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Open Letter from Contract Municipal Cleaners Union, Bangalore – Pourakarmikas Demand their Rights!

April 16, 2012

Today, in Bangalore, Contract Municipal Street/Garbage Pickup Workers (Dalit workers) are demanding a living wage for the back-breaking, never-ending labor of collecting and disposing garbage in the third most populated city in India (8 million people and growing). There is little doubt (with no exaggeration) that these workers are indispensable to the functioning of the city (as opposed to the IT programmers — who could all resign tomorrow and no one would really notice).

The Pourakarmikas’ (as the Street/Garbage Pickup Workers are called) dismally low contracted salary of Rs.7300/per month is not enough to support a family (if eating and paying rent is factored). However, most are not even paid this bare minimum. Most of the workers’ wages are less than a third of this amount at around Rs.2000/per month. A figure that is barely enough to pay for rice for a family of four for a month.

In virtually any service-based market, costs that the government does not pay falls to private citizens (ex. health care services). Bangalore residents should be paying the workers who come to pick up their garbage every single morning. Many residents treat it as “giving a tip” or “something extra” in the name of “charity”. This is simply incorrect.

This payment is the due amount given to anyone who renders a service — if anything, it is the Pourakarmikas who are being charitable.

Let’s move away from ceremonial and empty applause of sanitation workers — without whom Bangalore residents would be sick and dying within a week. The only way to truly acknowledge the value of their labor is by better pay and better working conditions. Anything less is unacceptable.

A translation of an open letter from the Pourakarmikas by Ayesha Devaraj

‘Pourakarmikas Demand their Rights!’

Dear Friends

We are often remembered by some people. In fact, we are called ‘the real labourers’. Sometimes you invite us to the podiums, praise and even felicitate us. Time and again we have heard people say ‘pourakarmikas are the true doctors of this city, they keep the city clean and prevent diseases, that there should be a salary raise for pourakarmikas. That would be the just thing to do’. We don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the repeated statements. We are appealing to you through this letter, as sympathetic and conscious citizens, for your help.

Hence, we have a question for you. Think about it. In this metropolitan city of Bangalore, how much do you think is our salary? Pause and think for a moment before you read further. Think of a figure that would represent our salary and then continue.

If you are finding it difficult to get an exact figure, we will give you some information. The minimum monthly wage allotted by the government for contract pourakarmikas in Bangalore is Rs. 7300. As this the minimum wage, what do you think we are being paid? To live in city like Bangalore with everything being so expensive, it ought to more right?

Off late there has been a two-fold raise in the salaries of government employees. Lecturers in colleges and universities earn more than 70,000 a month. These days journalists and government doctors earn as much as a computer engineers. We have read recently, in newspapers that MPs and MLAs have decided to increase their own salaries. This is nothing. Our BBMP mayor has increased her salary to Rs. 50, 000. We don’t know how much you earn.

Out of the 198 wards in Bangalore 170 of them pay each pourakarmika Rs 2,000 per month! We have formed a union of BBMP contract purakarmika workers and fought for and been able to get a raise in the other 28 wards. We are paid Rs 2,554, after deducting ESI and PF. However, you are mistaken if you think that we get ESI and PF benefits. The money, however, is deducted from our salaries. We are not responsible if you feel this is an exaggeration or that we are trying to play with your sentiments. BBMP contractors, BBMP commissioner, Mayor, and the concerned ministers are responsible for this. You can verify all of this with them. In a way you are responsible too. Ask yourself.

In any case, this is what we are paid. We who clean the streets of Bangalore are paid Rs. 2000, Rs. 4200 in Mandya, and a little over Rs. 5000 in Mysore. In Gangavathi we are paid Rs. 5000.

Apparently there are many laws pertaining to labourers like us such as the Contract labour regulation and abolition act, Industrial disputes act, Payment of wages act, Employees State Insurance Act, Employees provident Fund Act, Minimum Wages Act amongst many others! If you ask us if all of these laws are being implemented, our only response would be is ask the government. We are asking the same question, of the government and of you.

If you ask us why we do not wear gum boots and gloves when we sweep and collect the dirt and then pick it up, we can only say ‘because we are not provided any of these necessities. Most of the contractors (90%) do not even supply the brooms that are required for the job. There is really not much we can do if you don’t believe this.

How do we live on Rs. 2000 in a city like Bangalore? How can we take care of housing, health, food and our children’s education? You might say that we collect money from various houses every month. True, the educated people of this city, after cursing us they condescendingly give us a few hundreds. This is not true of everywhere. Not all pourakarmikas collect that money. Where we do collect the money it could amount to Rs. 1000 or 1500. In these areas we have paid special attention to the neighbourhood. There is no need for us to specifically say any of this, isn’t it? Thus, working for the Karnataka government, doing the work meted out by the corporation of this silicon city, we are still begging to feed ourselves; not, by far, a full stomach. By the way, how much do you spend a month to live in this city? According to you, how much does one need to live in this city?

We have not been taking all this sitting down. We formed many forums, struggled and then became silent. Three years ago we formed the ‘BBMP contract Pourakarmika Sangha’ and have been consistently making an effort to change the condition of the workers. We have had 7 protests so far demanding at least minimum wages. Thousands of us came together for these protests. There have been 10 conciliation meetings in front of the joint commissioner of the Labour Department of the State. There have been 5-6 meetings in front of the BBMP officials. Not one has been of any use. With an unfaltering west division of the union we have managed to get a salary of Rs. 2300 in some wards.

You still talk about us. Pourakarmikas are the real labourers, scavengers, the doctors who keep the city healthy and clean. Ambedkar Jayanthi is approaching. You may get to hear these words again. We are human beings too. We have rights too. Babasaheb Ambedkar fought for, the government to fulfil it’s responsibility in creating equal opportunity in life for all. It’s because of him that we have a voice in this country, today. What is the government that installs his statues, garlands them and declares holidays really doing about his aspirations? We would like to ask the Satte this question on the 14th April. Will you join us in raising these questions? Or does this end with just talks, speeches, writings and poetry about us?

Forgive us if our words are harsh. Everyone says that this society needs us. Your support is critical for our minimalistic living. On the 13th of April at 11:00 o’clock in the morning we will gather in front of the Corporation office where some organisations who support us will submit a petition on our behalf. Senior freedom fighter H S Doreswamy will release a booklet about our life and struggles. On April 14th we will have to raise all of these questions. It is the day on which Babasaheb was born; the man who taught us to question.

Will you join us in this on the 14th of April at 11.30 a.m. in front of the Maha Nagara Palike office (Corporation/BBMP offices)?

3rd April

On behalf of all the contract purakarmika workers

Contact: Comrade S Balan: Phone +91 9448048131
Senior union leader,
President of contract Pourakarmika Workers Union

Gauri: Phone +91 8971232329
Samanatha Mahila Vedike

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