Molly*, a sanitation worker at Ernakulam Junction Railway Station comes all the way from her home in Alappuzha district every day for work. But since yesterday, Molly has been sitting outside the railway station without attending to her work. Molly is one of several contract sanitation workers of the railway station who have boycotted work in protest, demanding that the salaries due to them be paid.
The workers, who are mostly women, hail from various parts of Ernakulam district, and some are even from the neighbouring districts of Alappuzha and Thrissur.
For the past two months, the contract labourers have not received any salary for the work they do. And for some of them, it has been about three months since they received any payment.
Talking to TNM, the workers rued their pathetic situation of not getting salaries, which are as meagre as Rs 466 per day.
Asha*, a resident of Kodungaloor in Thrissur district, told TNM, “I leave my home at about 4.30am every morning to reach the railway station by around 6am. For the past three months, I have not received my salary. I don’t even have the transportation fare to come to work every day.”
The situation is no different for the 67 other cleaning staff here, out of which four are men.
Liji*, a native of Paravur taluk in Ernakulam district was on the verge of tears while describing her every-day toil despite the low salary. “I am one of the staff who clean railway tracks at the station and it is often disgusting to clean the garbage that is there. And I do this for the little salary that I get, to support my family, but now, even that money is not there. If there had been another option, I would not have continued the job here,” said Liji.
A Kolkata based firm which has contracted the sanitation workers at the railway station is responsible for payment of their salaries. Apart from the issue of salary, the workers are also distraught with certain work policies.
“I have been working here for the past 10 years. When I first joined, our daily wage was Rs 100. But none of us have any basic health services of ESI (Employees State Insurance). Since the contractor is from West Bengal, we have been registered for ESI services there, so we cannot avail its benefits here in Kerala,” said Poornima*, another staff who has been undergoing treatment for a fractured bone.
Presently, there are just four permanent workers in the sanitation staff at Ernakulam Junction railway station. According to the protesting contract staff, permanent sanitation workers get triple their salary, about Rs 35,000 per month.
“We do hectic work in three shifts starting from 6am in the morning, but they come in at around 10am and work till around 5pm or 6pm. Our workload is also more, but regardless of this, we are paid very less. We wouldn’t have been complaining about these issues if we had at least received our salaries on time,” said Poornima.
The shift timings are from 6am to 2pm, 2pm to 9pm and from 9pm to 6am. “Usually, there will be around 25 people in a shift. But nowadays, because of the recurring salary issues, people skip work for daily wage work elsewhere. Even on days where there are just 10 or 15 of us, railway officials make us do all the work without giving us any additional money,” Liji said.
Contractor promises to settle dues in two days, but workers sceptical
An official of Ernakulam Junction railway station told TNM that the contractors had promised to give the pending salary of workers in two days. “When we contacted the contractor, it was found that they had some financial crunch. But when we explained the situation here, they promised us that pending salaries will be paid soon,” said the official.
However, protesting sanitation remain skeptical regarding the promise made by the contractor. “Last December, when we went on a similar strike for due wages, they had given a similar promise that everyone will get salary within a few days. But only a few of us received money and that too, not the full amount. So this time we are not going to be fooled by fake promises,” said Liji.
The workers have decided to continue the strike by boycotting work until the due salaries are paid in full to all the employees.
Meanwhile, representatives of the Railway Contract Catering and General Workers Union (RCCGWU), have also come forward and expressed solidarity with the cause of the sanitation workers. “These workers do not even get primary medical allowances like ESI. We will give a complaint to the Labour Commission regarding this issue at the Commission’s next sitting on March 18,” secretary of Ernakulam RCCGWU, Suresh told TNM.