The state of stigmatized employment in India: Need to overcome historical injustices of labouring

On 2 October 2014, the Government of India launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) ostensibly to fulfil Gandhi’s dream of a clean and hygienic India. To achieve this objective, the central government planned to eliminate open defection through construction of new latrines, and connecting toilets to the sewers. The media too supported this campaign wholeheartedly. However, both the state machinery and the media remained silent on the working and living conditions of the workforce involved in sanitation work.


It was civil society groups such as the Safai Karmachari Andolan (Sanitation Employee Movement) (SKA) led by Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson who took this opportunity to highlight the plight of manual scavengers and sanitation workers. These civil society organizations drew attention to the inhuman practices of manual handling of human waste and death of sanitation workers who clean sewers.

These occupations, overwhelmingly carried out by the Dalits, have abysmal working conditions and expose workers to vulnerable situations and life-threatening diseases due to the handling of various chemicals and gaseous substances. The humiliating nature of sanitation and manual scavenging work has meant that these jobs not only have a low social status but also has a stigma attached to them. There are other stigmatized occupations which have degrading conditions of work. These occupations include butchering, rag picking, scrap metal collection and leather related work which includes both tanning and the production of leather bags, shoes and wallets.

Dalits across religions and backward castes among Muslims are predominantly employed in these occupations. Stigmatised occupations are precarious in nature as they belong to the informal sector, which is where more than 92 percent of the Indian workforce is employed. In addition to the precariousness, however, stigmatized employment is characterized by apathy from the state, mainstream political parties and the society alike.

The Industry and Its Workforce

The scale of workforce employed in stigmatized occupations is enormous and each of the industries holds significant positions in the economy. For instance, in India there are ‘more than 2,000 tanneries that produce more than 2 billion square feet of leather annually, making the nation one of the world’s largest exporters of processed leather’. In terms of its spatial location, Tamil Nadu with an estimated 60 to 70 percent of leather production is a major centre for leather and leather goods in the country. The rest is carried out in Agra, Kanpur and Kolkata. In terms of the size of the workforce, nearly 2.5 million labourers work in the leather industry making it one of the most labour intensive industries in the country.

As for the social composition, Dalits share in the total leather workforce is about 46 percent, indicating their significant overrepresentation in the industry. The number of families in rural India involved in manual scavenging work is more than 180,000, noted the 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census. In this occupational group, the workforce is predominantly that of various Dalit communities. The 2011 census too identified nearly 26,07,612 dry latrines where human excreta is removed by a person manually.

However, these figures are still underreported and subject to debate due to flaws in the survey highlighted by various civil society organizations. Several states in India have not even conducted mandatory surveys despite the fact that they obtain funds from the central government meant for the welfare of manual scavengers.

Labour organizer S.A. Azad who runs the People’s Right and Social Research Centre sought to gather information on manual scavenging through the Right to Information from municipal corporations, police stations and social justice departments across the country. Some of those who replied to Azad’s application informed that they have not conducted the survey.

Others either provided extremely low figures or entirely denied the presence of manual scavenging. The Indian railways too has been in denial about the employment of manual scavengers due to which there is unavailability of exact figures. The railways has a network 63,000 kilometres and about 13,000 trains runs on everyday basis which is used by nearly 13 million passengers. However, across the country, with the exception for a few trains, no modern technology toilets are used which then ‘requires the use of manual scavengers to clean the human excreta which is directly discharged on to the railway track’.

Following the railways, there are sewers and septic tanks which have reported death of manual scavengers. An estimated figure published by the Asia Dalit Rights Forum suggests that there are about 770,338 manual scavengers across the country. To conduct enumeration of manual scavengers, the state will have to create guidelines similar to the census enumeration, whereby providing false information under the Citizenship Rules 2003 is a punishable offence.

This exercise will enable the state to gather exact figures of persons engaged in manual scavenging and the places where these practices persist. This information is necessary for devising policies for the eradication of manual scavenging as well as rehabilitating those who are currently engaged in the work. Following manual scavengers, the scrap trade and reprocessing industry is known for its annual turnover running into several hundred crore rupees. Rag pickers who run this economy are estimated between 1.5 million and 4 million. The huge disparity in the estimate is probably due to the fact that rag pickers are considered as ‘self-employed’.

The waste pickers walk up to 10-12 kilometres each day carrying about 40 kilos of load on their heads retrieving ‘paper, plastic, metal, glass, bones, bottles and rags from garbage bins and dumps’ . The segregation and recycling of the waste done by rag pickers is in fact a function of the municipal corporations. Rag pickers themselves are aware about their contribution in ‘reducing pollution, maintaining city cleanliness, and preventing the spread of diseases, even at a risk to themselves’.

The view from rag pickers’ standpoint was succinctly articulated by one of the participants at a meeting in the following manner: ‘So much difference we make! They get a clean city without paying us a paisa. The gutters would be blocked with their damn plastic bottles without us. Then everyone would come running to the corporation to shout and complain’.

oxfam report

The social composition of the workforce consists of individuals from Dalits across religions and backward caste Muslim. Several studies have documented the presence of child labour in general and homeless children in particular in rag picking occupations. The employment of children in rag picking is a violation of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986. However, in contrast to several occupations involving child labour, rag picking is seen as a form of self-employment whereby children work with their parents and not under any employer.

Last, the butchering industry refers to the slaughtering of cattle, buffalo and poultry meat. The  2016-17  figures of the overall meat production are provided in a report published by the Department of Animal Husbandry. The report informs us that the share of cattle meat is merely 5 percent, buffalo meat constitutes about 23 percent and poultry meat contributes 46 percent to the total meat production in the country.

It is the area of beef export that India stood first in 2014 but in the year 2016 it was similar to Brazil. The report by the Wall Street estimates beef exports from India constituted $4 billion business annually. The butchering of all meat has a stigma attached to it. Since 2014, however, the ban on the sale and consumption of beef in several Indian states with militant Hindutva leanings has also made the butchering of buffaloes an illegal and therefore criminalized occupation.

Such decisions by the state government have adverse consequences for this business and the livelihood of those dependent on it in a significant way. Muslim and Dalit communities who are dependent upon these occupations are also at the receiving end by the cow vigilantes, who have implicit protection from the state machinery. The cow vigilantes under the pretext of ‘cow protection’ have unleashed a series of violent attacks against Dalits and Muslims. At times, these attacks by the cow vigilantes have taken the form of mob lynching of Muslim individuals.

Working Conditions

All the stigmatized occupations discussed above fall in the informal economy. An exception is in the case of sanitation workers, a tiny minority among whom is part of the organized workforce. As per the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 employers are required to hire labour on a regular employment basis for jobs that are perennial in nature. Given the fact that sanitation work is perennial in nature, the overwhelming majority of sanitation workers should have been part of the organized workforce. However, state authorities in connivance with contractors have found ways to defy contract labour regulations and hire majority of the sanitation workforce on a contractual basis.

For instance, the contract labour regulations are applicable to establishments that hire more than 20 workers. To bypass this provision, the Mumbai municipal corporation has been outsourcing sanitation work to over 200 contractors who hire less than 20 workers. Although hired on contractual basis, sanitation workers have the right to demand permanent employment if they were engaged continuously for 240 days under the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947. This provision too is by-passed as contractors hire workers for 210 days and then subsequently hire them on a new contract.

Due to the contractual arrangement, sanitation workers are then deprived of all other social security benefits that are available to a regular employee such as paid leave, gratuity, bonus, medical facilities and retirement benefits. One, therefore, encounters sanitation workers and manual scavengers with lower wages. At times, there is a great deal of disparity among them too. For instance, a permanent sanitation worker of the municipal corporation draws a monthly salary of say INR 25,000.

The same employee, after working for nearly 15-20 years, draws a monthly salary that ranges from INR 90,000 to INR 120,000 per month as per the seventh pay commission. In addition to salary, permanent workers are also eligible for wideranging social security benefits. On the other hand, the contract workers are paid on a daily basis and the salary can range between INR 6000 to INR 11,000 per month. Besides, as contract workers, it is a complicated process for them to claim compensations in case of death, especially while cleaning sewers.

The employment conditions of rag pickers are complicated by the fact that they are considered self-employed and therefore there is no legal relationship between the scrap collector, who are at the lowest rung in the urban informal economy, and the municipality or its traders. This is despite the fact that some of the waste picking activity is organized through contractors. As a result, their work is not legally recognized, and it is not uncommon for the waste pickers to experience ‘abuse, unwarranted suspicion and harassment from the police, municipal workers and citizens’.

In terms of their earnings, on an average waste picker earns about INR 50 per day. A study on the Delhi waste pickers found something unusual. A section of the waste pickers belonging to a village in the eastern Uttar Pradesh had registered themselves under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA). A few of them even returned to claim the 100 days guaranteed employment under the scheme.

While the proportion is small it is nonetheless an interesting finding as to what the state led employment programmes can achieve. The working conditions of workers in the butchering and leather industry is more or less similar to what has been explained so far. In the case of leather industry, the Factories Act, 1948 prohibits women and children from working in these industries. However, employers have been flouting these regulations resulting in an illegal expansion of the leather industry where women belonging to Dalit castes are hired.

Given the illegality involved in the hiring, the employees are neither in a position to claim legal protection nor any other benefits under welfare schemes offered by the central, state or local governments. Besides, the wages women receive are consolidated and they do not receive any additional payment for any extra work done by them.

As for butchering, the spatial location for these occupations has almost always been on the fringes of the locality. The rapid expansion of cities in the 20th century has meant that the slaughter houses increasingly acquired central spaces and were gradually shifted to the outskirts. As mentioned earlier, the ban on beef in several Indian states have complicated this situation further. All the occupations explained above have undergone transformations.


One of the ways of improving working conditions has been the mechanization of work. While this seems like a way ahead, it is at times met with hostility by the workers themselves due to the fact that the introduction of such technologies does not accompany alternative jobs for the potentially redundant workers. Moreover, the technological transformation of occupations has little if any positive bearing for the workforce. In some cases, such as the use of chemicals for tanning the leather resulted in health complications for the workforce.

Courtesy: Counter View



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