Sanitation workers at Jawaharlal Nehru University, like any other institution in the country, have always been at the receiving end of exploitation. In August, the employer Max Maintenance, a private company, failed to release the salaries of sanitation and mess workers for over three months.
Such delay in salaries, the workers say, is a regular issue that is barely addressed by the university administration or the employer. When the workers and students protested against the irregularities in salaries, the amount was credited to their bank accounts immediately and the tender was subsequently given to a new company.
“These workers are in contract with different organisations. Almost all of them have failed terribly and they keep on changing. There is Max Maintenance, Sudarshan Facilities, Balaji, and Rakshak that employ sanitation and mess workers. Most of these are private companies and the workers are in constant fear of losing their jobs, and this is also the reason they are exploited to no end”, says Ravi Kant, a student of Labour Studies in the university.
Presently, sanitation workers are employed by Rakshak Securitas and categorised into three geographies: workers at schools which include administrative offices and academic buildings, hostels workers, and outer area workers that include buildings near the roads.
When Patriot visited the campus, a worker said that they received their salary two days ago on 23 October. “We should have received the salary at around 7 but there was a delay as always. And this is when it’s Diwali time”, he says. This was the first time the workers in the campus received their first salary from their new employer Rakshak.
“This is not done. There are workers who are associated with the same organisation outside of JNU and receive salary not only on time but also more than what we are paid”, he adds. Those who are associated on a contract basis get Rs 14,500 a month in hand. “I believe it is the administration that does not wish to pay JNU workers equally. The middlemen in the administration want to line their pockets and this is the reason there is this difference in salary”, he rues.
Sushant (name changed to protect identity), a worker at the School of Social Sciences, says that some of his co-workers received their salary after four months. “Once the employer changed, the responsibility to pay the due amount was taken up by it. These employers keep on changing and it is we who have to suffer!” he exclaims.
He further informs that the salary of four months will be credited in two installments: “At one go, they will pay the salary of two months and then wait for another month to pay the remaining amount.”
Asked about permanent positions in the university for sanitation workers, he says “There are almost 400 vacancies that need to be filled but the university has not started any recruitment drives. Why would they? They are getting labour at the cheapest price on a contract basis. I know people who have been working here for 18 years and they have not been made permanent! If only the university could give us a guarantee that there is a future here, we would be so happy.”
Sushant joined the university as a sanitation worker in 2010 on a salary of Rs 4,500 per month and currently earns Rs 14,500. A father of two, he is in heavy debt like almost all the workers from the institute. “We only have to do it because we have nowhere else to go. This is not a world for those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds”, he rues.
Another worker says that they are not allowed to unionise or form any association. “I think it is also because we are not one. Suppose if I protest, the administration will naturally attack. But what happens is that there are not enough people who wish to fight to raise the wages or for on-time salary. But how can they? These are people who have no support from anywhere. It is better to be exploited than to create an adverse situation for yourself”, he says.
Chandan Yadav, activist and ex-student of the university, reflects on this: “A lot of time trade unions wish to help these workers but the activists are barred from the university. There is possibly no way to help them since the administration ensures it silences every voice raised against itself”, he says.
To add insult to injury, the sanitation workers – most of whom come from Schedule Caste or Schedule Tribe backgrounds – often have to face casteist jibes from their supervisors. According to a report by Newsclick, a company officer made casteist remarks to the workers when they protested against delayed salaries. “That is how we were humiliated for demanding a right guaranteed in the Constitution”, a worker told Newsclick.
However, Chandan Yadav says that this is the situation of sanitation workers all across the country. “This is not a solitary incident. This is all systematic and we can not really isolate it. I think in JNU, it is far less grotesque because workers are surrounded by people who are educated and understand that practising casteism is a criminal offence.”
Ravi Kant says that although workers in JNU are exploited, the university does not ask them to pay a “security amount” which he claims is asked by the organisations whenever a new worker joins. “I believe that this is the reason a lot of workers keep working in the university despite issues coming up every now and then. If they leave, they will have to pay a certain amount to join a new organisation and they are already in debt. This is the state for those who come from marginalised backgrounds”, he says.
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