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Bengaluru’s Sanitation Workers Fight For Their Rights This Women’s Day

On International Women’s Day, Powrakarmikas, the female workforce of sanitation workers in Bengaluru are going on a strike to demand rightful wages, better work conditions and an end to caste and gender based discrimination they are subjected to

The 19,000 strong female sanitation workforce of Bangalore has called for a strike on 8th March.
Highlights
  • Powrakarmikas to go on strike on International Women's Day
  • Fair wages and an end to discrimination are key demands of the strike
  • Belonging to a lower caste has fueled the Powrakarmika's problems

30-year-old Anjanamma has spent a major part of her life collecting garbage from the streets and homes of Bengaluru. Anjanamma, a sanitation worker or a Powrakarmika as she is locally known, is one of the 19,000 women who toil day and night to keep the streets of Bengaluru clean. In Bengaluru, the clean and shiny roads without garbage are a welcome sight for all those who enter the city. Like many urban metropolises, the admiration for the clean roads in Bengaluru is universal but the hands behind the cleanliness have never received their due. The 19,000 strong sanitation workforce of Bengaluru, better known as Powrakarmikas do all the essential work to keep the city clean. From picking up garbage to manual scavenging, these women indulge in toil every day, but have only received injustice and abuse in return.

We are supposed to be paid Rs 17,080 per month but don’t get even half of that. We feel cheated because despite doing the filthiest of work, we have never received our due. The residents from whom we collect waste mistreat us, and if we make the mistake of asking for water, it is given to us in toilet mugs. Being women and belonging to a lower caste, along with our profession has robbed our lives of any dignity, said Anjanamma.

Overwhelmingly belonging to the Madigas – a Dalit community traditionally forced to engage in garbage collection and manual scavenging work, the Powrakarmikas have been relegated to contractual garbage collection and scavenging work. On March 8, International Women’s Day, a number of Powrakarmikas have decided to call a strike at the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) head office, demanding proper wages, better work conditions and an end to the social stigma attached to their caste and profession.

Belonging to a Dalit community has fueled Powrakarmika's problems.

Belonging to a Dalit community has fueled the Powrakarmika’s problems

March 8 is celebrated across the world as International Women’s Day. Women across the world have mobilized on this day to fight for an equal society, to recognize the achievements of women and to fight for their rights. This year, we are asking Bangaloreans to mark Women’s Day by asking them all to come stand in solidarity with us at the BBMP head Office as we fight for these women’s rights and for the law to be implemented, said Vinay K. Sreenivasa, one of the members of Alternative Law Forum, which is organising the mobilisation of protestors on March 8.

Insufficient wages, illegal contracts and unhygienic work conditions have been identified as the major reasons for the Powrakarmikas to go on strike. Despite a government notification in 2016 to increase minimum wages to Rs 17,080 per month, the workers usually get between Rs 5,000-7,000 per month. The BBMP has also failed to provide drinking water, hygienic toilets and cleaning equipment to the workers, thus forcing them to work under inhumane conditions. Most of these workers work under illegal contracts drawn up by contractors, which violate existing labour laws, thus not allowing them to resort to any legal aid if necessary.

A sanitation worker collecting garbage in Bengaluru.

A Powrakarmika collecting garbage in Bengaluru

Caste and gender have been significant barriers for Powrakarmikas, as most of the ill treatment meted out to them stems from their status in the caste hierarchy and their social status as women. Untouchability, threats of termination of employment and physical abuse is rampant for these workers.

Despite a clarion call on cleanliness and sanitation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 during the launch of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, not much has changed in terms of work conditions for these waste workers in Bengaluru. Though segregation of waste has been made compulsory by the BBMP, the guidelines aren’t followed by the residents. This results in Powrakarmikas segregating waste manually, which often leads to them contracting serious diseases and inheriting a sense of social humiliation.

The BBMP however, denied that all sanitation workers were participating in the strike. BBMP commissioner Manjunath Prasad said that a handful of Powrakarmikas were participating in the strike and stated that several trade unions were trying to exploit the situation, despite the fact that wages for Powrakarmikas have been increased.

In August 2016, the state government issued a notification to increase the Powrakarmikas’ wages to Rs 17,080 per month. By January 2017, all the arrears were cleared and the BBMP has paid fair wages to all Powrakarmikas, along with provisions for provident fund and Employee State Insurance. The increment in wages has already cost the municipality an amount of Rs 70 crores, but we were happy to issue the order. Some trade unions are trying to exploit the situation by inciting the Powrakarmikas to go on strike. All rules and regulations as per Labour Laws are followed with regard to employment of Powrakarmikas, said N. Manjunath Prasad, Commissioner, BBMP.

But many Powrakarmikas are yet to receive the revised wages, and are resolute in their fight for better work conditions and an end to caste and gender discrimination. They are viewing this strike as a key method to both protest against the abuse they face as well as create awareness among people about their conditions.

The BBMP says that the wages have been increased but they are not reaching the workers. What is the point of increasing the wages on paper if the workers do not benefit from the increment? Many workers have been threatened with termination by the contractors if they participate in the strike but that has not deterred them from participation. The workers are fighting for their rights at various forums such as The High Court of Karnataka, The Labour Department and The Karnataka Safai Karmachari Commission. They hope to achieve most of their demands through this strike. The strike will not be called off until the demands are met, said Vinay.

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