workers and security guards did not turn up to work for two to three days. “We faced a lot of trouble,” said the principal of a school in East Delhi. Most of the striking workers, however, returned after a few days. They could not afford to skip work for long, some of them told

Sensing the unrest among the workers, the Directorate of Education on October 15 issued a circular stating that all workers should be made aware of the High Court’s order and motivated to work in the “interest of school” and “welfare of students”. It also said no “anti-social element” should be let into the school lest they “misguide the deployed outsourced workers”.

“Some union types were disturbing schools,” the Directorate of Education official explained why the circular was issued. “It became a matter of security when the workers started agitating.”