Anil Ambedkar, a sanitation worker from the outskirts of Mumbai, is part of a group of 2,700 contract workers who were made permanent employees of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation last year after a 10-year legal battle ended in 2017. Ambedkar, a serious man with deep-set eyes and a thick moustache, is a Dalit. He credits the “haq ki ladai”, the fight for their rights, as playing a key role in helping the workers win their case.
Ambedkar is part of a new trade union movement in India that is using confrontational methods and mobilisation alongside legal strategies to organise invisible and mistreated Dalit migrant workers. There are around 35,000 sanitation workers in Mumbai. Of these, some 28,000 are permanent employees and 7,000 are hired on contract.
Permanent sanitation workers have their basic working conditions protected by law. They are provided with uniforms, payment slips, medical insurance, and paid leave. Contract workers have none of these benefits. As migrants, they do not have ration cards or permanent housing either. Most of them live in unauthorised shanties that are frequently demolished, which forces them to periodically search for a new spot to build their homes again.
It is not uncommon for the work of permanent employees to also be subdivided among contract workers. After years of persistent ground-level organising, the movement has come closer to the abolition of the system of subcontracting, which has made sanitation work one of the most dangerous, precarious, and dehumanising jobs in India today.
How it all began
The organising of Mumbai’s sanitation workers began in 1996 and the Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh or Garbage Transport Workers Union was formed in 1997.
Milind Ranade, a leftist organiser, spent 10 months in 1996 riding in garbage trucks and trying to convince the employees that if they formed a union, they could win better working conditions and better pay.
One way the union won the confidence of workers was by involving them in a hunger strike for water in 1997. The dumping ground in the Mumbai suburb of Deonar had separate entrances for permanent and contract workers. The entrance for contract workers had no water for drinking or washing, while that for the permanent workers did. The contract workers had to pay up to Rs 10 to vendors for approximately 4 litres of water. The Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh announced a hunger strike. The media picked up on the strike and publicised it. After 24 hours, the contract workers won the right to water at the dumping ground. “Workers got the confidence that yes, we can win something,” said Ranade. “And that water was a platform on which we built.”
At that time, the system of subcontracting was rampant. While the municipal corporation used to employ sanitation workers directly as permanent employees, during the 1990s it began to reduce costs by subcontracting out sanitation work to private contractors.
For instance, each was given a contract to supply 20 to 30 garbage trucks that would make three trips a day. They were paid Rs 1,200 per truck for a trip that began in South Mumbai, collected garbage from different parts of the city, and deposited it in the dumping ground, before returning. The contractor would keep Rs 600 and give Rs 600 to a truck owner for the trip. The truck owner would keep Rs 250 for himself, pay Rs 200 for diesel, Rs 20 for a municipal corporation supervisor known as a mukadam, and then give Rs 40 to the driver and Rs 30 each to three workers.
For 20 trucks, the contractors were making Rs 36,000 a day and each truck owner was making about Rs 750 a day for doing nothing, while the workers earned only Rs 90 a day for 12-hour shifts. The contractors had to pay up to half of their profits to municipal corporation officers in bribes, thus creating a tight circle of exploitation and extraction of profits at the expense of workers.
The strategy of the union was to bombard the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation with batches of legal cases. The first case was filed in 1997 for 2,000 contract workers. The Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh pointed to the illegalities implicit in the contract system.
By law, the corporation cannot contract out work that is statutory and perennial such as “lifting garbage,” so it redefined the work as “lifting debris”. Then, in order to give out contract work, the municipal corporation was required to register as a principal employer under the 1970 Contract Labour Act. If a worker was injured or died in the course of their work, the principal employer was responsible for compensation. But the municipal corporation did not register as a principal employer. The union went to the courts and made its arguments, backed up with evidence such as photographs. In 2003, the Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh won a settlement, which included permanent status for 1,200 workers.
The Hyderabad pattern
In response to that legal victory, the municipal corporation reorganised sanitation work to embrace a new contract system. This system was known as the Hyderabad pattern after which it orginated. It has dominated employment relations in India for the past 15 years. This pattern consists in evading existing labour laws. The Contract Labour Act applies to businesses that employ more than 20 workers, so contracts are issued for only 18 workers.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation began to outsource sanitation work to over 200 small contractors employing fewer than 20 workers each. Under the Hyderabad pattern, the workers are not referred to as workers, but as volunteers. The contractor is referred to as a non-governmental organisation. A salary is called an honorarium. Contracts cannot exceed eight months, because according to the 1947 Industrial Disputes Act, those who have worked for an employer for more than 240 days are entitled to claim permanency. In court, the municipal corporation used this nomenclature to claim that since workers are volunteers, the labour laws should not apply to them.
Ranade sees the Hyderabad pattern as a modern replay of the traditional Hindu law of Manusmriti, which excluded Dalits from social life. “The Dalits who were kept outside the boundary of the village are now kept outside the purview of the Act,” he said.
The case that was won in 2017 had been filed in the Industrial Tribunal in 2007. This time, the union’s case consisted in exposing the Hyderabad pattern by demonstrating that the workers were not volunteers and the contractors were not non-governmental organisations. As evidence, they used photographs, videos, and testimonies of workers. In 2014, all 2,700 workers were given permanency by the Industrial Tribunal.
After passing through appeals in the Bombay High Court, the case reached the Supreme Court, which, on April 7, 2017, granted the workers permanent status and two years’ payment as arrears. But even after this, the municipal corporation refused to absorb 2,400 of the workers as permanent employees, citing differences in the spelling of their names between electoral rolls, Aadhaar cards, as well as bank passbooks, and so on. It was only in December, after sustained pressure from the union, that the corporation finally verified and absorbed 1,600 of the rejected workers into its rolls, with 800 remaining.
All of the contract workers employed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation are Dalits, who are migrants.
Rane Rajudevendra is a sanitation worker from Tamil Nadu who has been living in Mumbai for 40 years. She has a sombre expression and greying, wiry hair along her temples. When I met her in December, she wore a pink-and-green cotton sari and had bright gold ornaments on her nose and on her left ear.
Rajudevendra moves from contract to contract. Before she leaves for work every day, she must complete her household chores of cooking and cleaning. She is struggling with her children, who do not want to study. Her son-in-law has a drinking problem. Due to her association with garbage work, she will not be able to look for a job as a domestic worker.
“We are not educated,” she said. “We have language issues. This is why we are dependent on this work. Many people say that you have to work in garbage. You can’t do good, clean work.”
Several sanitation workers like her are forced to leave their homes in rural areas in search of work because of drought conditions, which are becoming worse each year. The two main areas they come from are Marathwada in Maharashtra, and Salem and Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. They are often landless, or unable to make a living from the small plots of land they own.
Namdev Dnyovar Gote is a migrant worker from the drought-prone district of Parvani in Marathwada. His family owns three acres of land in Wangri village, but he cannot live on it because there is no water.
His co-worker Sanjay Pandharina Gote is landless. “I do not even own land,” he said. “I cannot produce anything. [That is why] I have to come to Mumbai for work.”
The wages for contract workers are barely enough to survive on, and many of them are malnourished. They collect garbage with their bare hands, without hand gloves, facemasks, shoes, or a uniform. There are no facilities at the work stations for employees to wash their bodies. “On the trains and buses, our clothes stink,” said Namdev Dnyovar Gote. “People try to move away from us, saying, where is this bad smell coming from?”
Another worker, Ravi Kannan Udayar, said they often have to try to catch the garbage trucks for their daily commute because no other transport will take them. Since they are not allowed into restaurants because of their smell, the workers have to eat their lunch on top of the garbage truck.
The workers suffer from various illnesses because of the poor working conditions and often die at a young age. Tuberculosis and other lung diseases are common due to the kinds of gases they are exposed to and the conditions they work in. There are frequent accidents. Sanjay Pandharina Gote lost his thumb in the hydraulic cylinder of a garbage truck. One of the biggest concerns of the union was that given the length of legal proceedings, workers would not live to see the victory. Between the Supreme Court victory of April 2017 and December 2018, at least 28 workers have died.
When I first met Ranade, in January, 2018, the union was busy organising agitations at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and other key locations to press the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation into honouring the Supreme Court’s decision. Ranade was under no illusions that the legal victory would translate into actual changes on the ground for workers without the union continuing to exert pressure. He points to the union’s approach of sustained and ongoing agitation as the reason for their success.
The tactic of body processions
When they first began organising in 1996, the Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh faced a hostile political climate with the Bharatiya Janata Party coming into power at the Centre amid a broader anti-Dalit, anti-migrant sentiment. So in the early days, the organisers presented their activism as humanitarian work rather than rights or union work. They said that they were working for the welfare of workers. But over time, as the movement grew, they began pursuing more radical and confrontational tactics.
One of the signature tactics of the group is known as “body processions”. The union first employed this tactic in 1998, and has used it ever since. At that time, after a worker had met with an accident and died on the job, the union took the body to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation headquarters in South Mumbai, along with the relatives and co-workers of the victim. The police tried to prevent them from doing this. The worker had died in hospital, and when co-workers initially tried to retrieve the body, the police placed the body in an ambulance and guarded the back door of the vehicle.
The union managed to take the body out through the ambulance window and marched with it to the municipal corporation headquarters, facing police barricades and a string of police officers including the deputy commissioner of police along the way. When they reached the municipal corporation headquarters, news reporters and photographers appeared, and the union was able to publicise the point that no one was taking responsibility for their colleague’s death.
“In Indian society, if you are alive and if you are starving, nobody is bothered,” said Ranade. “But if you are dead, then everyone is scared because the emotional tempers can go high and anything can happen.” The union strategically tapped into this institutional fear of scandal associated with dead bodies.
Since the municipal corporation was not willing to register itself as a principal employer, it would not claim responsibility for any accidents or deaths on the job or pay compensation to the victim’s family. The contractor and subcontractor would also claim that the victim was not their worker. By bringing the body of their deceased colleague to the municipal corporation headquarters, the union drew attention to this evasion of responsibility at all levels.
Direct action and the law
The union mobilised a large base of workers, and they combined direct actions and demonstrations with legal work. “We went to the court, we kept up our agitations,” said Ranade. “So it was a double attack. In the field, [there were] tremendous agitations, demonstrations. For each and every thing.”
They used their knowledge of the contract labour laws to make demands on local officials. When workers were paid less than minimum wage, they would barge into the local ward office, singing songs and chanting slogans and demanding to be paid the amount guaranteed by law.
The union trained the workers in how to deal with the police. They said that if the contractors threatened to call the police, this was a good thing because the police could make a written statement that they were being paid less than minimum wage, and that would be evidence that could be used in court. When the workers were arrested, they demanded water, tea, and meals, chanting, “Police, give us dinner, give us dinner.” The police would release the workers because it was such a headache for them. So while the contractors and municipal corporation tried to use the police to control the workers, the workers turned this tactic against them.
Undergirding the agitations, demonstrations, and legal work is a slow and steady long-term strategy of ground-level organisation. There are regular, large meetings of workers in the Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh union headquarters in Lokamanya Tilak Colony, in Mumbai’s Dadar East area. At these gatherings, men and women workers sit cross-legged on the floor, line the walls, and spill out into the hallway. On the back wall is a series of portraits of Nehru, Lenin, Marx, Mao, and Stalin – icons common in the communist movement in India.
Despite the intense nature of their work schedule and domestic responsibilities, workers make every effort to attend meetings. “Whenever there are meetings, I always participate,” said Rajudevendra. “Even if I don’t cook food that day, I make sure to attend the meeting.”
Organising sanitation workers has not been easy, given their limited power in labour markets and vulnerability as Dalits and migrants in the face of the combined force of the municipal corporation, private contractors and political representatives. The Constitution gives workers the right to organise themselves, but it does not protect them from being fired for exercising their rights. Ambedkar said that when he began organising, the municipal corporation tried to find fault with his work so that they could have a reason to fire him. Another challenge is the different languages spoken by workers, including Tamil and Marathi. Organisers like Ranade, who is Maharashtrian, had to learn some Tamil in order to communicate with the workers from Tamil Nadu.
But the latest victory has demonstrated how even the most powerful actors can be called to account. The municipal corporation has been ordered to pay arrears of Rs 5 lakh to each of the workers, plus pension and salary. “Now they have become very careful when dealing with us,” said Ranade. “They never thought that such an unknown entity, without the backing of politicians, without affiliations to any political party, would succeed.”
The union survives mostly on small donations and volunteer labour. The organisations that sometimes fund advocacy work in India would see the Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh’s tactics – processions with dead bodies, barging into offices – as too radical to fund. The focus on rights rather than charity means that they are unlikely to find grants, but it has also allowed them to define their own independent path, which is driven by workers themselves rather than grant bodies.
Every day, Ranade receives so many “Good morning” and “Good evening” messages from workers on WhatsApp, often with images of suns, flowers, and birds, that he is no longer able to use the messaging service. Although these WhatsApp greetings have become a national obsession in India, they also indicate the affection that many of the workers hold for the leader dedicated to their struggle.
In his 50s, Ranade is a jovial and articulate leader with a graying mustache and hair. In his office at the union headquarters in December, he answered one phone call after another. He put one call on speaker and meanwhile another call beeped through. While he answered the calls, numerous people entered the office with paperwork for him to sign. As he spoke to workers, to callers, and to me, he switched easily between Marathi, Hindi, and English.
Before becoming involved with the cause of sanitation workers, Ranade was a textile engineer working in Mumbai. He left his job in 1991 and started working with the Communist Party of India, to which he still belongs. One day he saw sanitation workers eating their lunch on top of a garbage truck and discovered that because they were contract workers they were not given access to a lunch room. At this time, there were no unions for contract workers in Mumbai.
When Ranade began his volunteer work with the Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh in 2016 he was supported financially by his wife, who is a college lecturer. Although the union is not affiliated with any political party, Ranade credits his experience in the communist movement with teaching him how to fight and how to sustain a long, drawn-out struggle.
Under the Narendra Modi government, contract workers across India face a number of challenges. Like the earlier BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who appointed major industrialists to reform the pro-worker aspects of labour laws, Modi has also attacked these laws. In 2014, the BJP state government in Rajasthan initiated several changes in labour laws, including amending the Contract Labour Act to apply to businesses that employ over 50 workers, rather than 20 and increasing the number of employees who could be laid off without government permission under the Industrial Disputes Act from 100 to 300.
But activist organisations are also emerging across the country to organise sanitation and sewer workers, and those who engage in manual scavenging. These workers are overwhelmingly contract workers, migrants, and from lower castes. On July 12, 2017, 2,000 sanitation workers in Bengaluru went on strike to protest wage theft and lack of toilets and safety gear. In response, the municipal corporation promised to make the workers permanent.
Ambedkar says that when he did contract work he had to deal with up to seven contractors, who would hire fewer workers and keep the extra money for themselves. When workers’ wages were withheld, the contractors would tell them that the municipal corporation had not paid them. These days Ambedkar does not have to deal with contractors as he works directly for the municipal corporation. “The government says we have many laws,” he said. “But every law is only on paper. Nothing reaches us. Unless we fight for our rights, they won’t give us our rights.”
Sujatha Fernandes is a professor of political economy and sociology at the University of Sydney in Australia and the City University of New York. She is the author of several books, including Cuba Represent!, Who Can Stop The Drums?, and Close to the Edge. Her latest book is Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling.
This article is a co-publication of Scroll.in and TheNation.com.