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Karnataka Sanitation Workers Renew Strike Against Contract System, Shave Heads in Protest

Many workers hired two-three years ago have been made permanent, but senior employees have been ignored, the protesters said.

Sanitation workers across Karnataka arrived in Bengaluru to continue their struggle against the contract system of employment. They previously held a two-day strike on February 1 and 2 in urban local bodies across Karnataka. While promises were made, the contract system continues to pinch the pockets of sanitation workers in the state. 

Desperate to make their demands heard, the protestors have gathered at Freedom Park, Bengaluru and initiated a protest to shave their heads in public. Drivers, Loaders, Cleaners, Data Entry Operators and Underground Drainage Pipeline (UGD) workers are part of the strike. At the time of this report, around 400 workers were present at the protest site.

While the Safai Karamcharis belong to several castes, an overwhelming majority of them are from Dalit communities. 

Kumari Bai, 40, hails from the Banjara community, which figures in the Scheduled Tribe list of several South Indian states, including Karnataka. She has worked as a Safai Karamchari in the Mangalore City Corporation for 25 years. She has five children and said her husband passed away several years ago. Speaking to NewsClick, she said, “When I first started, I was paid Rs 30/day. Now I receive Rs 13,000/month. Our demand is that we must be made permanent employees. Many workers who were hired two-three years ago have been made permanent, but senior employees have been ignored. Around 300 of us have come from Mangalore to register our protest.”

Kumari Bai was originally from Ballari district; 25 years ago, she migrated to Mangalore with many other community members to find work. Now all her children are studying, and she is the sole breadwinner. Her rent is Rs 5,500/month, while her daily expenses and financial troubles keep mounting, she said to NewsClick

The protesting workers say their contractor is a Mumbai-based company called Antony Waste Handling Cell Ltd. The company is publicly listed, and as per its website, it is undertaking projects for various municipalities, including Greater Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Thane, North Delhi, Ulhasnagar, Mangalore, and Greater Noida. As per the company balance sheet, the net profit for the fiscal year 2021 was Rs 64 crore, while the net profit for FY 22 was 90 crore, a whopping 40% increase over one year. 

However, neither the contractor nor the corporation provides the workers with toilet or drinking water facilities. The workers said they were offered a portable toilet for a few days, but that was soon removed. Their ID card does not mention the name of the Mangalore city corporation; it only identifies workers as employees of Antony Waste Handling Cell Ltd. They are distressed because they neither receive casual leaves nor earned leaves. They have to work on Sundays as well. They are only allowed four leaves per month. They lose pay if they take another leave beyond that. Their work starts at 6 AM and can go on till 5 PM.

The workers are part of a union called Mangalore Safai Karamcharigala Sangha. One of the members, who spoke to NewsClick on the condition of anonymity, said, “One of our colleagues called Kallappa died of old age three years ago. We have spent all this time trying to withdraw his Provident Fund balance on behalf of his family. Since the company’s head office is in Mumbai, we are struggling to complete the formalities. They have returned our application twice without the required signatures. Nobody in the company cares about us to help us solve this issue. Moreover, the government implemented a new minimum wage in August last year. The drivers are supposed to be paid Rs 18,000/month. But we only receive Rs 11,000/month. The vehicles are also in poor condition. There is no maintenance, and they are prone to breakdowns.”

Venkata Ramana, 48, is a driver in the Ramanagara Municipal Council. He has been a contract worker for 25 years. Speaking to NewsClick, he said, “The government is paying Rs 21,000/ month per driver to the contractor. But, out of this, we only receive Rs 13,000/month. The balance is pocketed by the contractor. We have held several protests for direct payment; we want an end to the contract system.”

Venkata Ramana hails from the Madiga community. His 26-year-old son joined the same job as a safai karamchari in 2016. He has passed SSLC (10th standard). Venkataramana said, “We tried to make him study further, but he did not study, so we got him a job as a safai karamchari.”

The workers are organised by Naganna Gowda, the President of the Karnataka Urban local bodies outsourced workers’ union.

A questionnaire has been sent to Antony Waste Handling Cell Ltd. The story will be updated when the company responds

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