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JNU Contract Workers Allege Labour Rights Violations, job Precarity

From issues of salary delay to alleged caste-based discrimination, the JNU contract workers face a myriad of issues.

Image Courtesy: PTI

Delhi: “We have been living in constant fear that any voice raised or advocacy against the unfair labour practices perpetuated by the JNU management could jeopardise our employment,” said Rajesh (38), a sanitation worker employed at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. On September 18, a ‘Samman rally’ was organised by the contractual workers on the JNU campus to address the persistent issues of the labour rights violations faced by contractual workers.

Working as a sanitation worker for eight years at the premiere central university, Rajesh has faced a long-standing issue of salary delay. He said it is one of the many issues affecting the contract workers.

“The salary is always late. Raising a family amid this high inflation without getting wages on time is a constant struggle. By the time we get our salaries of past months, we are already under the debt which we took to fulfil the basic necessities,” he adds.

Another sanitation worker, Rekha (45), has been employed at the university for the last twenty-two years as a garbage collector. The Samman Rally, which literally translates to ‘March for Respect’, has a huge meaning for her. This is because she encountered numerous instances of discriminatory behaviour and caste-based prejudice from the management when she raised concerns on behalf of her department’s workers. While speaking with NewsClick, she recounted one particular incident while she had gone to the university management to raise concerns about not having enough safety and sanitation equipment.

“I was clearly denied to sit on the chair, while the other union member who doesn’t have the same job as I do was offered a seat. The management devalues workers based on their job role and caste,” she said.

This is not the first time the university has been leveled with discriminatory behaviour. In 2021, Govind Kumar, a supervisor of garbage collection workers accused the management of the same caste jibe. Kumar was later sacked from his job for staging a protest for salary delay.

Rekha pointed out another main concern of workers who keep the campus clean – the unavailability of safety equipment and sanitiser. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, these workers were forced to work without any protection. The absence of protective equipment for sanitation workers has posed significant health risks. Despite several verbal and written complaints, the department has failed to address this issue adequately, according to Rekha.

Despite years of service, job security has been elusive to the JNU contractual workers. Sucheta de, General Secretary of the All India General Kamgar Union (AIGKU) said that the contractual working system has always posed the significant threat of the ‘fear of job loss’ since its introduction in the JNU in the early 2000’s. Today, most of the employees in the role related to mess, sanitation, security, and administration are hired through private contractors, leaving precarious working conditions and security for the workers.

“It’s easier to undermine the labour rights in a system (contractual) that leaves no bargaining power in the hands of the workers. The JNU administration is doing exactly what the labour activists had feared when the university introduced this system. Today, we see illegal termination, denial of ‘equal pay for equal work’ (by the office of Deputy Central Labour Commissioner) and an environment of fear among workers in the campus”, she added.

Such concerns about job security are not unfounded as a sanitation worker in 2018 was abruptly terminated without justification for participating in a protest to bring about the implementation of "One work, one pay."

Urmila, a sanitation worker, shared her experience in an interview with NewsClick. In 2018, she participated in the protests advocating for the implementation of the high court’s order for implementing ‘equal work for equal pay’. However, she was abruptly dismissed from her services without any prior notice. The university cited the reason for her termination being her activities that were seen as “inciting the workers” against management. She has been fighting the case at the labour tribunal since 2019 to reinstate her job. According to her, the termination was a warning to all the workers who seek to assert their rights.

Her case was mentioned by all the workers NewsClick spoke to as a cautionary tale that they would meet the same fate if they raised their voices against the JNU administration. 

Suresh(42), a mess worker, also mentioned Urmila’s termination while stating the recurring issues of salary delays in the mess department. However, despite the personal hardship of not getting the wages on time, the workers stick to their jobs due to the prevailing high unemployment rate outside the university campus. 

Even though Suresh receives a monthly salary of only Rs 15,000 after two decades of service, he feels job security is precarious since he has no viable alternative.

“If I want to leave this job and look for another, first I have to pay forty- fifty thousand to any contractor to get a job of the same skill set. There too, I am aware, the job security is going to be similar as the job market is same everywhere,” he added.

In addition to Suresh's apprehensions, the unemployment statistics for 2019 indicate the worst unemployment crisis in India in the past four decades. This rate is compounded by the COVID-19-induced lockdown. 

Suresh also pointed out the management’s tendency to shift the blame on the contractor when asked for accountability. However, the contractor's answer to every worker's concern goes back to shifting the blame on the management for not providing sufficient funds. 

“The solution to our demands and concerns will only come if the management acknowledges us as permanent workers and prevails transparency and accountability on its end,” he asserted.

NewsClick tried to get in contact with the JNU Dean of Students several times, however, no response was received from their end.

(All the workers’ names have been changed as requested by them)

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