Plastic wrappers, soiled diapers and sanitary pads, food waste, and sometimes a used syringe. The bare hands of Ramesh*, a conservancy worker in Chennai, sift through these items inside discarded by residents as he tries to segregate waste on a daily basis.
“We do not always use gloves because our hands sweat and become clammy,” says Ramesh.
This is one among myriad issues faced by a majority of the city’s conservancy workers who work under harsh conditions for meagre pay.
Commute a key issue for conservancy workers in Chennai
A majority of the conservancy workers are assigned work in areas far away from their homes.
“I have to wake up at 3 am, cook and clean, and take two buses from my area to reach the ward where I work. We must record our attendance in a biometric machine between 6-6.30 am. So, even if we are five minutes late, my supervisor asks me to go back home or he docks my pay. I am becoming old and my body is not strong,” says Manjula*, a manual sweeper working under a private waste management agency.
Manjula’s salary is Rs. 9300 per month when she does not get pay docked.
Conservancy workers who come from resettlement colonies also echo Manjula’s sentiment.
“Sometimes we do not always get free buses [for women] and have to pay for tickets. Also, while walking from the bus stop to the ward office to record attendance, it is dark and lonely on the streets before dawn. So, we feel unsafe,” notes a conservancy worker.
Well-lit streets and flexible timings in the mornings are some of the demands of women conservancy workers.
Harsh working conditions affect conservancy workers in Chennai
Conservancy workers begin their day before dawn and they get a break of 30 minutes at 10 am for breakfast. Not everyone has the time to bring food from home.
“I do not eat for free. If I have money to spare, I eat and drink a glass of tea. If not, I just fill my stomach with a bun and gulp it down with water,” says Manjula, confirming that no food is provided by the Corporation or the private agencies.
V Kaviganesan, Ward 12 Councillor, is sponsoring breakfast for workers in a couple of shops in his ward. “They are doing hard, physical work, making our city clean. Uplifting their mood and providing a better environment for them to work will help the city get cleaner,” he says.
Lack of access to toilets is another issue faced by all conservancy workers.
“I use the restroom at home before leaving for work at 4-4.15 am during my shift, I try to use any of the clean public toilets I come across but this is not always possible,” says Manjula.
Conservancy workers who do not have access to battery-operated vehicles face issues finding public toilets as many wards do not have an adequate number of usable toilets.
Some conservancy workers we spoke to, say that in areas without public toilets, they use the common washrooms of some apartments where the residents are friendly.
Workers on the night shift find it even more difficult since many public toilets are not open at night.
Protective equipment too is not a guarantee for all conservancy workers even when they have to deal with unsegregated waste and hazardous waste.
“Once, we were given a lecture on safety but no effort was made to ensure the workers understood what is to be done,” says Manjula. “When workers face safety hazards, especially in rains, nobody cares.”
Urbaser Sumeet and Ramky Enviro give their conservancy workers two pairs of reflective uniforms, gloves, masks and shoes. When we spoke to some conservancy workers managed directly by GCC, they say that they have not been given reflective jackets and other protective equipment.
A former NULM worker says that her skin started developing a rash due to handling waste.
Conservancy workers in Chennai face caste-based discrimination and ill-treatment
Two workers belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes say that they were subjected to bullying based on caste.
“95% of workers are from SC/ST caste groups,” says R Anbu Vendhan, a member of Dr Ambedkar SC/ST Sanitary Workers Welfare Association. “There is no awareness about the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, among the workers. The majority of the officials are not from SC/ST. Workers are still harassed and face ill-treatment due to the power dynamics between them and their superior officials, backed by caste privileges.”
There is a tendency to accept ill-treatment meted out by supervisors since the workers do not know about their rights.
Some workers we spoke to also attested to higher officials publicly humiliating conservancy workers.
“If we speak up against bigotry, then supervisors or other superiors hold a grudge against us. They will allot us streets that are always unclean, or they will make us work very hard not letting us sit down and rest for a few minutes. But, if we say ‘yes’ to everything our superiors say, they will not assign a heavy workload,” says Vimala, a conservancy worker.
“My supervisor is asking for a bribe of Rs. 1000 from us. If we do not pay, he threatens that he will change our ward,” adds Vimala.
Sexual harassment faced by conservancy workers in Chennai
Vimala also talks about the risk of sexual harassment. “I want to drive battery-operated vehicles [BOVs] to collect waste. But I am afraid to ask my supervisor. I have seen him sit uncomfortably close to women who drive BOVs in the driver’s seat under the pretext of teaching them how to drive.”
“I do not know to whom I should raise these complaints. I am afraid of being targeted and losing my job,” says Vimala.
Sara*, a former conservancy worker, faced sexual harassment in the workplace.
An enquiry was initiated once she registered a complaint and she was asked to not come to work during that period. She was paid for one month but did not receive any wages afterwards.
“Every two weeks I was called for the enquiry, much to my chagrin. Until now, I have received no redressal,” says Sara who has since found other employment.
Urbaser Sumeet has an Internal Committee, as per the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act, 2013. In the zones maintained by the agency, every ward office has a display of a number to report sexual harassment grievances.
“Whenever a complaint is received we will conduct an enquiry and resolve it as per the Act,” says an officer in the company. “Every three months, the company conducts POSH awareness sessions in every ward where we let workers know how to call the number, and whom to approach apart from spreading the word about the POSH Act.”
But when we spoke to conservancy workers, some were aware of the number, while others were not.
Apart from the private agency, the Greater Chennai Corporation also has an Internal Committee as per the POSH Act. However, there is no information about how to approach the Internal Committee and no mention of the members of the committee in the public domain. “
“The aggrieved can write a letter to the GCC Commissioner and that letter will be forwarded to us. We will convene our committee meetings based on the complaints received, create an enquiry and resolve the complaint,” says Vijula, a GCC official and a member of the Internal Committee. “Even the workers enrolled by the private waste management agencies can also use GCC’s Internal Committee. Sometimes we ask the company itself to handle the same.”
She says that the City Medical Officer, Assistant Medical Officer, Zonal Medical Officer, a law officer, an Assistant Law Officer, and an Assitant Educational Officer of GCC make up the committee.
However, the Act mandates that one of the members must be from an NGO working towards women-related causes.
If GCC’s Internal Committee also does not take up the complaint, the workers appeal to the Local Complaints Committee, constituted in the District Social Welfare Office, as per the POSH Act. If the complaint is still not taken up, then the aggrieved can file a writ of mandamus to take the complaint up.
Threat of job loss
The civic body has planned to privatise waste management in the zones of Royapuram and Thiru vi ka Nagar. Permanent conservancy workers could possibly be transferred to other zones managed by GCC.
“Our ward may get some permanent workers from those zones,” says Councillor Renuka.
The contract workers hired under the National Urban Livelihoods Mission (NULM) are fearful that they will lose their jobs when their zones are privatised. Older NULM workers could be terminated, they assume.
“I have been a NULM conservancy worker for the past 10 years with no benefits or hope of being made permanent. If I am let go from my job, I do not know how I will make ends meet,” says a contract worker.
Unions voice their concerns
S Purushothaman, an office-bearer of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), a workers’ union, says that they have helped workers file complaints to the higher-ups, apart from representing their issues in the Corporation, government and courts.
But it has not always been easy for union members.
BMS helped Sara file the complaint on sexual harassment, and the union member who helped her faced repercussions.
“Conservancy workers, if found to be associated with unions, face trouble at work,” he adds. “For instance, the private agencies get to see some photos of their workers with union members, then they are transferred to different wards, or even treated unfairly.”
When workers file complaints to GCC, the private agencies get to know about the complaints, and the aggrieved are targeted, according to Purushothaman.
Thousands of workers have faced transfers or terminations for complaints about the hostile work environment, sexual harassment or illicit activity like bribery by supervisors.
Even as Chennai sets loft waste management goals, the conservancy workers who are the foot soldiers of the cause face many uphill battles to carry out their work. Better treatment of workers and responsiveness to their complaints both by the civic body and private waste management agencies is the need of the hour.
*names changed on request