Cremation, burial ground workers in Bengaluru’s government and private facilities, who are forced to work as long as 14 hours in a day currently due to the COVID-19 crisis, do not even get the minimum wage set by the government, a report said. Moreover, despite being an injury-prone job, they are not provided with safety gear or health care benefits. ‘Dignity Disposed’, a report prepared by the AICCTU (All India Central Council of Trade Unions) in the city has highlighted how they are compelled to work in "slave-like conditions". In their report, the union said, “Whether it is BBMP run facilities or those run by religious institutions –criminal neglect of workers is rampant. Minimum wages, ESI (Employer’s State Insurance), Leaves, Insurance, decent accommodation and a choice of livelihood –all seem to be denied to the workers. The pandemic has made things worse. Workers are working 14-hour days, staying over in crematoriums for days on end and sleeping on gunny bags while literally breaking their backs to deal with the surge of deaths.” These workers do not have decent living conditions and lack basic sanitation facilities either, the report added.
The authors Swathi Seshadri, Lekha Adavi and Kripa Krishnan (a volunteer). visited 26 crematoriums/burial grounds between May 4 and 8 to capture the plight of the crematorium workers. They noted that prior to the pandemic, there were around five bodies to be buried or burnt in a day. But post April 2021, each site receives approximately 75 bodies a day, as per the report.
“In the electric crematoriums, workers start their day around 6.00–7.00 am. and continue working till late in the evening around 7.00–8.00 pm. In the three crematoriums where wood is used to cremate the bodies, the process takes much longer. Workers start work around 5.00 am and finish sometimes even at 1.00-2.00 in the night,” the report noted. But they said the authorities have not passed a single circular regarding welfare measures of the workers.
The authors also noted that the workers are paid arbitrarily — in some cases once in three or six months or even once in a year. “They are paid at rates ranging from Rs. 1,000 a month to Rs 10,500 a month. The minimum wages of Rs 13,132 is not paid to the workers, and the Minimum Wages Act is blatantly contravened. The workers are mostly dependent on the largesse of the families who perform the last rites of their loved ones,” the report stated.
The authors of the report found that though the workers suffer from slip disc, hands being burnt, crushed fingers among other occupational hazards, they are not provided with any private or government health insurance scheme. No other medical facilities are provided to them either. The report also noted that none of the workers were vaccinated against COVID-19 even though they are in the frontline of the pandemic management.
In recent days, the BBMP has started a vaccination drive and till date around 15% of the workers have got their first shot, according to government sources.
“These workers have not been vaccinated. All crematorium workers do not even get the required PPEs from BBMP. None of the grave-diggers wore PPEs while digging a grave nor when they would close the grave. None of the workers were provided with sanitizer or soap solutions to maintain hygiene levels after handling of dead bodies. Even testing is not made available to all workers. The WHO guidelines about precautionary measures, government guidelines –none of these are being followed at any facility,” the report said.
The report also flagged the dire conditions in the cremation ground premises in which many of the workers often stay. “Workers in some facilities do not even have access to water or toilets and even women are forced to go out in the open to relieve themselves. Those who ensure the dead get a final resting place do not even have proper facilities to sleep, with some workers even using gunny bags to sleep on,” the report pointed out.
The workers, mostly Dalits, want their children to get a good education so that they can leave this caste-based occupation, the report noted. Theunion demanded that the government take specific measures for their welfare. They have made a 12-point recommendation to alleviate these workers from their current plight.
Some of the points have been reproduced below
1.Protection during burials/ cremations:All crematorium and burial grounds workers should be provided with PPE kits -one for each burial / cremation. Masks, gloves, sanitisers and bleaching powder or hypochlorite solution for use during the digging and covering of the grave, as the case maybe.
2.Testing:Free testing must be conducted for all crematorium / burial grounds workers on a regular basis as per prescribed protocol. The same must be organised by the BBMP or the private trust in-charge.4
3.Vaccination:Since all crematorium and burial ground workers must be considered as frontline workers, they must be vaccinated on priority. Along with the workers, the families of these workers who are also susceptible to contracting the disease should also be vaccinated on priority basis. Many of the families live on the premises of cemeteries and crematoriums, thus making them as vulnerable to the virus as the workers themselves.
4.Sanitisation Initiative:As per the recommendations and guidelines issued by various authorities in regard to dead body management, crematoriums must be sanitised every day as per protocol. Similarly, the houses of workers living on the premises of the crematorium / burial grounds must also be sanitised.
5.Ensure Job Security:Regularise the services of all the workers in cemeteries and crematoriums, irrespective of whether the burial grounds or crematorium is managed by the BBMP or a private trust. All measures to secure their jobs and livelihoods must be made by the relevant authorities