New Delhi: The “regular karo” (regularise us) slogan resonated in the air on Tuesday in the corridors of an university established by the SAARC nations in New Delhi, suggesting that the spectre of contractualisation that haunts a large section of the workforce in India, has not even spared an institution of international significance.
The multi-skilled staff of the South Asian University (SAU) has accused its administration of ignoring their responsibilities towards the employees who perform varied tasks in the administrative, finance, and admission departments among others in the institution.
The SAU, started in 2010 by the eight South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations to enhance learning in the South Asian community, has around hundred staff members on its payroll that includes both teaching and non-teaching faculty. To assist the teaching staff in their office work, 36 multi-skilled employees work in the university.
Employed on contractual basis through a third-party labour supplier, these employees say that their woes were compounded since December last year after the substitution of their contracting agency.
According to them, their monthly salaries were axed by up to 30 to 60%, while four of the contractual employees were denied reinstatement because they allegedly refused to “pay a bribe” to the new labour supplier.
Done with knocking on doors of the concerned university authorities multiple times, the whole of contractual staff, including some who say that they have served there for nearly ten years, have resorted to striking since Monday this week until their demands are met.
The employees allege that they have been raising the issues with the university administration since past two months, but to no avail.
A employee on strike, who wished to remain anonymous fearing action against them, told NewsClick, “Since December, I am receiving only about half of my previous monthly salary. The new contractor has slashed our payments, saying that it won’t be restored until the university administration raises any objections.”
The university administration, on the other hand, has been “delaying the matter” by “not taking any appropriate action,” alleged this employee who claimed to have been employed in SAU since 2013. “We demand that those employees who are working in the university for more than five years should be regularised now,” the employee said.
In the mid-November last year, the staff was informed that their private contractor has been substituted and that registrations have to be made with the new one namely, “Balaji Security Services”, said another employee on work strike. “That registration process involved each of us paying a bribe of Rs 10,000 to the new contractor. Most of us paid the amount under pressure, but others could not. Those who did not pay were subsequently not reinstated, while those who got back their jobs witnessed salary cuts,” the employee averred.
Moreover, this employee further alleged that no joining letter, identification card, or even salary slips have been provided to the employees by the new labour supplier as opposed to the hitherto followed tradition in the university; this only adds to their fear “of being cheated.”
One of the employees who claimed not having received their salary payment for the past two months, said, “Even though I have not received a single penny, I continue to perform my duties hoping that one day my grievances would be heard. If I lose this job at this age, it will also be difficult for me to find another one.”
On Monday, when the staff abstained from their duties and staged a dharna outside the office of SAU’s acting President, they were told that a “committee” was formed to “look into the matter.” But one of the above quoted employees lamented on Tuesday saying, “The committee does not have any representation from the striking employees. We don’t know what they are going to discuss. We don’t even know when they are supposed to submit a report.”
The aggrieved employees also told NewsClick that after raising their issues “verbally” in the meetings with concerned authorities, the multi-skilled staff first wrote a joint letter carrying signatures of those employees whose salaries were cut and sent it to the “university administration” on January 1.
Subsequently, an email dated January 11 “to know the status” of the issues raised earlier was sent to the Registrar and Director (Finance) of the university. Likewise, an email was sent to the acting President of the university on January 15, in which the employees rued the alleged poor state of affairs in the university.
Detailing one of the meeting of the multi-skilled staff with the university’s Registrar in the said email, which was accessed by Newsclick, the employees claimed: “We [posed] question to [the] Registrar Sir and he replied to us ‘1st go to Deputy Registrar (Administration) and Assistant Registrar (Store & Purchase) and come back to me’[.] Thereafter, we all met to [sic.] Assistant Registrar (Store & Purchase) and raised our issues and he said that “’we are not responsible for your issues [and that the] Administration is responsible for that’, thereafter we met to Deputy Registrar (Administration) and we raised our status of issues to him and he said that [the] ‘Screening Committee is responsible for your issues’.”
“Our family budget has gone haywire after the salary cuts. There are EMIs and school fees that are pending. We need this issue to be resolved soon,” said an employee.
Aashish of Balaji Security Services, when contacted, said that no “wrongdoing” has been committed from the contractor’s end and that his company is only following “what was mentioned in the tender”. “In the tender that was approved by SAU it was mentioned that the minimum wages announced by Delhi Government will be applicable to the employees and so we are paying the staff accordingly,” he told NewsClick, warding off allegations of salary cuts.
He also added that the company was asked to “supply four additional employees by the university,” without specifying the date of when the alleged request was made. “As requested, we have sent four employees. They shall be working as assistants,” said Aashish.
Asked whether a “bribe” was demanded back in November last year by the private contractor from the multi-skilled staff in exchange for reinstatement, Aashish said “no”.
NewsClick sent a detailed questionnaire to Professor Ranjan Kumar Mohanty, Acting President of SAU, and Dr AK Malik, Registrar of SAU. Their responses will be included in the story as and when they are received.
SAU, which has over 500 students from across the SAARC countries, operates currently from its Akbar Bhavan campus in Chanakyapuri. The strike of the multi-skilled staff has also found support from a section of the students even though the university is only partially functioning owing to the pandemic.