“They threw me out of my job, who will hire us now?” says Bala, 42, a sanitation worker. She has been working at Delhi University’s Ambedkar Ganguly hostel since 2004. Bala is among 16 sanitation workers, employed on a contractual basis, who got termination notices in August this year. The hostel authorities cited a financial crisis as the reason behind the sudden termination of their services.
For more than 15 years, Bala’s job has been to sweep the floors and dust the furniture and fans inside the hostel premises. Starting at a salary of Rs 1,500 in 2004, she now gets Rs 15,070 in hand. Since she lives alone with her father and three children, her monthly salary is the only source of income for the entire family.
“I have a loan of Rs 5 lakh on my head due to the marriage of one of my daughters recently,” she says. “I live in a rented house. You tell, how am I supposed to manage?”
Bala’s colleague, Nutan, who was hired in 2014, has a similar story.
“They [the authorities] had promised that we will be elevated as permanent employees. Now we want them to fulfill the promise,” she says. Nutan earns the same amount of Bala, and it’s the contractual nature of work that irks employees like her, as it makes them vulnerable to arbitrary termination notices.
Soon after the lockdown, Nutan suffered a paralytic attack on her left side. She had to borrow around Rs 15,000 for treatment and medicines. Nutan’s husband is a sweeper who also works on a contractual basis, and earns between Rs 7,000 and Rs 8,000 per month.
“We want to fight for our rights. This is not the first time that the concerned authorities have done such a thing,” she says. “Some staff members who had joined before me have also been asked to leave, just like that.”
Nutan and Bala were issued appointment letters by the chairperson/acting provost. Nutan and Bala are referred to as “safai karamcharis”, whose contracts are supposed to be renewed every six months. The letters make no mention of regularisation of their employment.
According to the letters, the services of sanitation workers can be terminated only under two conditions: if they take up private work for any resident of the hostel; and if a worker takes up an alternate job, part-time or otherwise, during the period of duty.
For Kamla, 45, who has been working here since 2005, frequent instances of discrimination are hard to endure. In the midst of a pandemic and with a lockdown in place, it’s the people’s behavior that makes the lives of sanitation workers even more difficult, she says.
“I was told by one of the hostel staffers not to touch their doorbell after the lockdown,” she says. “Even the keys would be kept at a distance for us to collect.”
On September 1, the Delhi High Court passed an order instructing the Ambedkar Ganguly hostel authorities to reinstate all 16 sanitation workers.
On whether this amounts to temporary relief by the court, lawyer Gunjan Singh told Newslaundry: “Earlier [before termination] they were working as contractual workers, and their contract was renewed every six months. This practice continued until their recent termination. Thus the order of the high court protects them from termination from services. This does not mean that the hostel cannot terminate them but for doing so, they will have to follow the legal process under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.”
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