Kochi-based trans woman Amrita still recalls her excitement on bagging a job at the city's spanking new metro rail two years ago. It was May 2017 and the Kochi Metro Rail Ltd, was all over the news after inducting the first batch of 23 trans employees for various positions. The KMRL was showered with plaudits and publicity for the progressive move, and it also promised better jobs to the city's trans community.
"It was like drowning in the sea and being handed a rope to latch on to. We thought we got a new lease of life," the 31-year-old trans woman says.
But Amrita's dreams turned to dust two days into joining work, when reality hit. She, along with her colleagues, soon realised that they were not KMRL's employees, but just contract workers hired by Kudumbashree's facility management centre, to whom the project was sublet.
"We were made to believe that this was a Central government job. But we later realised that KMRL had nothing to do with us. We were hired with low salaries and zero benefits, only to be thrown out any time," Latha*, a disillusioned trans woman who still works at KMRL, tells TNM.
Two years since the first hires, KMRL's trans workforce has dropped from 43 to 11 in 2019. Many of them quit within a month or two of joining. Their reasons are many, with subtle institutional bias in the 'inclusive' space, also playing a role.
Based on qualification, the metro staff were employed in the housekeeping department (if they had not pass SSLC) and the ticket collection or facility management departments (for high school pass-outs and graduates respectively). Salaries ranged from Rs 8000 - Rs 13,000 based on positions.
Discrimination in toilet use
The 40 odd trans women were also not allowed to use the ladies' bathroom in the metro, they allege.
â€œWe were given the single bathroom built for persons with disabilities. Maybe they thought we were not women and hence had to be dealt with separately," says Amrita, who quit in 2018.
It wasn't just the discrimination, they allege. Most times, these toilets would be locked with the key resting with the station controller, leaving these employees with no option during an emergency.
"Any time we want to use the loo, we first have to take the keys from the station controller's office," Amrita says. This is not just the case for KMRL's trans staff, but for trans patrons of the metro as well.
30-year-old Ranju Mol Mohan, a former employee, recounts to TNM a harrowing experience she had after quitting KMRL. "My friend and I were riding the metro as patrons. I had quit KMRL by then. We needed to use the loo at one station, but were again asked to take the key from the office. I asked them for the suggestions book to point out this discrimination and they hesitated to give it to me. What kind of customer service are they offering if we cannot access their toilets?" she alleges.
Managing health problems
Denial of access to toilets is just one of the daily struggles the trans workforce have to undergo. Latha says that most of the transgender staff at the metro were undergoing some form of treatment while they worked their jobs.
These could be laser treatment for facial hair removal, sex reassignment surgery or hormone treatment for breast and voice change. This came with a host of health issues which the workforce had to navigate while on the job.
"We needed these surgeries to be socially accepted. If we walked around with hair on our face, chances are that we will get stared at more. But these treatments, in addition to the cost, meant massive mood swings, tenderness in the chest region and extreme exhaustion. We couldn't even run to the toilet if we were hurting badly," Amrita says.
Salaries and daily struggles
When 30-year-old Faisu moved from Chavakkad in Thrissur to Kochi, she was given a queen's farewell in her hometown. Securing a 'government job' was no mean feat and this meant gaining increased societal acceptance and respect outside of her community.
However, on reaching Kochi and learning the details of her job, Faisu was disheartened, says her colleague Amrita. She was placed in the housekeeping section with a basic pay of Rs 8000, with which she had to survive in a new city. This was when she also realised that the job was from Kudumbashree and not KMRL.
"She had no money and no one would give her a room to stay in. So, for three days she slept near the Marine Drive and only drank water. Her hopes were crushed when she heard about the job," recalls Amrita.
On hearing about the jobs, Amrita says that most families of these trans women were happy. "They were scared we would ruin our lives by begging or engaging in sex work. This job meant a better life. But it was not to be," she says.
Accommodation and travel
No government job also meant no accommodation. And for the longest time, KMRL's trans employees had to arrange their stay themselves.
With social stigma, steep rents and commuting struggles, the workforce began to quit en masse as they found the job to be unsustainable.
"We were forced to stay in lodges as no one would give us rooms. The lodge rent comes up to Rs 6,000-7,000, excluding food. With our salaries at KMRL and this rent, we were starving by mid-month," Latha adds.
After two meetings in 2017 and 2018, the KMRL management arranged accommodation for the transgender staff at Jyothi Bhavan in Kakkanad. However, commuting from Kakkanad to various stations was still an issue.
The distance became a concern while commuting to work, with trans women often facing harassment from fellow passengers while using public transport. It wasn't like other employees, says Ranju, as the trans staff had to pick buses and other transport in which they were comfortable.
"We have to leave an hour early if we are to reach and punch in by 6 am. It is difficult to get buses where we are not discriminated against and there is the issue of safety. All of this is specific to the community, which might seem trivial to you and the world," Latha points out.
Today, the cracks in KMRL's big move toward trans emancipation have been exposed, say former and present employees. The whole initiative has turned into what it always was, Ranju says - a prolonged marketing blitz.
"On my second day, I remember these words coming from the management - we are not here to empower the trans community. We are here to make the metro profitable," Amrita alleges.
Speaking to TNM, KMRL's spokespersons stated that they are holding talks with the trans staff to learn about their issues. Besides, those who have quit are allowed to re-join KMRL's workforce anytime, say some employees.
"Most of the reports in the media are exaggerated. The jobs allotted are purely based on qualifications and this is the same with all of KMRL's workforce. Besides, we have been consistently holding discussions to see how we can help out our trans staff," the spokesperson claimed.
*Name changed on request