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How Mumbai’s Sanitation Workers Won Their Rights

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Anil Ambedkar, a sanitation worker from the outskirts of Mumbai, is part of a group of 2,700 contract workers who were recently made permanent employees of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), a city agency, after a 10-year legal battle. A serious man with deep-set eyes and a thick mustache from a lower-caste Dalit group, Ambedkar credits the haq ki ladai, the fight for their rights, as playing a key role in helping the workers win their case.

Ambedkar is part of a new trade-union movement in India that is using confrontational methods and mobilization alongside legal strategies to organize invisible and mistreated Dalit migrant workers. There are around 35,000 sanitation workers in Mumbai; of these, some 28,000 are permanent and 7,000 are on contract. It is not uncommon for the work of permanent employees to also be subdivided among contract workers. After years of persistent ground-level organizing, the movement has come closer to the abolition of the system of subcontracting, which has made sanitation work one of the most dangerous, precarious, and dehumanizing in India today.

Organizing of Mumbai’s sanitation workers began in 1996. Milind Ranade, a leftist organizer, spent 10 months riding in garbage trucks and trying to convince the employees that if they formed a union, they could win better working conditions and better pay. The Garbage Transport Workers Union (Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh, or KVSS) was formed in 1997.

One way the union won the confidence of workers was by involving them in a hunger strike for water that year. The dumping ground in the Mumbai suburb of Deonar had separate entrances for permanent and contract workers, and the contract-worker entrance had no water for drinking or washing, while the permanent workers did. The contract workers had to pay up to 10 rupees to vendors for a gallon of water. The media picked up on the strike and publicized it. After 24 hours, the workers won the right to water. As Ranade said, “Workers got the confidence that yes, we can win something. And that water was a platform on which we built.”

At that time, the system of subcontracting was rampant. While the BMC used to employ sanitation workers directly as permanent employees, during the 1990s it began to reduce costs by subcontracting out sanitation work to private contractors. Each was given a contract to supply 20 to 30 trucks, making three trips a day. They were paid 1,200 rupees (about $17) per truck for a trip that began in South Mumbai, collected garbage from different parts of the city, and deposited it in the dumping ground, before returning. The contractor would keep 600 rupees and give 600 rupees to a truck owner for the trip. The truck owner would keep 250 rupees for himself, pay 200 rupees for diesel, 20 rupees for a BMC supervisor known as a mukadam, and then give 40 rupees to the driver and 30 rupees each to three workers. So for 20 trucks, the contractors were making 36,000 rupees a day and each truck owner was making about 750 rupees a day for doing nothing, while the workers earned only 90 rupees a day for 12-hour shifts. The contractors had to pay up to half of their profits to BMC officers in bribes, thus creating a tight circle of exploitation and extraction of profits at the expense of workers.

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Thanks !

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