Even while they’ve been showered with praise and petals, around 291 sanitation workers contracted to the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) were terminated from service without prior notice. Their crime? Demanding wages as per the government order (GO) issued in 2017.
Four permanent workers, office bearers of the Chennai Corporation Red Flag union, have now been suspended while 500 workers were issued show-cause notices.
The workers, under the leadership of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), were denied permission for a hunger strike on September 22. The commissioner of the corporation has refused to meet and accept a memorandum of demands from the office bearers of the union on September 23.
Commissioner Refuses to Meet Workers
The workers were awaiting permission to meet the GCC commissioner and submit a list of their demands after they were promised a hearing on Tuesday. They waited till the afternoon after which time an official – not an office-bearer from the office of sanitation and health – was asked to receive their memorandum.
An office bearer of the Red Flag Union said: “The commissioner and the joint commissioner refused to meet us and we submitted the memorandum to another official who is not in-charge of our department. This is cruel on part of the corporation officials as sanitation workers are at the front-line of the fight against the pandemic. We are demanding wages as per the GO which the GCC seems to consider a crime.”
The workers have been accusing the corporation of an unjustifiable delay in implementing the GO on improved wages, almost three years after the order was passed.
The GCC has also resorted to mass contractualisation of sanitation workers, leading to their further exploitation during the pandemic. The CITU held protests condemning the apathy of the corporation officials and demanded the withdrawal of the punitive action taken.
Denied Permission for Hunger Strike
Sanitation workers announced an indefinite hunger strike in condemnation of the action taken against workers for holding a two-day protest from September 7. The police denied them permission for the hunger strike, forcing the workers to hold a demonstration.
A. Soundarrajan, state president of CITU said that out of the total 29,339 sanitation workers with the GCC, only 6,400 are permanent workers. “The remaining workers are on contract under the National Urban Livelihood Mission or in non-muster roll staff projects or draw a consolidated pay. They are paid only Rs 379 as daily-wage and held a protest against the low wages. Instead of listening to them, the corporation has resorted to the victimisation of these front-line workers,” he added.
Sanitation workers of the GCC are paid much lesser than workers of other corporations in the state, the leaders alleged. The government order from 2017 had ensured Rs 624 as the daily wage for the sanitation workers. The workers have held a number of protests demanding the implementation of the order, while the corporation has refused citing various reasons.
‘Action Taken after Talks on Wage Revision’
Corporation officials held talks with the protesting workers on September 8, and agreed to consider their demands after the pandemic receded. Five representatives attended the talks on behalf of the workers, of which four are permanent workers. All the four office bearers have now been suspended.
“The officials agreed to an increase of Rs 12 in our daily wage and said they would consider our demands after three months. The protest was withdrawn after their promise but the corporation terminated the services of 291 contract workers and suspended the office bearers. Around 500 permanent workers were issued show cause notices for taking part in the two-days protest,” a suspended union leader said.
The contractors are insisting that the workers submit in writing that they are not members of the Red Flag Union or risk being axed.
The contract workers were informed of their termination orally, without any prior notice from the corporation or the contractors. The workers have been at the front-line since March, even before the novel coronavirus began infecting tens of thousands on a daily basis.
The workers have been complaining of a lack of amenities and financial compensation for them. A large number of workers continue to contract the infection and the union has claimed that tens of workers have succumbed to COVID-19. However, the corporation has refused to ensure the compensation announced by the government.