Sanitation workers in Mumbai's Colaba sent home without notice or pay; 'how will we survive', ask sweepers, cleaners

Sanitation workers face risks from handling hazardous items in the garbage like syringes, glass shards, and infected or toxic materials. Balkoti's daily wage was Rs 625, the minimum wage stipulated by Maharashtra state.

Shone Satheesh April 12, 2020 18:28:22 IST
Sanitation workers in Mumbai's Colaba sent home without notice or pay; 'how will we survive', ask sweepers, cleaners

The last thing Mahesh Balkoti, a 26-year-old contract sweeper with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, expected on 1 April was to be dismissed from his job. He and 34 other contract workers deputed in A Ward, Colaba, were asked to stop coming to work for an indefinite period by the MCGM. They were not served any notice.

"The Junior Overseer of the MCGM said they'll call us after the Corona epidemic is over. We haven't even been paid for the month of March," he said.

Balkoti, who works night shifts sweeping the streets and disposing garbage, is the sole earner for a family of three — he, his mother, and wife. The other workers are also mostly sole earners, with no other source of livelihood.

"We worked every single day during the lockdown, risking our lives through the COVID-19 scare," Balkoti said. "We didn't even complain while working without masks, gloves, or hand sanitisers. And now they have kicked us out," he added.

Sanitation workers face risks from handling hazardous items in the garbage like syringes, glass shards, and infected or toxic materials. Balkoti's daily wage was Rs 625, the minimum wage stipulated by Maharashtra state.

The Assistant Commissioner of A Ward, Arun Vaidha, said that the municipality was discontinuing the services in the night shift. "The workers' contract had expired on March 31, 2020, and further extension is not being sought," he said.

Sanitation workers in Mumbais Colaba sent home without notice or pay how will we survive ask sweepers cleaners

Representational image. Shone Satheesh

While he is not aware of reasons as to why they discontinued the night shifts, the move stands in contradiction to an advisory issued by the Labour Commission of Maharashtra on 20 March. The advisory, a copy of which has been perused by Firstpost, asks public and private employers "to not terminate their employees, particularly casual or contractual workers".

It further adds: "If any worker takes leave, he should be deemed to be on duty without any consequential deduction in wages for this period. Further, if the place of employment is to be made non-operational due to COVID-19 , the employees of such unit will be deemed to be on duty".

Unlike the A Ward official, Deputy Municipal Commissioner of MCGM Ashok Khaire said that the corporation had not issued orders to suspend any work. "We have asked for all essential services to continue as usual. I'm not aware of the A-ward workers' issue. It is the ward commissioner's job to address that," he said.

The Solid Waste Management Department of the MCGM deploys a fleet of 6,500 contract workers, which is over its permanent staff of 28,000. It helps to keep the city precincts clean. The permanent staff gets higher wages, and benefits like holidays and medical coverage, even though the quantum of work is the same.

Contract workers are hired by a private contractor under a special Non Governmental Organisation to work for the MCGM.

Every six months, workers are shuffled from one contractor NGO to the other. Experts say this is done to circumvent labour laws that qualify contract workers as permanent staff if they stay employed at one place for 180 days.

A Madiga from the Scheduled Caste category, Balkoti hails from Narayanpet district in Telangana. He and most of his colleagues have no other source of income.

"My house is still running on last month's groceries. I couldn't even stock up for the lockdown," he said. Balkoti is a member of the Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh, a union working for the rights of the unorganised labourers in waste management.

The union has written to the MCGM Commissioner, Praveen Pardeshi, on the matter but hasn't received a response.

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Milind Ranade, general secretary of KVSS, said that the corporation's move amounted to contempt of a Supreme Court judgement of April 2017, which granted permanent status to 2,700 contract workers of the MCGM.

"The MCGM knows these workers are protected by the apex court. How can they oust them from work?" Ranade asked.

Presently, three other cases filed by the KVSS seeking permanency for workers are pending in the Industrial Tribunal Court, comprising 1300, 1100 and 580 workers.

The SC, in the 2017 judgment, had also awarded arrears ranging between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 4 lakh to be paid to each of the 2,700 workers, depending on their work experience. Three years on, 1,100 workers out of the 2,700 are yet to be confirmed or paid the arrears, due to a mismatch in the spelling of their names.

Sainath Narsappa Barla, 37, is among the 1,100 who are still waiting for their "permanent letter". He was one of the workers laid off on April 1 after working in the department since 2006.

"For three years they have been saying we will rectify the errors and issue the letter, but nothing has happened," Barla said. "I don't have Rs 1,500 to pay monthly school fees for my two children," he said.

Barla lives with his wife, children, and parents in a two-tier 7X8 ft kholi in Vijayanagar, Dharavi. If he had the letter, Barla said he would not be in this situation right now. "They're saying it can take 2-3 months before they call us back to work. But who knows how long COVID-19 will last? How will we survive?"

He feels like MCGM betrayed him. "We worked hard all these years, whether it was daily cleaning, or emergency clean-up like high tide garbage, oil spill, building collapse, fires, tree-fall. We do the same work as the permanent staff, but there is no security for us," Barla said.

Vishal Gulabchand Patwa, 30, lost his mother to a heart ailment on April 4. His father suffers from diabetes and cataract. His brother, an autorickshaw driver, has been out of work since the lockdown.

"They are saying there is no garbage so we don't need you. But you can come and check it out at night to see how much garbage is being collected," Patwa, who also stays in Dharavi, said.

"Have people stopped producing garbage because of the lockdown? Have the trees stopped shedding leaves? They cannot make court labourers sit at home. I have worked for 13 years with the MCGM," he added.

For Patwa, who has a B.Com degree from Khar Educational Society, the loss of the job has come as a blow. "I finished my degree by working as a sweeper at night, and studying by day. I got into this line as I was not getting a job anywhere," he said.

In 2016, he decided to stay on in the municipality after he and 1,100 workers got a favourable order for permanency from the Industrial Tribunal Court, Bandra. The case is still pending in the court.

Shamsher Ahmed Ansari (28), who also got laid off on 1 April, would take the train from Mumbra to Churchgate in South Mumbai every day for work. During the lockdown, when the trains stopped running, he spent 2.5 hours commuting one-way, via bus and walking, to reach A ward.

Last month, he welcomed a baby into the family.

"I need to pay rent, buy my mother's cancer medicines, buy food and milk for the baby. I call the contractor every day for the payment," he said. The contractor told him the money had been deposited but the bank couldn't process it as it was under-staffed. "The MCGM should pay us even if they are stopping work. How do they expect us to survive otherwise?" he said.

If this had happened during normal times, the workers said, they would have protested outside the MCGM office or Azad Maidan. "But with Section 144 imposed, four or more people cannot gather anywhere. We're helpless," said Barla.

He summed up their collective plight, "We are willing to do this work despite the risks. If we don't do that, we'll starve. I don't want my children to be thrown out of school."

Updated Date:

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