Pourakarmikas from across the city gathered in front of the BBMP head office on Friday to protest the non-payment of wages since January, non-inclusion of names in the biometric system and the threat of termination of employment, among other issues.
Last year in July, the Karnataka state government abolished the contract system to allow direct payment of wages to workers following repeated demands by the pourakarmikas. The reason for this demand was that the earlier system was corrupt and exploitative, allowing contractors to take advantage of workers and siphon away funds allotted for their salaries.
“The contractors had control over our bank accounts. They would not deposit our wages on time, or deposit only partial amounts,” says S*, a pourakarmika from ward 54.
But not much seems to have changed since the decision to pay the workers directly was passed. Contractors or ‘mestris’ have continued to exploit the workers even after the introduction of the biometric system to eliminate ‘ghost workers’.
Non-payment of wages
According to a memo by the Guttige Pourakarmikara Sangha addressed to the BBMP dated April 20, out of the 197 workers in ward 54, only 70 have been paid for the month of January 2018, while none of the workers have been paid from February onwards. The situation is similar in most wards across the city.
“Earlier the contractors used to withhold our payment and keep the money. But even after the biometric system was introduced, they have found new ways to avoid paying us,” says S, adding, “If we ask the contractors for wages, they send us to the BBMP Health Inspector. If we go to him, he tells us to go to the contractor. We are stuck in between with nowhere to go.”
“We know they will become even more hostile towards us because we came here to attend the protest, but even then we came because we have no other option. We haven’t been paid a single rupee in the last 4 months,” says N*, a worker from ward 59.
Many workers say they haven’t been paid their wages since January. Those who have been paid have only received partial wages.
P*, who works in ward 26, says she hasn’t been paid in the last 4 months in spite of working every single day and having her name in the biometric attendance list. “We haven’t been able to pay our rent. Our landlord is asking us to leave the house,” she says.
“They say that our attendance is recorded in the system only for a few days, so they are paying us only for those days. We don’t have biometric attendance because they are not letting us give our thumbprints on time. I have received only Rs 2,120 for 30 days of work in January,” says D*, another worker from ward 54.
Some of the workers say that the contractors lie to them that the salaries have been deposited to stop them from complaining. “They say they’ve sent the payments, but there’s no money in our accounts for the past 4 months,” says B*, who has worked in ward 51 for 8 years. “When we try to talk to the Health Inspector or the contractor, they pretend to not understand Kannada and refuse to talk to us,” he adds.
“When the Health Inspectors comes to visit, we are expected to lie that the contractors are paying us. If we don’t, the contractors threaten us and talk to us disrespectfully,” says S. “We have no freedom to talk. If we demand our rights, they abuse us and talk to us without respect.”
“If we demand wages, the contractors simply ask us to quit our job. Many of us have come here from our villages to do this work. We can’t just leave our jobs,” says A*, who works in ward 91 in Russell Market.
“They keep telling us that they will fix everything after the elections. But we know that once the elections are over, they are not going to do anything. We want our problems to be addressed before the elections,” says S.
Non-inclusion of names and bogus workers in biometric system
The biometric system was introduced to ensure that the BBMP can pay genuine workers directly and remove ‘ghost workers’ or fake workers who were being paid by the contractors. But there are many problems with the system, because of which pourakarmikas who have been working regularly either haven’t been added to the list or have low attendance on the biometric system, thus getting only partial wages.
“I have been doing this work for nearly 20 years. They haven’t added my name to the biometric list,” says M*, who works in ward 91.
“When they were making the first list, many of us were not informed about it. When we asked the Health Inspector about it, we were told that there would be a second list made in January, in which our names would be added. But the second list still hasn’t been made, so we are not getting our wages,” adds A.
“My wife was hospitalised when they registered the names in the biometric system. We asked them to add her name later, but they have been delaying it for 4 months,” says V*, who also works in the same ward.
“The contractors have control over the biometric machines. People who don’t even do any work come on bikes, stamp their thumbprint on the machines with the contractors and go away. People like us who’ve been working for years are not given access to the biometric machines on time. Because of this, our attendance is not recorded and they use this excuse to not pay us our full wages,” says M*, who works in ward 54.
Nirmala, secretary of the BBMP Guttige Powrakarmikara Sangha who led the protest, alleged that the negligence of pourakarmikas, who are mostly Dalit women, reflected the casteist mindset of the BBMP.
“While the BBMP Guttige Pourakarmikara Sangha welcomes the move by the state government and the BBMP to pay workers directly, it must ensure zero involvement of the contractors, who are heavily influencing the biometric system,” she said while addressing the gathering.
Threat of termination
According to K*, who works in ward 85 in Doddanekkundi, the contractors have said that out of the 140 workers, around 40 will be removed. In many wards, workers have been told that half or more of the workforce will be terminated. According to the Guttige Pourakarmikara Sangha’s memo, this removal of workers is based on a “microplan” which was never discussed with the union.
“They are saying they will remove the workers who are new. They want to do this based on the ESI and PF numbers given to us. They are saying if we don’t have the PF documents, then we must have joined recently and will be terminated. Some of us don’t have our PF documents because the contractors never gave them to us. They were eating away our PF also. Now, even though the officials know that we have been working for a long time, they are denying it,” says K* from ward 58 in Thippasandra.
Sexual harassment complaints
Although an Internal Complaints Committee has been formed to address complaints of sexual harassment, there has been no action following a complaint filed by a pourakarmikas of ward 55 in October last year. The union also demanded that the findings of the enquiry be declared.
Workers from several wards said that the contractors address all workers, particularly women, in a disrespectful way.
“They address us in a derogatory way. They show us no respect or dignity,” says N.
Outcome of the protest
In response to the protest, Sarfaraz Khan, Joint Commissioner (Health and Solid Waste Management), BBMP held a meeting with the workers and the union leaders of AICCTU. As a result of the meeting, the Joint Commissioner assured the workers that all pending salaries will be paid by the evening of April 21.
Maitreyi Krishnan of the Guttige Pourakarmikara Sangha says, “The BBMP has said that a team of BBMP officials will visit all zonal offices in the next three working days to make sure all discrepancies are resolved and workers are paid. They also assured us that none of the genuine workers will be terminated. They asked for the required numbers of push carts, gloves, masks and uniforms per zone. They said that they will provide all the equipment, including push carts that are easier to use, in the coming weeks.”
When asked about the biometric attendance discrepancies, Maitreyi said, “They have been taking manual attendance as well. They are saying they will consider the manual attendance instead of the biometric.”
“They said that the findings of the enquiry regarding the sexual harassment complaint is not out yet. Once the report is out, they said they will take action accordingly,” Maitreyi added.
Regarding the demand to include auto-drivers and loaders as pourakarmikas as per the definition in the Karnataka Municipal Corporations Act, the BBMP has submitted a proposal to the state government.
However, many pourakarmikas believe that as long as contractors are involved, they will continue to be exploited.
“We want the contractor to be removed. We don’t want any middleman who is going to eat up our wages,” says S.
It remains to be seen whether the BBMP comes through with its promises, and if the intervention of BBMP officials results in the workers getting their full payments immediately.
* Name changed