UP: Mid-Day Meal Workers Not Paid For 8 Months, Say Work Conditions Like ‘Bonded Labour’
Image Courtesy: The Sentinel Assam
Lucknow: Tens of thousands of Mid-Day Meal (MDM) workers in Uttar Pradesh's Basti, Etawah, Bulandshahr and Gorakhpur districts, who are among the lowest paid in the state, have launched a massive protest seeking fulfilment of various demands, including higher honorarium. The MDM workers will soon hold ‘Lucknow Chalo’ dharna in all districts if their demands put forth to the government on multiple occasions fail to yield any result.
The workers, mainly women, are getting a monthly honorarium of Rs 1,500/month since the past 12 years. They urged the government to increase the amount as surviving on a meagre amount is impossible, especially with prices of everything shooting up.
Over 2,35,0000 MDM workers across the state, working since 2002, are yet to get due recognition, too. They are demanding that their honorarium be fixed at Rs 21,000 a month or at least they should be according to the wages recommended by the Union government. The workers are also demand health cards, health insurance ESI, provident fund among other benefits.
Protesting under the banner of the Mid Day Meal Rasoiya Karmchari Union (affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions or CITU), the protesters alleged they had not been paid their monthly honorarium since the past eight months. They said they work for 12 months and are only paid for 10 months.
“Most of the midday meal workers are widows or from poor families and are unable to feed their children," said a protester.
“We serve food to the school chidlren but don’t have money to feed our own children due to the government's apathy,” said Sushma, the sole breadwinner of her family.
After her husband died during the first wave of COVID-19, Sushma’s is the main source of income for the family. She has been toiling hard to provide for her two children’s education. Her youngest son, a 10-year-old, cannot study because of high fees, while the oldest one works as a labourer to help with finances.
"Most of the MDM cooks are widows. The government should at least pay us Rs. 10,000 a month for our children’s education. Even MGNREGA (rural job guarantee scheme) workers get Rs 250-300 for a day’s work. We get Rs 50 for working six hours,” she adds.
Their protesting workers’ demands include release of salaries on time, they be paid for 12 months instead of 10 months, fixing of minimum wages and compensation for the lockdown period.
Apart from cooking meals in schools, the other work that these women do should be stopped, such as cooking during elections, in quarantine or isolation centres etc. Or additional money should be given for all this extra work, the workers said.
"Mid-day meal cooks earn Rs 1,500 a month for working si-seven hours in schools every day," Urmila, a worker, told NewsClick, adding that "LPG gas cylinders cost around like Rs 1,000. What will I buy for Rs 500 I’m left with? Is it enough for essential commodities for a month? Haven’t we become a joke for the government?”
Every worker is angry that they work for 12 months and are paid for only 10 months. They are not paid for May and June. The protesters said this issue should be resolved at the earliest, failing which they would be forced to boycott work in these two months.
The demands for timely wages, equal pay for equal work are not new in the MDM workers’ community. In 2021, thousands of Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) workers, auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs), who are at the forefront of the COVID-19 fight, Anganwadi, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Mid Day Meal Scheme workers held a protest in the state capital, Lucknow, under the banner of Scheme Workers Federation of India, as part of the nationwide protest. The federation, consisting of unions affiliated to the All India United Trade Union Centre or AITUC and others, demanded risk allowance and insurance cover while on pandemic duty, adequate honorarium, regularisation of appointments, provident fund and social security.
"Since 2006, the mid-day meal workers are getting Rs 1,000 by the Centre, Rs 500 was added in 2019 by the Yogi Adityanath government. At the time of election, the Chief promised to increase the honorarium, give two pairs of dresses along with apron and cap. The government has been formed but the promise made to the cooks has not been fulfilled yet," said Veena Gupta, secretary, All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (AIFAWH).
Pointing out a major threat to their jobs, Gupta said: "The workers are asked to fill a form every year for renewal of their service, which is analysed by the authority concerned. During this process, many workers are fired. To get a mid-day meal worker’s job, one has to enrol her kid in the primary school. This is mandatory. How is it possible for everyone to do this? This rule must be removed."
Left with no other choice but to wait for a hike in their honorarium, most cooks have taken up supplementary jobs. They either work as helpers, or as tailors, or sell vegetables to make ends meet.
Dhruvchandra, secretary of Mid Day Meal Rasoiya Karmchari Union in Basti district, said there are 5,000 cooks across council schools in the district who have literally been working as "bonded labourers". Even the High Court has accepted that their wages are really and directed the government to fix the minimum honorarium of cooks. Despite this, the state government has increased only Rs 500.
The union also raised the issue of two of their workers who died while preparing food; one during the panchayat elections and the other within the school.
"Compensation of Rs 50 lakh should be given to Jharna Devi, the cook of Pratapgarh, who died during the panchayat elections. Similarly, the children of Anita Devi, who died in a fire while preparing food in Lakhimpur Kheri, should be given compensation of at least Rs 10 lakh," he said.
The situation of anganwadi workers is also grim in the state. They have also not been paid for the past 12 months in several parts of Uttar Pradesh. Last week, they staged a protest, seeking immediate release of their 12-month pending wages and regularisation of their services.
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