In a nationwide strike announced in September 2019, ten national trade unions observed a “Bharat bandh” on Wednesday, to protest against government policies on labour. Across the country, workers from organised and unorganised sectors held marches and rallies to demand better wages, social security, better working conditions, and more worker-friendly labour regulations.

In several parts of the country, the labour strike led to suspended transport services, closed shops and vandalism of public property in some places.

In Mumbai, workers’ unions held protests in several different parts of the city, although the rallies did not affect transport or traffic. spoke to striking workers from multiple different sectors to better understand their problems and demands. This is what they said:

Bank contract workers: Same work, less pay

Prashant Chaudhary has been doing data entry work at a private bank in Mumbai for more than a decade, and earns Rs 22,000 a month. At the same bank, says Chaudhary, another data entry worker with almost the same experience earns Rs 1 lakh. “The only difference is that he is a permanent employee of the bank and I am a contract worker,” said Chaudhary, a member of bank contract workers’ union that had joined the trade unions’ protest at Azad Maidan on Wednesday.

According to the workers, banks across India get a large portion of their work done by contractual workers who get paid significantly less than staff members on their official payrolls, with fewer benefits. Housekeeping staff, administrative assistants and data entry clerks are often employed contractually.

(From left) Prashant Chaudhary and Rahul Raut with their union leader at Azad Maidan. Photos: Aarefa Johari

“Permanent staff get Rs 10,000 a month as pension after retirement, while we get just Rs 3,000. Staff get at least 50 days of leave a year, we are allowed just 24,” said Rahul Raut, another data entry contract worker at a Mumbai bank. “Staff members can get loans with lower interest rates from the banks they work in, while we are not allowed to take those loans.”

Raut and Chaudhary’s union is now demanding regularisation of wage scales and benefits for bank contract workers and permanent staff. “For years we have been demanding that contract workers should be made permanent, but that has not been met,” said Chaudhary. “But we want them to at least give all contract workers a minimum wage of Rs 25,000 a month at the entry level.”

ASHA workers: ‘Workload increased under Modi government’

In September 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 60% increase in the honorariums paid to lakhs of India’s frontline health workers – the women serving as anganwadi workers, auxiliary nurse midwives and accredited social health activists (popularly known as ASHA workers). At Mumbai’s Azad Maidan, however, a group of protesting ASHA workers claimed that Modi’s grand promise has not yet been fulfilled in their district.

“Our workload has increased under the Modi government but our remuneration has not increased,” said a group of ASHA workers from the Asha Swayam Sevika union in Alibaug, in Maharashtra’s Raigad district. The women spoke as a collective and did not wish to share their individual names.

Despite being trained in primary healthcare for women, ASHA workers are considered “volunteer” workers instead of government employees, and are paid for specific tasks instead of a fixed monthly wage. Taking pregnant women to the hospital for deliveries, for instance, fetches Rs 600 per delivery. As a result, ASHA workers often earn less than Rs 6,000 a month despite working long hours, seven days a week.

“In September 2019 the state government issued a resolution to pay us Rs 2,000 a month as a salary in addition to payment for separate tasks, but that that too has not yet been implemented,” said women from the Alibaug union.

ASHA and anganwadi workers at a protest in Mumbai's Azad Maidan on January 8.

The ASHA workers also claimed they are forced to assist in the implementation on a variety of government schemes at the village level, even if they are not related to health, including election duty. “The government keeps telling us to do social service. But if we have to do all this work, we want to be officially given the status of government employees, and we want all the benefits of employees,” said the Alibaug women. “We want insurance, pensions, leaves and a minimum wage of Rs 18,000 a month.”

Anganwadi workers: ‘Pay never given on time’

Like ASHA workers, anganwadi workers and helpers are also considered “volunteers” who are paid “honorariums” instead of wages. Their demands, therefore, are similar: a significant increase in remuneration, timely payments and being granted the status of a government employee.

After Modi’s 2018 announcement, anganwadi workers’ pay in Maharashtra was increased from Rs 7,000 a month to Rs 8,500 a month. “But that is still not enough for the amount of work we do, the pay is never given on time anyway,” said Rajashri Shinde, an anganwadi worker from a slum in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar suburb and a member of the Maharashtra Rajya Anganwadi Karamchari Sangh. Sometimes, said Shinde, workers have to go months without receiving their salaries.

Rajashri Shinde (left) with other anganwadi workers in Mumbai.

Anganwadis are as creches for children from economically vulnerable families. Anganwadi workers perform a variety of tasks, including providing pre-primary education for children, maintaining their health records, and providing nutritious food packets to infants, pregnant women and lactating mothers. Even though anganwadis are the primary centres for implementing the union government’s Integrated Child Development Scheme, the government does not designate or provide space for setting up anganwadis.

“The government leaves the task of finding a place to us, and gives us only Rs 750 per month as rent for each anganwadi,” said Priya Malkar, another anganwadi worker from Ghatkopar. Workers are often forced to run anganwadis from the corners of community centres or from the cramped homes of slum residents. “This is also one of the main problems we want the government to fix.”

Domestic workers: ‘We need security for our old age’

On Wednesday afternoon, women from several domestic workers’ unions protested at a public garden in Mumbai’s Dadar area. Unlike bank workers, anganwadi or ASHA workers, domestic workers are from the unorganised sector, employed without any contracts by individual households. Through their unions, they attempt to set uniform wages for different kinds of domestic work, and demand periodic increase in pay.

“But in many housing societies now, our employers have their own building Whatsapp groups in which they collectively decide not to increase our wages, and often they fire maids who insist on more salary,” said Usha Sawant, a domestic worker from the Gharkamgar Molkarni Sangathana in suburban Mumbai. “Many employers have also stopped giving us bonuses in recent times, which makes it very difficult to survive in these times of inflation.”

Usha Sawant (centre) with other domestic workers outside a protest rally in Dadar, Mumbai.

The domestic workers’ union had two clear demands: official recognition as unorganised workers, and pensions. “We work for 30 or 40 years in people’s homes but how long can we continue? We need some security for our old age which other workers get,” said Sawant.

None of these demands are new. In 2008, the central government passed the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act to provide insurance, health benefits and pensions to unorganised workers, including domestic workers. However, the first step of this process – registration of domestic workers – has itself been very poorly implemented in the past decade. For the past four years, the union labour ministry has also not finished drafting a national policy on domestic workers which would make more than 40 lakh domestic workers across India eligible for minimum wages and social security.