Rathi wakes up at 4 am every day, cooks, sends her children to school, her husband to work and goes to her office at the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board in Madurai. All day long, she prepares coal and lays power lines to electrify the district, staying there until the work is complete well into the night. But even after ten years of hard labour, she is yet to be made a permanent employee of the government.
In 2008, the Tamil Nadu government decided to split the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board further into two subsidiaries: the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited (TANGEDCO), responsible for power generation, and Tamil Nadu Transmission Corporation Limited (TANTRANSCO), responsible for power supply. The parent body, TNEB, remains in charge of management.
While the permanent employees continued in their positions across the agencies, the split left over 10,000 contract employees in the lurch. The government ordered a freeze on employees hired on contract. In defiance of court orders, the TNEB continued employing these labourers who even signed government attendance registers.
However, the contract employees are not paid their dues for months, and not made permanent employees despite over 25,000 vacancies in the department.
Speaking to TNM, Raja Rajendran, a union member for contract employees says, â€śEach month, the divisional engineers have to show progress in work. They do that through us. When we point out that we are being used as per their convenience, they ask us to come to work and say they will hold high level meetings. This has been going on for almost a decade now.â€ť
Adding to the confusion is an April 19 memo that prohibits the employment of contract labourers. The Superintending Engineers are even â€śinstructed to strictly furnish a certificate within 10th of every month...stating that no Contract Labourers are engaged apart from those who are engaged by court order...and also ensure that no certificates for work, experience, conduct etc are issued by the officials under their control to the contractors/ contract labourers for the past period and in future also.â€ť
Raja Rajendran says, â€śThe memo says no more contract labourers to be hired. If needed, permissions need to be obtained. We are confused as to what to do. The main problem is that most engineers have taken their own contracts through benamis. They hire their own relatives and friends so that half the profit goes to them or their own families. The divisional engineers draft their own tenders.â€ť
In March this year, two engineers of TNEB came under the scanner for allegedly granting project tenders to firms owned by their wives. The Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC) launched an investigation into the issue and declared that the two high ranking engineers had violated the TN Electricity Board employees conduct rules.
In February this year, the employees of the department went on strike demanding higher wages.
â€śBefore 2008, they had interviews. A contract employee would come, work with a line man and he would be doing all kinds of jobs within the department and he would be given petty cash. If they have worked continuously then they will be given a bonus and would ultimately be made permanent in a few yearsâ€™ time. Now we donâ€™t know if we can even show up to work the next day. We need to be made permanent workers. They need to ensure minimum wage and better working conditions for us. They need to ensure social security benefits for us. They also need to abolish the contract system for perennial work,â€ť says Raja Rajendran.
Rathi says, â€śI have worked for over ten years. There are scores of women like me. Our lives are literally on the line. We have been waiting for permanency for such a long time. When there are rains and cyclones, how do problems get fixed? We come to the spot. They need us more than ever now but they refuse to employee us. We are only 10,000 of us with several yearsâ€™ experience. They have over 20,000 vacancies.â€ť
The unions say that when they met the Tamil Nadu Minister for Electricity P Thangamani, he said that if he agrees to increase their wages, then other departments will demand similar increase. When we asked him how transport employees got a hike, he said it was a policy decision that he cannot explain,â€ť the unions say.
The employees also lament that they are hardly ever compensated for if they are injured on the job. â€śIf the coal falls on us or we are electrocuted, we have to pay our own hospital expenses. Families are orphaned without any compensation. We have to go back the next day and work. We light up the homes of thousands of people but the government has plunged our lives into darkness.â€ť