A corrupt nexus between officials of a women’s university under the Delhi Government and private companies who have been given labour contracts have led to ongoing protests by sanitation workers. After years of illegal salary ‘cuts’, a breaking point has been reached
“It’s been 20 years that we’ve been working here. Earlier, if the salary was supposed to be Rs 5,000, we only received Rs 1,700. We used to think that even Rs.1,700 was a lot. This was around the year 2004.”
On a cold February evening, Sangita Devi, like many other sanitation workers at the Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women (IGDTUW), was protesting inside the university campus against a systemic exploitation that has allegedly perpetuated hostile work conditions for poor workers in the campus.
Mostly Dalit and female, they claim to have been kept deprived of basic workplace dignity over decades, in an educational institution in the country’s capital city.
At around 8:30 pm, when Sangita came out of the main gate after the protests ended for the day, she was immediately surrounded by university guards who quickly helped her with a chair. Sangita would have returned home on a usual day. But today, as she tells Patriot the tale of long-running exploitation of her fellow sanitation workers, she is not bothered that it is getting late.
“In 2014, a new company called ACME was given the workers’ tender, who paid us Rs 5,000 only, at a time when Rs. 9,200 was Delhi Government’s basic minimum wage,” she says. In October 2021, the administration changed the tender, bringing in another private company, Vishal International.
An attempt was made to dismiss all of these old workers, saying that their services were no longer needed by the university. When the workers began to seek accountability over mass termination without any prior notice, they were advised to register themselves at the new company’s office in Paharganj where they were met with another series of setbacks, she informs.
“They demanded that we must pay Rs 20,000 to get the joining confirmation. They further asserted that we would need to pay around Rs 5,000 in cash, out of the salary amount of Rs.15,900 every month to the supervisor if we wanted to continue here.” When they went to the IGDTUW registrar Office with their complaint against this unfair practice, the university registrar refused to act on it, saying, “Your case is between you and the company. We’re not involved in this, we cannot help it.”
Sangita usually arrives at the campus for duty at 7 am. This has been her schedule for the last 20 years. She and a few colleagues have been sanitation workers at the University campus even before the institution came under the Delhi Government. Lately, her routine has undergone a few changes.
“The other day, the supervisor Sarita asked us, “Are you done with your work?” We said, “Yes, ma’am.” She then touched the wall with her finger to check the dust and said, “You all are bhangis. Why don’t you know how to do your work properly?” Such abuse has been a part of the institution for quite some time now.
“Another supervisor Kavita takes people to the side, away from the areas with CCTV cameras, and abuses them using casteist slurs.” On one such day, Sangita responded to her and said, “We have been working here for a few years now, and we haven’t received a complaint from anyone ever. What problem do you have with us?”
Sangita says that the supervisor snapped back and said, “Don’t raise your voice on me.” To this, Sangita responded, “Ma’am, I was just answering a question that you were asking me. As for my voice, this is how I speak.”
Irked further, Kavita said, “You all are chura-chamars. Your language is that of chura-chamars.” Sangita wanted to record this conversation, but could not since the workers are required to submit their mobile phones when they enter the premises of the campus. “They make us do this because we have recorded the Registrar, the AR, and others on our phones abusing us or trying to fool us previously.”
Recently, there was an attempt to abruptly transfer Sangita along with her co-worker Pinky, provoking this week’s protests. They tried to initiate a dialogue, but the administration only agrees to talk to them if they don’t have their phones with them inside the offices. She believes that they want her out because she has been vocal against the wrongs committed here.
According to her, they hope that all the other workers from this old lot would also walk out if she leaves, paving the way for them to hire new workers on far lower salaries. Even on the day of the protest, their phones had been submitted beforehand.
Sunil, former sanitation worker, has the same story to narrate. Last November, he was sacked, bringing to an end his 5-year-old employment. According to Sunil, the university gave assurance to contractual workers that no one would be asked to leave, if they have been working here for even a day. But in Sunil’s case, the university sacked him saying, “There are no documents related to my work.”
His explanation for the precipitate action runs as follows: “Last year, I took leave to support my wife in her post-pregnancy days. When I reported for work in March 2021, I was asked to not come because a lockdown was imposed and following this I was not called until September 2021. On inquiry, I got to know that workers were coming to university until the month of July. The university needs 40 sanitation workers but only 35 were coming to work. And the university paid for 40 workers but only 35 received salary; the rest of the salary went into the pockets of contractors and administration”, he accused.
Currently, Sunil is working as a daily wager, earning a mere Rs 200 per day. He revealed the callous attitude of the authorities. “When I came back, I asked for my wages. I was given a false hope that I would be paid rightfully. However, soon after this, I was told that my contract has expired and I need not come to work,” he added.
Tired of being ripped off in this manner, workers started protesting. Because of their agitation, the company’s contract was extended till October. That was when Vishal International was brought in. “We were asked to pay Rs 5,000 to save our jobs and to receive a joining letter. After this, a spiral of loot started and we have started paying our supervisor to save our jobs. Not only were we harassed financially, but we were also harassed mentally by the company. We were asked for unnecessary documentation; one of my colleagues was asked to submit 24 passport- size photos” said Sunil.
The university thus presents one more case of the poor getting poorer during the pandemic, with a lack of humanity shown by corrupt officials and greedy private contractors. Efforts by Patriot to contact the university officials and the company have not yielded results at the time of going to press.