Fight for Dignity: Sanitation Workers Go on Indefinite Strike in Karnataka

Sanitation workers went on state-wide indefinite strike demanding permanent jobs and better wages in Karnataka.

Fight for Dignity: Sanitation Workers Go on Indefinite Strike in Karnataka

Sanitation workers' demands for regularised payments, better wages, and permanent employment have not been met by the Karnataka government for years, they said. Relentless in their pursuit for justice, pourakarmikas (sweepers) and safai karmachari (sanitation workers) across the state launched an indefinite strike on 1 July 2022.

Most sanitation workers stopped work and attended the dharna that was held at Freedom Park, while garbage collection was partially affected across the city.

(Photo: Ananth Shreyas/The Quint)

More than 5,000 workers gathered at Bengaluru's Freedom Park and demanded that the government immediately address their concerns to ensure better standard of living.


Venkatesh on Torn Uniforms

Venkatesh V at the protest in Bengaluru. Sweepers and workers continue to wear torn uniforms alleging that supervisors of BBMP levy a fine for indiscipline.

(Photo: Ananth Shreyas/The Quint)

The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) was mandated to distribute new uniforms, gloves, sanitisers, and safety gear every year, ever since the workers started protesting during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many did not seem to have proper uniforms even after two years.

At Bengaluru's Freedom Park, The Quint met Venkatesh V, a 45 year old sweeper, who has been working with the BBMP since 2010. "We are given only one set of uniform per year. However, I haven't received mine for the past two years. I continue to wear this as the Marshals on duty fine us for indiscipline," he said.

Pushpa Latha on ESI Cards

Hundreds of woman workers attended a free medical camp arranged at the protest site in Bengaluru.

(Photo: Ananth Shreyas/The Quint)

Pushpa Latha, another sweeper from Vijayanagar, has been demanding an Employees State Insurance (ESI) card for health benefits. Despite working 20 years, she said that she gets paid only Rs 14,000 per month.

Speaking to The Quint, Latha said, "We have to work without any rest. There are no sick leaves that one can avail. If my health doesn't permit me to work, then I lose Rs 600 that day. The government seems to be deaf, or they are just inhuman."


On 200 Tonnes of Waste a Day

The pourakarmikas said that they will continue the indefinite sit-in protest until their demands are fully met by the Karnataka government. 

(Photo: Ananth Shreyas/The Quint)

There are a total of 41,373 pourakarmikas, 12,387 loaders and other cleaners, and 752 helpers to manage the Underground Drainage System across Karnataka. A total of 26,349 pourakarmikas are under direct payment of the government.

Meanwhile, the BBMP which employs 16,516 pourakarmikas, pays only 4,600 directly, and 11,916 others continue to be under contractual employment.

Demanding permanent employment, a worker on the condition of anonymity said, "Today, very few drivers have joined the protest. When we are on a strike, the government makes a lot more money by not paying us. Instead, they ask auto and lorry drivers to pick up garbage of 200 tonnes that Bengaluru approximately generates in a day."

Balanarasamma on Lack of Toilets & Water

Out of the 54,512 pourakarmikas, more than 5,000 are aged above 50 are suffering from several health ailments.  

(Photo: Ananth Shreyas/The Quint)

Recently, President Ram Nath Kovind, CM Basavaraj Bommai and Governor Thawar Chand Ghelot inaugurated the newly built ISKCON temple at Kanakapura.

The workers gathered at the rally claimed that they were asked to work extra hours and clean the entire area around the ISKCON campus due to the president's visit. However, they alleged that the workers were not paid extra money for the clearing the garbage around the area.

Balanarasamma, a 50-year old working has been working as a garbage collector and sweeper for past 25 years. She told The Quint, that she was employed for the work even before the BBMP was founded in its present form.

"I started when they were paying me Rs 60 per month. Today, I earn as much as everybody else who have gathered here. But, what concerns me the most is not just money, but the lack of facilities that the government gives. Let the government first give us proper access to washrooms, water, and healthy food," she added in her interaction with The Quint.


Aiyyamma on Lack of Maternity Benefits

A Pourakarmika from Yadgiri working in Bengaluru from past 12 years with her 2 year old daughter at the protest. 

(Photo: Ananth Shreyas/The Quint)

While the new labour codes dictate that women employees will benefit from an increase in maternity leave up to 26 weeks, several workers are not being paid during pregnancy and early stage of motherhood, they alleged.

Aiyyamma H, who has a two year old daughter had been unemployed with the BBMP not paying her salary for over a year. "I have returned to work now, as my 12 year old daughter takes care of the younger kid. I made my elder daughter drop out of school as I have no other option," he told The Quint.

'All Workers Are One'

Families of pourkarmikas are also demanding grievance amount for the deaths caused due to ill health.

(Photo: Ananth Shreyas/The Quint)

In 2017, under the special recruitment rules for pourakarmikas, the government categorised only those who sweep the streets as pourakarmikas and others like garbage collectors, truck drivers, loaders and helpers who work on the vehicles for Solid Waste Management, and drain cleaners continue to remain under contracts.

On the first day of the protest, the joint struggle committee of pourakarmika unions put forward its single point agenda, and called for the government to recognise all workers, regardless of what category they belong to, to be treated as sanitation workers.


'Give Pay Parity'

The designation pourakarmika refers to sweepers and helpers who collect waste and clean public places, while the term safai karmacharis refers to people engaged manual sanitation work.

(Photo: Ananth Shreyas/The Quint)

Coming from all 198 wards in Bengaluru, workers on contractual roles demanded that they get paid as much as the permanent workers who earn Rs 40,000 per month.

Meanwhile, the chief minister's office has said that officials are interested in organising a meeting with the stakeholders concerned to resolve the strike.

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