Explained | Pourakarmikas’ arduous road to dignity of labour

Seeking regularisation of the services of pourakarmikas, cleaning staff, loaders, helpers and drivers of garbage vehicles, a statewide agitation will be launched from July 1 suspending all cleaning work

June 30, 2022 06:34 pm | Updated July 06, 2022 03:27 pm IST

BBMP Pourakarmikara Sangha holds a protest at Karmika Bhavan, Bengaluru. File photo

BBMP Pourakarmikara Sangha holds a protest at Karmika Bhavan, Bengaluru. File photo | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The story so far: After years of their relentless demand for regularised and permanent employment being unmet, safai karamcharis and pourkarmikas (civic workers) have announced a State-wide indefinite strike from July 1. Although the State government had ordered for regularisation of services of the cleaning workers during 2017-18, as of today, only 10,755 of the total 54,512 workers are permanent while the others are forced to earn their livelihood without any social security or health benefits.

On Friday, all pourakarmikas, underground drainage workers, cleaners, loaders and drivers will strike work and hold an indefinite demonstration in front of the Deputy Commissioners’ offices in all districts. In Bengaluru, the workers will gather at Freedom Park and will stage a protest until their demands for immediate permanency are met.

Long struggle for basic rights

Pourakarmikas are at the frontlines of the city’s cleanliness. Every morning across Karnataka, thousands of pourakarmikas sweep the streets, remove garbage and keep the cities, towns and villages clean. But for decades, they have been forced to work as contractual employees under inhuman conditions, denied their most basic rights.

After a long struggle and several strikes, in March 2017, the State Cabinet, during the tenure of former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, removed the contract system for pourakarmikas and brought them under the direct payment system.

However, bureaucrats then brought in the Special Recruitment Rules for Pourakarmikas - 2017, in which they categorised only those who sweep the streets as pourakarmikas. Other workers, involved in cleaning drains, garbage collectors, truck drivers, loaders and helpers who worked on the vehicles for solid waste management remained under contract, in violation of the Cabinet decision.

Once brought under the direct payment system, the workers were to be employed and paid wages directly by the Urban Local Body. However, despite 30-35 years of service, they are paid a measly ₹14,000 with no benefits. They are compelled to work under unsafe conditions without any assurance of a pension when they reach retirement age.

In Bengaluru, nearly five years since the State government issued an order to regularise the employment of 4,600 BBMP pourakarmikas, repeated demands for permanent work, as well as better and dignified working conditions, for all workers have been ignored.

What has been the socio-economic impact of temporary employment?

According to state figures given by the Karnataka Safai Karamchari Commission ahead of the July 1 strike, workers are categorised as permanent workers, direct payment workers, contractual workers, outsourced workers and daily wage workers.

There are a total of 41,373 pourakarmikas, 12,387 loaders and other cleaners, and 752 UGD helpers in the state. Among them, only 26,349 pourakarmikas are under direct payment of whom 16,516 work for the BBMP. Meanwhile 11,916 loaders and cleaners continue to be contractual employees, with 10,200 working for the BBMP.

Working seven days a week without proper leaves or holidays, social security benefits and basic safety equipment leaves these staffers susceptible to several occupational hazards leading to acute and long term issues affecting their physical and mental health. Furthermore, pourakarmikas are predominantly from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, who are structurally oppressed and deprived of social dignity, education and proper housing.

Therefore, the wage, though paid directly by the government through the respective local bodies, is nowhere near meeting the basic needs of the pourakarmikas’ families including their food, health, housing and children’s education, especially in a city like Bengaluru. Activists and union members have condemned such inadequate working conditions, saying they go against the core principle of the Constitution and have called to minimise inequalities in income, status, facilities and opportunities.

What exactly are the demands of the workers and unions?

The Joint Struggle Committee of Pourakarmika Unions has a one-point agenda that all categories of cleanliness workers, irrespective of the kind of work they do, to be treated as pourakarmikas and their employment be regularised across the State. Once they are made permanent, they will be paid ₹40,000 and provided housing quarters, paid pension along with various other benefits.

The unions are demanding a retirement benefit of ₹10 lakh and pension of ₹5,000 for the workers, as well as a health card and employment for the dependants. Other main demands include housing, free education for their children, equal pay for equal work and dignified work environment. 

Women, who comprise a majority of the pourakarmika workforce, do not have access to toilets, drinking water, maternity leave and allowance and restrooms. Despite the Labour Department’s instructions in 2018 to provide these amenities to workers, only 5% of the necessary number of restrooms have been built. The unions have demanded that all the above facilities be made available to the workers within three months.

The document also says that the Gruha Bhagya Yojane has been implemented only for permanent workers, leaving 85% of workers without housing.

What are the parties involved saying?

Tyamalamma, a pourakarmika in her 50s in Banashankari III Stage, said, “I get ₹14,000 if I work without taking a single day’s leave. A day’s leave means a cut of ₹ 600 from my salary. Moreover my salary has not gone up for five years.”

Maitreyi Krishnan, advocate, activist and member of the BBMP Guttige Pourakarmikara Sangha, said there will be a complete strike on Thursday and nobody will be working. “People who have worked for 30-35 years are still being treated unfairly. This is a matter of rights. Whereas permanent workers get paid ₹40,000-45,000 per month, those under direct payment are getting ₹14,000 for the exact same work. Drivers, helpers and loaders have not been paid salaries for close to three months. This is illegal. The main demand is that everyone involved in solid waste management has to be made permanent,” she said.

The BBMP officials, however, said they do not have any intimation regarding the strike. Dr. Harish Kumar K, SWM Special Commissioner said, “The unions gave a representation to the government at the CM’s residence two days ago. Their six demands have been heard and discussed, and an assurance has been given. There is a meeting with Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai at 6.30 pm tomorrow. So we believe that the pourakarmikas may not go on a strike and will work tomorrow.”

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