“It is still painful,” said Rajwati, lifting her kurti to show a painful bruise near her ribs. “I have a fever as well. But now, I think twice before spending even Rs 10 on paracetamol.”
Rajwati sustained this injury 10 days ago, when the police “dragged” her during a protest in Delhi. She had been sitting in protest with her colleagues at the time.
Two weeks ago, Rajwati and 33 sanitation workers, employed on a contractual basis by the New Delhi Municipal Council, lost their jobs. A new contractor, RK Jain Private Ltd, had got a recent tender to provide labour to the NDMC and contractual workers were allegedly “asked to pay Rs 10,000 in lieu of continuing with the job”.
Unable to pay what they called a “bribe”, they sat in protest outside the NDMC office in Palika Kendra on December 13. While the workers filed a complaint the same day against RK Jain with the Connaught Place police station, as things stand now, they’re out of work.
RK Jain has denied these allegations.
Rajwati at her home in Usmanpur.
The NDMC office in Palika Kendra.
‘How can a poor person like me pay Rs 10,000?’
IAS officer Amit Yadav is the chairperson of the NDMC and Satish Upadhyay its vice-chairperson. Upadhyay is also former president of the BJP in Delhi. The NDMC’s ex-officio members include chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi.
The 34 sanitation workers earned a salary of Rs 9,500 per month. Comprising 29 women and five men, they are predominantly from the Valmiki community. They told Newslaundry that they worked six days a week, with days off on Sundays, national holidays and festivals. If they missed a day’s work, their salaries would be deducted.
Private companies usually get a tender to provide housekeeping staff for a period of three years. On the morning of December 7, the sanitation workers said they were summoned for a meeting, where they were told a new private vendor had got the contract.
It was at this meeting that a new supervisor allegedly told them about the “bribe” of Rs 10,000. Those in attendance told Newslaundry that one of the workers had tried to shoot a video of the meeting but her mobile phone was “snatched away”.
The workers did not receive any formal communication via letter. Some of them recalled the supervisor contacting them personally while at work and telling them to arrange for Rs 10,000.
The workers then held the protest on December 13. Mobile footage from the protest showed some of the workers lying on the ground, holding hands, while women constables tried to forcibly remove them.
The workers alleged police personnel “manhandled” some of them while trying to escort them into police vans. Others alleged they were “beaten by hand to force them to get up from the protest site”, and claimed they received minor injuries. Rajwati and another woman worker fainted during the commotion and were taken to a hospital.
Given the police action and the apathy from the NDMC, the workers called off the protest.
Sitting in her one-room rented accommodation in northeast Delhi’s Usmanpur, Rajwati is helpless. Her husband died in 2016 and she depends on a monthly salary to survive. While employed with the NDMC, she would leave her home at 8 am, travelling 18 km every day.
Rajwati showed this reporter her bank passbook, which indicates a monthly credit of Rs 14,401 by the previous contractor, ACME Excellent Management Private Ltd. But sanitation workers couldn’t keep this entire amount, she said – she claimed Rs 5,000 had to be handed over every month to their “supervisor”. That leaves them with only Rs 9,401 for themselves.
“How can a poor person like me pay them Rs 10,000?” she demanded. “The salary of Rs 9,500 was my only means of sustenance.” Following her unceremonious exit from the NDMC, she took up a job making 1,000 file covers a day which paid Rs 70 daily.
“But the owner had issues with my work, so I have discontinued it for now,” she mourned.
Shanti Nayak, 45, told Newslaundry she had joined NDMC as a contractual sanitation worker eight months ago. Like Rajwati, she said she would receive Rs 14,401 per month of which Rs 5,000 had to be paid as “hush money” to the ACME supervisor.
When RK Jain Private Ltd presented the worker with its new terms, Shanti asked whether Rs 1,000 could be deducted from her salary for 10 months – that way she’d pay the Rs 10,000 “bribe” and still keep her job.
“They said, ‘Rs 10,000 do aur ghuso’,” Shanti said. You can enter only after giving Rs 10,000.
Shanti’s most immediate concern is how to pay the Rs 4,000 rent for her one-room jhuggi, which also houses her son and elderly mother, near Mata Sundari road. Before NDMC, she had been a domestic worker, earning around Rs 6,000 per month. She took up the job at NDMC because, since it paid Rs 2,000-3,000 more, she hoped for “long-term benefits like provident fund and employees’ state insurance”.
Of course, the workers received nothing of the sort. Shanti wasn’t even issued an appointment letter on the date of joining.
Shanti outside her one-room jhuggi.
“I hope that we get our livelihoods back,” she said. “I will wait another 15 days before I start looking for work as a domestic worker.” Gesturing towards her mother, who she said is around 100 years old, Shanti said, “Even she doesn’t get any benefit from the government. It has been a struggle to get an Aadhaar card made for her.”
Little security for contract workers
According to a , the share of contractual workers in India’s organised sector rose from 15.5 percent in 2000-01 to 27.9 percent in 2015-16. Harish Gautam, an activist with the Safai Kamgar Union, told Newslaundry these workers are often at the mercy of private players entrusted with providing services to government institutions like the NDMC.
“This has become a sort of trend across Delhi – that housekeeping staff at most government-run organisations are kept on contractual basis by a third party,” he said.
There’s little security for these workers, especially those from marginalised backgrounds.
“I can stay hungry for a day if there are financial constraints but will that stop the landlord from asking questions?” said Anita, 50, one of the 34 sanitation workers. “We tried talking to assistant engineer, Meena sahab, who had said, ‘Paise dekar lagaya jayega.’” You’ll be hired only after paying money.
Anita, a resident of Trilokpuri, had worked with the NDMC for nearly four years. She had no paperwork to show for it – either with the NDMC or the contractor – except for an ID card valid for three months. It expired in March 2021.
But Gautam said the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act of 1970 stipulates “facilities that the principal employer, in this case the NDMC, is supposed to ensure for contractual employees”.
So, he said, the NDMC cannot shrug off its responsibility towards these workers.
“The main issue here is that of corruption, wherein these workers are being intimidated to participate in mala fide activities, else they’ll lose their jobs,” he said. “...The Delhi government under Arvind Kejriwal had, in 2018, passed a stating that 80 percent of the workforce should be retained by the new contractor. But that’s hardly being followed. What we are witnessing is a violation of people’s rights, who are mostly Dalits.”
Activist Harish Gautam.
The complaint letter sent to the SHO of Connaught Place police station.
‘They are all lying’
On December 13, the 34 sanitation workers signed and submitted a complaint letter against RK Jain Private Ltd. The letter was addressed to the station house officer of Connaught Place police station.
“Since most of us are poor, we had informed the concerned authorities about our inability to pay Rs 10,000,” the letter said. “When we complained to the NDMC official Vinod Meena, he too pretended not to hear us at all.”
The letter also alleged that NDMC assistant engineer Meena – the “Meena sahab” mentioned by Anita – had told the workers to pay “Rs 10,000 in order to hold onto their jobs”.
Newslaundry visited the NDMC office on December 21 but was told Meena was on leave. Junior engineer Arvind was also on leave.
Newslaundry sent questionnaires to the offices of Satish Upadhyay, Arvind Kejriwal and Meenakshi Lekhi. The report will be updated if we receive any response.
At the registered office of RK Jain and Sons Hospitality Private Ltd in Gole Market, this reporter was told that no one from the company was willing to comment. But a senior official, on condition of anonymity, categorically denied that the company had asked sanitation workers for a “bribe”.
“People can say anything,” the official said. “We were asked to provide staff and had a set of people on rolls. So, why would we need to entertain old employees?” In this case, he added, it was the “responsibility of the vendor before us” – referring to ACME – to put existing employees on notice.
ACME representative PN Bedi said he “didn’t want to comment on the issue of notice period”. About allegations that ACME’s supervisor made workers pay Rs 5,000 per month, he said, “They are all lying, why didn’t they speak up before this?”
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