Sanitation workers across Punjab have been protesting for nearly a month against the state government’s failure to regularise them. In addition to sanitation workers, garbage collectors and street sweepers have also joined them in their demonstration by not showing up for work.
According to residents of the state, the roads are strewn with mounds of garbage as workers have stopped cleaning the streets as a part of their protest. However, the government has not come up with any concrete response so far.
A meeting between the five-member committee formed by the government is scheduled to take place on June 16 which is expected to bring an end to the ongoing protest.
Earlier on June 9, an inconclusive meeting had taken place between Safai Karamcharis and the Cabinet Minister, Brahm Mohindra. According to Ashok Pradhan, president of Safai Sewak Union (SSU) Punjab, the talks didn’t reap any results.
“We were asked by Brahm Mohindra to wait for 15 days but we simply said that we won’t work till our demands are fulfilled. Safai Karamcharis, garbage collectors, and sweepers have stopped their work across Punjab and we shall continue,” he added.
The workers claim that they are raising legitimate demands and have been overlooked by the Punjab government for long. The most pressing of the demands is the regularisation of sanitation workers who have been working for decades. The other demands include: regularisation of workers working as “Mohalla Sudhar Workers’; implementation of pension scheme, and payment of sanitation workers as per the Pay Commission.
Pradhan said that in total 30,000 workers are protesting across the state, including 15,000 contractual workers.
In Patiala, sanitation workers who have been protesting since May 13 have resolved to continue until their demands are not fulfilled. “We have been working on contract basis. There is no job security. What if our families catch infection because of us, we don’t have money to even treat them,” said Sunil, a sanitation worker from Patiala.
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In Abohar municipality of Punjab’s Fazilika district, sanitation workers are protesting over the delay in their wages. The Municipal Corporation, according to the workers, has delayed their payment for last six months.
In 2019, as per the workers, sanitation workers in Abohar had organised protests during the months of August, October and December for pending salaries. But the government didn’t pay them for the months in which they protested.
“We were forced to work in the night in January and February 2020 on the promise of being paid but only salary of one month was given to us,” Rinku Bhagania, president of SSU Abohar.
According to Bhagania, workers are yet to receive their wages for the months of March, April and May 2021. They further claimed that five sanitation workers were terminated after failing to show up for work for four days.
It must be mentioned that sanitation workers, who are frontline workers, have played a significant role during the COVID-19 crisis by keeping the localities clean while putting themselves at risk. But workers allege that they are not regularly supplied with masks and sanitisers.
“We were given masks and a bottle of sanitiser at the start of the second of wave pandemic. Since then, nothing has been provided to us, and given the paltry wages we get, we can’t afford to buy these items regularly,” said Pradhan.
In Dohara municipal council of Punjab’s Ludhiana district, the protesters seem unfazed by the debris piled around them. The protesting workers stated that while they were aware of the poor sanitation conditions surrounding them but they are going through a difficult time themselves.
Sukhdev Singh, general secretary of Ludhiana Safai Sewak Union, said, “We are aware that people are suffering due to the piles of garbage lying on the roads. But please understand, he have a family to look after. We have worked on contractual basis for many years with minimum wages. We live hand to mouth and the pandemic has weighed down heavily on our families too.”
In Bathinda, Patiala, Mohali Amritsar, Barnala, Fategarh Sahib and other districts, too, sanitation workers are up in arms against the Punjab government. Pradhan said that the workers have been exploited for decades but their condition during pandemic has been worse.
“When pandemic started, we were called Yodha (soldier). This is how you treat Yodhas? By not releasing their wages, but not regularising them and also by exploiting their labour. The protest is ongoing across Punjab and it will continue till our demands are not met,” said Pradhan.