A year-long wait in protest

- June 1, 2023
| By : Muhammad Tahir |

The protest by sanitation workers of Kalawati Saran Children’s Hospital has completed one year but there still has been no response from the authorities

IN PROTEST: Sacked workers of the Kalawati Hospital have been protesting for over a year

Sanitation workers of Kalawati Saran Children’s Hospital, New Delhi have been protesting in front of the hospital for a year against the administration’s failure to follow court orders and reinstate them.

These workers have gathered every day for the last one year to demand reinstatement after around 400 workers were laid off without prior notice on May 31, 2022.

“I spent eight years as a sanitation worker here. When the contract was changed last year, we were fired. We had to take a stay order from the high court not once, not twice but three times. But they are not following the court order,” said Ajay, a former sanitation worker, to Patriot.

The workers observed May 30, the 364th consecutive day of their protest, as the black day.

Despite the Delhi High Court verdict on May 31, 2022 saying that sanitation workers must be allowed to keep their jobs, the hospital administration has still not reinstated workers.

In response, the workers started the dharna in protest on June 1, 2022 outside the hospital gate.

The workers have also alleged that only those who paid bribes have been reinstated.

SACKED: Around 400 workers were laid off without prior notice on May 31, 2022

Hundreds of other workers, who did not make the under-hand payment, have been denied jobs.

Jaiprakash, a former sanitation worker, who worked in Kalawati Hospital for around a decade, told Patriot, “After the sacking, we are facing problems and no one is listening to us. We couldn’t find any other job. Around eight months ago, we got a letter for joining from the court but they (the hospital authorities) didn’t follow it and return us our jobs. How we will survive like this.”

His wife Rani, who is forced to work as a domestic help in kothis (bungalows) to survive, said, “He is the sole bread-winner in the family. We have been facing financial problems for the last one year. Besides attending dharna, which is time-consuming, going to court is also costly. So, for livelihood, I work in kothis. The education of our two children is expensive, so we need to do something.”

The Indian government has passed four labour codes to ensure minimum wages and social security. This code provides uniform applicability of various provisions and timely payment of wages to all employees.

Sunita, who was a sweeper for around a decade, said, “They sacked us without any prior notice. Now, the case is in the court. When the court ordered for reinstatement, they said ‘ok’ in the court but did not walk the talk. I now depend on my husband’s salary.”

Sunita says that they had to also fight for an increase in their salaries.

“Initially, they used to pay us only Rs 7,000. We then filed a case in the court. After the court order, they increased it to Rs 15,000 for the last one year of our duty. But the new contractor fired us and gave jobs to his own workers. That is why we have been protesting daily. The police have detained us many times too. We have protested at Jantar Mantar also.”

According to a study conducted by Dalberg Associates in 2018, there are an estimated five million full-time sanitation workers with two million working in high-risk conditions in India.

Sevak Ram, the worker union’s organiser, told Patriot, “Around 350 workers who were working here under Sulabh International for more than a decade have been sacked. They used to get not even the minimum wages but only 253 rupees per day without any leave. We first sought information through RTI about our wages and then filed a case in the labour court.”

Ram says that the court ordered twice – in April and then on May 31 – to increase wages to at least a minimum level.

“But on June 1, a new tender for workers was opened and they sacked us. After the High Court order, they said they have followed everything.”

These workers continued laborious work throughout the Covid-19 waves and lockdowns but now have been sacked.

Jitendra Kumar is one of them. He lives in Gandhinagar and has worked for 16 years (since 2006) as a sweeper in the hospital.

He remembers the Covid period and shares his pain, “I can’t even ride a bicycle, so during the lockdown, I walked to my duty on foot [since public transport wasn’t available]. Sometimes, I had to hitch-hike to reach duty at night. We worked under Sulabh International. But they didn’t give us any benefits such as Provident Fund (PF), leaves, and minimum wages. So, we 37 employees have filed a case in court. The new contractor sacked us and said that you can go to another hospital.”

Kumar says that he is going through difficult times and struggling for every penny.

“We are not getting any work. Before the new tender, the court ordered that they can’t sack us. However, they did not even follow the court rule. It’s clearly a contempt of court.”

Kumar isn’t the only one who struggling to make ends meet. Being denied work for a year has created a series of personal problems for many workers’ families.

Another former sanitation worker Ajay, who lives in Laxmi Nagar, said, “To survive, we work on dehadi (daily wage labour) after the protest (2 pm) or night. A female worker Sunita Devi, who was sacked, died due to a heart attack two weeks ago. But until and unless our demands are met, we will continue the agitation.”

Advocate Surya Prakash, who is representing workers in the court, said, “The situation of sanitation workers is bad. Even when they were employed, these workers were being paid only a third of the scheduled minimum wages with overtime. They got only Rs 7,000 in salary while according to rules, they must be getting Rs 18,000. After a series of litigations in 2019, the administration had to increase their wages to the minimum level. Even Sulabh International marked the worker as a ‘volunteer’ and not an employee. But when the new contract came, these 400 workers were sacked and 425 others hired by a new contractor.

“The irony is that the workers are protesting just around a kilometre away from the Parliament. Despite provisions, and High Court orders, they weren’t reinstated. This is a big scam by Sulabh International. This is the biggest hospital in the Capital after AIIMS, Safdarjung and Ram Manohar Lohia. It’s their fundamental right to demand minimum wages. The contractor is associated with BJP. The new minimum wages have been applied. Now the next hearing is on June 17,” added Surya Prakash.

Patriot also tried to contact Sulabh International and visited their office. However, there was no response. Vidya, a supervisor, had promised to respond but failed to do so.

Patriot also contacted Harvansh Singh, the hospital official dealing with the case. Singh, however, said that he is no more associated with the case and is unaware of the progress.