Recently, the Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikar Manch (DASAM) organized a Training of Trainers (ToT) Workshop for sewer workers and waste pickers from all across Delhi NCR. The workshop focused on bringing sanitation workers from different parts of Delhi to train them for organization building and to discuss their issues of minimum wage, contractual labour, regular jobs and social security.
DASAM has been working with sewer workers and waste pickers across Delhi since its inception. In this regard, the ToT Workshop of 26th August 2023 was organized which was attended by over 100 sewer workers and waste pickers. The resource person for the training was Thaneshwar Dayal Adigaur, Secretary of the Dilli Asangathit Nirman Mazdoor Union and has been engaged in the campaign for the rights of construction workers in Delhi.
He is also a former member of the Delhi Labour Welfare Board, and was a part of the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board (DBOCW) Advisory Committee and member the Regional Advisory Committee (Delhi) in the Dattopant Thengadi National Board for Workers Education and Development (DTNBWED), Ministry of Labour and Employment, Government of india.
With his years of experience in campaigning for the rights of construction workers, he addressed the gathering focusing on the importance of organization building for daily wage workers.
A panel member of the workshop, Ved Prakash Bidlan, president, the Delhi Jal Board Sewer Department Mazdoor Sangathan, elaborated on the importance of demanding the rights and needs of sanitation workers and the role of organized unions in it. Another panel member Aysha. who has been a waste picker in Rithala, Delhi and works for the rights of women in informal labour like waste picking in West Delhi.
The workshop began by highlighting the importance of sanitation workers in sustaining cities, where sewer workers work with the management of liquid waste and waste pickers help in the segregation of solid waste.
Sewer workers’ continuous fight for minimum wage
One of the major demands raised by sewer workers was minimum wage and regular jobs. Most of the sewer workers in Delhi are contractual labourers and one of the biggest challenges faced by contractual sewer workers is their exposure to hazardous working conditions. Another major cause of concern is job security or lack of job security and benefits.
These workers are hired on a contract basis which means that they do not receive benefits such as health insurance, paid leave or retirement benefits. They are not covered under any labor laws and are often exploited by contractors who subject them to unsafe working conditions. Furthermore, contractual sewer workers face social stigma and discrimination due to the nature of their work.It was pointed out that the minimum wage in Delhi, decided by the government, is Rs 646 per day.
However, during the workshop many workers voiced that they receive roughly Rs 430 per day, which is below the decided minimum wage. Furthermore, they are made to give bogus signatures on documents stating they are satisfied with their pay. The workers do not get paid leave and have to often sacrifice on their health due to the incessant hazardous working conditions.
One of the workers from Rohini, Delhi said how he recently secured minimum wages for himself through continuous pressure put on the authorities. However, some workers from Pitampura, Delhi still expressed concerns for not receiving the minimum wage and facing harassment from the authorities upon expressing their demands.
Ashok Kumar Taank from DASAM said that these discrepancies existing in the wages of different workers need to be addressed by bringing the workers under the payroll of the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) which would ensure minimum wage and regular pay.
Through these issues highlighted in the workshop the exploitation by contractors and the loopholes in the government sector were exposed. The work of sewer workers and waste pickers, which is daily labour, must be brought under the regular employment scheme of the government, removing the contractual system.
Women waste pickers: Stories of stigma and exploitation
With the increasing trend of privatization, in 2022, all the five zones of the Ghaziabad municipality have been given to private firms in the name of ‘waste management’, the money for which is being received by the Municipal Corporation. Municipality, being an executive body, has the responsibility to do work instead of outsourcing, however, Ghaziabad Municipal Corporation is the only executive body in India that is taking money from contractors.
Sashi Bhushan from DASAM said that the municipal corporation is withdrawing from its constitutional responsibility of an executive body due to which people have to work under exploitative contractors or as informal labourers. This contractual system is the root of exploitation of many workers where they are not given minimum wages and face exploitation and harassment. Incorporating the waste pickers into the waste management system would be possible once the municipality stops outsourcing jobs and starts to employ workers under its payroll.
Five lakh waste pickers are working in waste management in the Delhi NCR area and most of them are migrants from different states of the country. It is also a matter of fact that most of them belong to minority communities. They migrate into big cities in search of livelihood and get entangled in the web of extortion and exploitation by civic bodies.
This indicates that the law in the capital is being mocked by the very people responsible for its implementation. While municipal corporations have acknowledged the role of waste pickers in decentralized waste management, they have failed to incorporate waste pickers into the waste management system.
Many female waste pickers present in the workshop testified to the exploitation faced by them due to the informal nature of their work and the lack of acknowledgement of the importance of waste segregation for sustaining cities. This has led to waste picking becoming a taboo in society, where these women are considered ‘filthy’ because of their occupation.
Due to this, they are ill treated by the police authorities and local residents alike. It wasd pointed out that the contractors not only exploit them in their work but they also face physical abuse from the hands of the contractors and police authorities. The testimony of the waste pickers shows how caste, religion, gender, and occupation, all lead to them being ostracized by the society and labeling their work as taboo.
The 2016 Waste Management Rules, recognizes that waste is no longer “waste” but a resource that needs to be recovered. With these rules it is also important to identify the role of waste pickers in converting this waste into ‘resources’ and bringing it back into the recycling units. For this, one of the major demands raised is that there need to be Waste Management Laws in place of Rules so that the social security and regular jobs of informal workers is ensured.
The workshop was conducted to enable the workers to stand united in their efforts to build organizations and demand their basic rights because singular voices from the margins are often labeled, threatened and silenced. With this, there is also an ongoing need to identify the value of sanitation workers, recognize their contribution for sustaining the cities and remove the stigma attached to sanitation work.
*With Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikari Manch (DASAM)