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TN: Demanding Fair Wages and Permanent Jobs, OHT Operators and Sanitation Workers Threaten to Strike

Around 2.5 lakh contract workers employed by the rural development department with very low wages and no social welfare measures have threatened to strike work if their demands go unheeded any further.
CITU leaders along with OHT operators and sanitation workers during the protest (Courtesy: Theekkathir)

CITU leaders along with OHT operators and sanitation workers during the protest (Courtesy: Theekkathir)

Thousands of overhead tank (OHT) operators and conservancy workers attached to the department of rural development, panchayats and panchayat unions held a massive protest on December 21 in Chennai.

Regularisation of jobs and time scale pay has been their primary demands for years, but these remain to be elusive for the workers. The OHT operators work part-time or on consolidated wages, while the conservancy workers are on temporary employment with very low wages. The number of these workers are around 2.5 lakh across the state’s rural areas.

The workers have also threatened to go on strike during the assembly session scheduled to commence from January 5, 2022, if their demands are not addressed by the government. The authorities will hold talks with the Tamil Nadu Rural Development and Panchayat Workers Federation leaders on the same day to sort out their demands.

DEMANDS OF OHT WORKERS

Mass contractualisation and underpayment in crucial sectors like drinking water supply and sanitation are haunting the workers. There are 99,256 OHTs and an equivalent number of operators under the control of rural local bodies across the state who work purely on a temporary basis or draw consolidated wages.

After continuous protests, the previous AIADMK regime issued a GO to increase the salary by Rs 1,400 for the OHT operators.

"The OHT operators were drawing a salary of Rs 3,640 plus dearness allowance (DA). The government announced an increase in February 2021 but excluded the DA component. The new government has not revised the GO so far," said A G Santhanam, president of Tamil Nadu Rural Development and Panchayat Workers Federation.

The government has remained evasive on the demand for permanent jobs, despite a GO. “The GO No 310 of 2010 permits the rural development department to absorb the temporary workers as permanent workers who have served for three years. But the government has not done anything on this,” Santhanam said.

SANITATION WORKERS EXPLOITED

The department of panchayats and panchayat unions employs sanitation workers in the rural local bodies on contract for very low wages. The state government, in the policy note for rural development, sets high aims of achieving the sustainable development goals (SDG) of the United Nations (UN) related to sanitation and water management.

The sanitation works are carried out by the members of the self-help groups (SHG) in the village panchayats through the panchayat level federations.

But apart from paying very low wages and contractualisation of sanitation works, the government does not even have the records of the sanitation workers employed in the local bodies,” said S C Stalin Dhas, president of the Kanyakumari district Rural Development and Panchayat Workers Federation.

A large number of sanitation workers took part in the protest demanding better wages and a pension of Rs 5,000 (Courtesy: A G Santhanam)A large number of sanitation workers took part in the protest demanding better wages and a pension of Rs 5,000 (Courtesy: A G Santhanam)

A large number of sanitation workers took part in the protest demanding better wages and a pension of Rs 5,000 (Courtesy: A G Santhanam)

The sanitation workers, including the sweepers and thooimai kavalargal (cleanliness ambassadors), are paid a paltry wage of Rs 3,600 at present after their salary was increased by Rs 1,000 a few months back. These workers are entrusted with the job of cleaning the streets, sewage canals and collecting plastics from homes in the 12,918 village panchayats in the state.

These workers are not entitled to any holidays or other social welfare measures and could be fired from their jobs at any time. The workers are paid through the Panchayat Federations and are not documented elsewhere,” Stalin said.

The sanitation workers along with OHT operators amounting to almost 2.5 lakhs across the state continue to demand permanent jobs and minimum wages as per the existing labour laws.

We have urged the state government to address the long-pending demands including that of the pension for the workers. If there is no favourable outcome from the January 5 talks, we would be forced to go on a strike,” Santhanam said.

COVID DUTIES UNRECOGNISED

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin announced an incentive of Rs 15,000 for the frontline workers for their service during the second wave of the pandemic. The workers were seeking five months’ salary as an incentive.

All the other frontline workers, including health workers and the police have received this incentive. But the sanitation workers who continued to work during the two waves of the pandemic are yet to receive a single rupee,” Santhanam said.

The workers worked relentlessly during the pandemic even though they had limited transport facilities and protection due to restrictions imposed by the government.

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