‘We Clear City Waste’: B’luru Sanitation Staff Demand COVID Test

Workers are demanding daily temperature checks, risk allowance, sick leave and PPE, among other demands.

Updated
Coronavirus
4 min read

Video Editor: Vivek Gupta

“They have still not tested us. Can we not contract coronavirus? 8 of my family members are doing this work. From the time the monthly wages was Rs 300 to now when it is Rs 13,000, we have been  cleaning the city all this time.”
Meenakshi, Pourakarmika

Meenakshi’s mother and thereafter Meenakshi, along with other close relatives have been cleaning the streets of Bengaluru for decades. They have been working throughout the national lockdown that started mid-March, along with doctors, nurses and other essential workers. However, they claim they are ill-equipped to handle the city waste in light of growing COVID-19 cases with no source of infection.

At least 23 pourakarmikas working in Nandini Layout have tested positive for the virus so far, during a random test of 94 workers recently. However, there are approximately 18,000 pourakarmikas working on a contract basis with the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, equipped only with gloves, masks and boots as protective gear.

Union members claim that there are nearly 2 lakh sanitation workers employed in bus stands, railway stations, public and private offices, across Bengaluru Urban and Rural.

Tired of working in risky conditons, pourakarmikas across the city staged localised protests last week demanding adequate PPE, drinking water facilities, changing rooms, risk allowance among other benefits.

Anjanamma, a pourakarmika working in Dasarahalli, west Bengaluru said that workers are scared of going to work without knowing whether their colleagues are unwell or not.

“I can tell you that we not gotten any such benefits. There has been no mass testing of pourakarmikas for COVID, or a health check-up. There has been no transportation allowance given or food/water/toilet facilities. We have no benefits. They gave us gloves, mask and sanitizer long ago, and nothing after that,” she said.

No Temperature Checks, No Changing Rooms, No Drinking Water at Work

Forced to set out for work at the crack of dawn, often travelling far away from their homes, pourakarmikas claim an absence of basic facilities.

“There is no place to eat, we squat on the roads. Dust, mud and mad dogs – we put up with it all. We clean the same streets everyday. Who knows how many people would have spit there,” said Meenakshi.

Shanmugam, a pourakarmika said that they had to hunt for water in the middle of work.

“ At the place we eat, there is no water also to drink. We have to hunt for water. In many places, they are not taking care of our issues. If we want to take sick leave also, if we go to the hospital or we go to take treatment, our payment gets cut. We had asked them to build us a room, where we can keep our things, they have not done that for us,” he rued.

While the authorities said that gear provided to workers was changed once in 2-3 months, workers claim that the quality is poor.

“The shoes are supposed to be gumboots, but we cannot walk in them. We can fall and break our faces, that’s how hard it is. We keep those at home, and wear the shoes that we have,” Shanmugam added.

A sanitation worker’s soiled footwear
A sanitation worker’s soiled footwear
(Photo: Sourced by The Quint)
“They have not tested us for COVID-19 still, it’s been 3 months. Why? Can we not contract coronavirus? We clean the streets where people have spit and walked, and we clean everything. Masks are strewn everywhere. We have children at home. But now we are scared of infecting them.”
A pourakarmika

Despite Nature of Work, No Risk Allowance

Activists allege that sanitation workers are being exploited during the pandemic. S Balan, president of the BBMP Contract Workers' Association, said that neither were the workers given a travel allowance for working during the lockdown nor was risk allowance or sick leave granted.

“When the whole city was locked down, the pourakarmikas saved the city by ensuring its cleanliness. They are undertaking immense risk, but they have not been given risk allowance, not been reimbursed for transport. No resources have been given but they have been exploited. Because of that, many of them have tested positive for coronavirus. Sending them on the field without PPE, is the fault of the BBMP, concerned joint commissioner should be charged with criminal charges,” he said, adding that the problem arose due to the contractual nature of the work and confusion over who the principal employer was.

‘No Change Since 1999’

Leo Saldanha, environmentalist and activist with the Environment Support Group, said that a survey of tens of wards across the city showed pourakarmikas working without adequate PPE.

“During the time of the pandemic, the government should have rushed to protect them. Instead what we see is that there is a lot of dillydallying going on with BBMP. I approached many of the senior officials and said ‘ensure that personal protection equipment is given to protect the pourakarmikas because they are dealing with waste day in and day out and hardly any holidays’. Of course they are badly nourished. They are amongst the poorest in the city; they rarely get their salaries on time. All that considered makes them really high-risk category,” he said.

‘Testing Vulnerable Groups’: BBMP Commissioner

When contacted, BBMP Commissioner Anil Kumar said that the pourakarmikas who had tested positive were being treacted free of cost at COVID care centres.

“We are doing testing for groups of people who are vulnerable. We had picked up pourakarmikas where we did this. Out of 94 people, 23 were positive. We will have to check whether how many have come.” he said.

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