Modern Times: watches keep an eye on Chandigarh sanitation workers

Safai karamcharis complain of salary cuts; legal experts question ‘dehumanising surveillance’

June 12, 2022 08:22 pm | Updated June 13, 2022 12:24 am IST - New Delhi

A sanitation worker in Chandigarh wearing the GPS-enabled watch. Photo: Special Arrangement

A sanitation worker in Chandigarh wearing the GPS-enabled watch. Photo: Special Arrangement

Tied not only to their hands but also to their daily wages, GPS-enabled watches have kept safai karamcharis (sanitation workers) in Chandigarh under constant anxiety ever since the gadgets were introduced by the Municipal Corporation in 2020. With no laws or regulations yet to be formalised to check misuse of such monitoring devices, many legal experts feel that this “constant and dehumanising” surveillance must be stopped immediately.

The Corporation introduced the watches to glean attendance of these workers and check the misuse of the manual attendance system. The workers, however, complain that the device have made them a modern-day slave.

The sanitation workers, however, complain that the device has made them a modern-day slave.

Sheila, a sweeper attached with the Corporation, said she had been forced to wear the watch all day and even forced to take care of its maintenance. “Most of the time, I don’t even know if it is working or not. As per instructions given to us, it works automatically. We just have to wear it. But I get dizziness whenever I wear it,” the 48-year-old, whose shift starts at 6.30 a.m. and ends at 11 a.m., said.

“I live in constant fear, as any fault with the watch could result in my salary getting cut. There have been several instances where my salary has been cut, without even giving a proper reason,” said Ms. Sheila, who has faced deductions up to ₹2,000 on her monthly salary of ₹14,000.

The Chandigarh Municipal Corporation introduced the GPS-enabled watches to check misuse of the manual attendance system. Photo: Special Arrangement

The Chandigarh Municipal Corporation introduced the GPS-enabled watches to check misuse of the manual attendance system. Photo: Special Arrangement

Darshna, 48, another sweeper, said there was always the fear of wages being cut even while taking breaks. “It takes an hour and a half to charge the watch. Sometimes, it stops working. There have also been instances where it showed a location different from where I was working,” she said. Ms. Darshna, who works two shifts, 6.30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., said her salary was cut by ₹1,500 a month.

Sonu Vinod Kumar, 25, said his blood pressure fluctuated whenever he wore the watch. “When I complained about this, the authorities said I have to keep wearing it while working; else, my salary will get deducted,” he said. “I am not sick or anything. I am a healthy person. But whenever I wear this GPS device, my BP starts rising. If I remove it, while working my salary automatically gets deducted, as much as ₹4,000 to ₹5,000 a month,” Mr. Kumar said.

Krishan Kumar Chadha, the former president of the Chandigarh Sanitation Workers’ Union, said, “This [GPS watches] is a sword hanging above us. They are after our safai karamchari community. We want this to stop.”

Several times, the GPS watches showed locations wrong, Mr. Chadha said, citing instances when sanitation workers working at Sector 20, Chandigarh were shown to be located in Ludhiana, Badrinath, Ambala and elsewhere. “This has made us a slave. We are not free,” Mr. Chadha said.

Bhuvaneshwar Kewat, a workers’ union leader in Ranchi, said the civic body in the city had bought 900 GPS-enabled watches. “They have not yet been forced upon the workers,” Mr. Kewat said adding that most of them belonged to the Dalit community.

“There was a time when the people from the Dalit community were made to attach a broom around their waist, just to indicate that they are from a particular community. These GPS watches are a new form of suppression that we from the Dalit or safai karamchari community used to endure earlier,” Mr. Kewat said.

Recently, the All India Lawyers’ Association for Justice (AILAJ) and the Internet Freedom Foundation wrote a joint letter to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) over the increasing surveillance of these workers in the country. The two organisations expressed concern over the effect of these actions on the privacy, dignity and autonomy of the workers.

“We have not seen any notification or order on the basis of which they are doing it. They are definitely violating the fundamental right to privacy of these workers,” Anushka Jain of the foundation, told The Hindu.

“The sanitation workers are being made to work more as a result of this tracking device. We don’t know how they [Corporation] are ensuring that work is being done just by tracking the workers’ location. A worker might go to his or her place of work and just loiter,” Ms. Jain argued.

“While there is no law specifically which talks about these issues in India, the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment on the right to privacy is being violated in this situation,” she said.

The national convener of All India Lawyers’ Association for Justice, Clifton D’Rozario, said: “While privacy is not an absolute right, any State intrusion into privacy has to satisfy the thresholds of legality, necessity, and proportionality, laid down by the Supreme Court in the Right to Privacy decision”. “However, the use of tracking devices on safai karamcharis fails to satisfy these thresholds as first, there is no anchoring legislation or legal framework,” Mr. D’Rozario said adding that the constant monitoring of employees can never be a justified State aim as it would lead to the mass surveillance of a wide category of citizens.

“Lastly, the resultant surveillance is completely disproportionate, in terms of the harm it would cause, to any state aim that would give purpose to such surveillance, thereby failing the proportionality threshold,” he said.

Mr. Clifton said sanitation workers continue to suffer under the contract system. “Instead of addressing these basic issues, new forms of surveillance are introduced leading to further oppressive working conditions,” he said.

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