“The street has just been swept but, look, it is still so filthy. And the garbage has not been cleared. These municipal workers never do their job properly.” Such a comment is commonly heard in high and middle income neighbourhoods across Bengaluru, Karanataka’s state capital. While these very same folk may not hesitate to throw trash from their homes out on to the streets, they are always quick to transfer the entire responsibility of keeping their city clean on poor and ill-equipped municipality workers, known as ‘pourakarmikas’ in Kannada.
Clad in saris – or trousers if they are men – and overcoat, and equipped with a broom and trolley containing a couple of garbage bins, ‘pourakarmikas’ in the Garden City start their day around 6 am, sweeping and collecting trash from the streets. To do this back-breaking, unsanitary work, do they get any kind of protective gear to safeguard themselves? No. No gloves, masks or protective footwear or clothing is made available to them.
Dhanamma (name changed), 35, has been working as a ‘pourakarmika’ for 17 years. This mother-of-three has a hectic schedule managing her home and a very demanding job, which – although it is not well paying – helps her to make ends meet. For her, the worst part of the day is when she has to segregate the garbage collected from homes and offices. Unfortunately, ‘pourakarmikas’ are not just in-charge of collecting the rubbish, they are even forced to separate the thrash by hand, despite the fact that the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), or the Bangalore Municipality, has mandated that waste separation must be done by the disposers at the source.
This puts municipal workers at risk as they come in direct contact with garbage that includes metal, glass, hazardous substances, human waste (sanitary towels, toilet paper), food, and so on – all of which can cause wounds, rashes and other ailments. Shares Dhanamma, “Many of us get respiratory infections and eye sores due to the dust. Further, as we bend and sweep for nearly four to five hours regularly, our back, legs and hands ache badly.”
Of course, all this would be somewhat compensated if their salaries were commensurate with their hard work. But that is not the case. ‘Pourakarmikas’ are paid anywhere between Rs 5,000 to Rs 7,500 per month, which is insufficient to survive in a city like Bengaluru. To make ends meet, once they are off-duty, many take on other jobs such as cleaning apartment complexes or doing domestic work. A ‘pourakarmika’s’ second job profile is rarely different because she is barely literate and lacks the skills for anything else.
Apart from their meagre pay and poor working conditions, there are other challenges that ‘pourakarmikas’ have to face because they are contract workers. The fact is that the BBMP has not recruited directly after 1994. As a result, delayed salaries, unexplained pay cuts and violation of minimum wage guidelines are commonplace. Besides, contractors or ‘middlemen’ treat them without respect and at times decrease their wages citing billing deductions by the municipality.
‘Pourakarmikas’ are paid by cheque, and this means that they need to have a bank account and be familiar with operating it. Given the illiterate or semi-literate status of most of them, this becomes a major problem. For instance, many live on the streets and have no residential address or voter identity card, documents that are necessary for an account.
For women like Dhanamma, not getting a weekly day off or holidays during festivals – although they are entitled to this – creates additional difficulties. And, sadly, they are not compensated in any way for slogging overtime – or for working on holidays. As for the benefit of something as basic as a restroom, they can forget it.
Work life for the 14,000 contract ‘pourakarmikas’ across eight BBMP zones in Bengaluru could get better if they unionised. Attempts are being made in this regard. Over 2,000 municipal workers in north and east Bangalore have come together under the banner of the BBMP Guttige Pourakarmikara Sangha (BBMP Contract Workers Association), the only municipal workers’ union to be registered since 2010. It is affiliated to the All India Trade Union Congress.
According to Balan, a city lawyer, who helped these workers form the union, “It is not easy for ‘pourakarmikas’ to organise because they are spread across the city. Moreover, being dalit women who are always exploited, they have yet to learn to assert their rights. They fear the wrath of the contractors who are above the level of their immediate supervisors.” To address the gender specific concerns of the ‘pourakarmikas’, the union has set up a women’s wing with its own secretary.
The Sangha encourages the contract ‘pourakarmikas’ to demand their rights and entitlements including the daily basic of Rs 194 and dearness allowance, which was notified in November 2011. Also when BBMP workers decided to strike against the lack of payment of wages and arrears in 2012, they were supported by the union.
While the condition of those who sweep the streets is deplorable, those who do similar work in homes are no better off. Domestic workers, again mostly women, are the lifelines of middle class homes. Whilst they sweep, prepare meals and even take care of children, their own kids at home are often neglected because they cannot remain without an income or afford assistance. Typically employed on a part-time basis, these women are from low-income families, have minimal education and belong to the unorganised workers’ sector.
Reveals Geeta Menon of Stree Jagruti Samiti, a Bangalore-based NGO that has been campaigning for the rights and entitlements of domestic workers for over 15 years, “In many of their workplaces, the number and type of tasks they perform tend to be more than those agreed upon originally. And their salary or other benefits never increase in proportion.”
But unlike most municipal contract workers, the domestic workers from north-east Bangalore and Gulbarga in north Karnataka had formed the Karnataka Domestic Workers’ Union (KDWU) in 2003-04. Menon has backed the launch of another group, the Domestic Workers’ Rights Union (DWRU), which has around 2,000 members from south Bangalore, Mysore and other towns. Both groups have a small membership fee, issue photographic identity cards and educate the women about their rights. Further, they reach out with information on tackling the violence that they face in their homes or work places.
Domestic workers have routinely complained of physical and verbal abuse. The case of Usha Thopna, who came to the city from Assam as a teenager to work as a domestic worker, is quite well known. For two years she slogged from 5 am to 10 pm without proper food. If her employers were unhappy with her work they would beat her up mercilessly. Thankfully, Thopna was rescued in 2010.
Chennamma, 50, an active member of DWRU, speaks for her group when she says, “Many domestic workers are like my friend Ayesha (name changed), who is elderly and underpaid but has no way out as she is unable to find an alternate job at a convenient location. Apart from fair wages and benefits, we want dignified treatment and the recognition of our work as labour.”
Domestic work was among the last professions to be notified as a form of labour by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2011. Hearteningly, domestic workers were placed under the ambit of the Indian government’s health insurance and social security schemes as well as the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act 2012. But obviously converting these measures into a reality is still a major challenge.
Be it Dhanamma or Chennamma, cities like Bengaluru depend on these dedicated women to keep them going. Why then don’t they get a fairer deal? Why do they continue to struggle for survival?