The official Government ‘celebrations’ of International Women’s Day came a cropper in Bengaluru thanks to a powerful strike by the city Municipal Corporation’s contract sanitation workers (97% of whom are Dalit women). The BBMP (the local administrative body in Bangalore) had not paid the workers arrears from August 2016. After a series of protests, wages for the contracted powrakarmikas (corporation workers) had been revised from Rs 7000 in most wards to Rs 14000 through a government notification. However, the BBMP has continued to pay the former unrevised wages. While the BBMP claims that the money for the arrears has been released, the passbooks of the workers indicate that they have not received it. The powrakarmikas of the union, the BBMP Guttige Powrakarmikara Sangha decided to Strike on International Women’s Day, to demand that the BBMP pay them their arrears, and also ensure their safety and dignity at work.
‘Know Your Powrakarmika’ Campaign
In the week before 8 March, an intense campaign was held in the Indiranagar, Koramangala, Malleswaram and RT Nagar areas, appealing to residents to ‘Know Your Powrakarmika’ and highlighting the insanitary, inhuman and dangerous conditions under which sanitation work is done. This campaign was all the more important because this work and the workers are kept ‘invisible’. The campaign held photo exhibitions highlighting the lives and work of the powrakarmikas, and involved children in creating street graffiti in support of the workers. On social media, the campaign shared a video of a protest song (with music by Hanumantharayappa) which hailed the sanitation worker, singing “Jhadamali, if you do not sweep the streets, the roosters do not crow, nor does the sun rise in the morning…the life-long struggle for food is soiled by shit and filth in the gutters…” A recent health check-up of powrakarmikas found a very large proportion of them suffering from mouth cancer from the betel-nut they chewed to avoid having to drink water. Drinking water would mean that they would need toilets – and they have no access to toilets while at work on the streets. In most wards, the workers are receiving Rs 7000. In HAL Airport ward the wages are as low as Rs 6000 and in some wards such as Gandhinagar wages are as low as Rs 5000.
On 3 March, five days before Women’s Day, more than 3000 students from St Joseph’s Commerce College, St Joseph’s Evening College, Mount Carmel College, Aloysius College, Jyothi Nivas College, St Joseph’s Arts and Science College and Jain College responded to an appeal by the Union, and gathered at Town Hall in support of the striking workers, where a skit was performed and the photo exhibition displayed. When the Mayor, Ms G Padmavathi came to meet the gathering, students submitted a memorandum to her, pointing out that the workers “clean our drainages, handle the garbage of the city, take out the dirt of our toilets and latrines sometimes even with the bare hands and do all other kinds of menial work,” and “are abused by contractors, not paid just wages by the government and ill-treated by society. Residents insult them, citizens curse and abuse them and they are treated with contempt. They are victims of verbal, physical and even sexual abuse with no recourse to grievance redressal.” The memorandum raised the issue of caste, “All of them belong to the untouchable community of Madigas, mostly women who have no option of moving into another job given their traditional occupation and stigma attached to it. Society simply does not accept them in other occupations.” They said, “What shocks us more than anything else is the treatment meted out to them by the state and government. They are denied a wage for living. …The contractors who have been in charge of the Powrakarmikas have been their greatest exploiters.”
f. Full compliance with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013.
Women’s Day Strike!
On 8 March 2017, more than 1000 powrakarmikas gathered outside the BBMP office in protest against the apathy of the government towards their inhuman working condition and the blatant violation of labour laws with non-payment of wages. Contractors in several wards threatened the workers against going on strike. Braving the threats, thousands of workers gathered from Indiranagar, RT Nagar, Koramanagala, Hegganahalli, Kengeri, Ramamurthynagar, Gandhinagar, Banaswadi and Yelahanka outside the BBMP headquarters.
Most newspapers that morning had IWD features raising issues of safety and rights – but mostly even the more serious stories invisibilised caste and raised concerns only of the women of privileged classes. Advertisements and government propaganda meanwhile played to stereotypes of women as consumers of cosmetics, gifts who are obsessed with their looks and body image.
The powrakarmikas arrived at the BBMP office to find that the Karnataka government was hosting its own Women’s Day celebration on the premises of the BBMP office itself, with stalls selling handicrafts and offering body-fat check-ups for women. What a contrast between these stalls and the women with callused hands and lined faces, full of energetic slogans and embodying the real IWD fighting spirit on the other side of the road!
The police was most distressed by the gathering numbers of powrakarmikas, particularly because the Chief Minister was scheduled to make an appearance at the official Women’s Day programme. A police officer told some activists, “Why did you have to protest on Women’s Day? If you want to celebrate Women’s Day why don’t you ask the women to go to the official stalls and buy something?” The powrakarmikas, hearing this, asked the cops, “We haven’t been paid by the Corporation and you now want us to buy stuff at the Corporation’s stalls?”
When the CM turned up in his car, he rolled down his window to greet the women, thinking they were crowds gathered for the government IWD event. He heard the angry slogans of women workers directed at him and hastily rolled up his window again!
A bust representing a powrakarmika had been made by a group of artists. After some hassling with the police who refused to allow it to be installed on the premises, the bust was tied to the outer fence of the Corporation office as a symbol of protest. A theatre group also joined the workers with beats and drums carrying with them a giant giant papier maché figure representing a powrakarmika. The lively IWD demonstration by the powrakarmikas soon attracted the attention of all bystanders while the official government stalls were left desolate. Students who had been tasked with operating the government stalls all came over to the other side, enquiring about what the protests was about. They could all be heard talking amongst themselves, expressing shock and dismay at the government’s treatment of the workers.
‘Varalakshmi Is My Name, Do What You Like!’
An agitated Mayor Ms G Padmavathi came out to demand from the workers why they were striking today. She told them, “You should be careful, you may be fired.” At this, Varalakshmi stood up defiantly and declared her name and ward number, daring the Mayor to “Do what you please, I’m not scared of you!” Other workers asked Ms Padmavathi, “Aren’t we women, don’t our rights matter?”
Contractors from Horamavu and Ramurthynagar also arrived at the scene with one of them threatening to fire the workers for striking. The powrakarmikas responded with even louder slogans.
Several activists, students and filmmakers came out to declare support for the powrakarmikas’ IWD Strike, including film director BM Giriraj, noted activist and writer G Ramakrishna, and leading feminist activist Donna Fernandes.
A journalist came up to ask Meena, a powrakarmika, what her demands were. Meena’s teenage daughter Monisha was by her side, and interrupted her mother to tell the journalist, “My mother has always wanted to visit Cubbon Park, I want her to get a weekly day off, so that I can take her to spend the day at the park!”
After a few hours of protest, the BBMP commissioner called the Union members in to his office to discuss the demands. The four main demands raised were:
1) Immediate payment of arrears which amounts to about Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000
2) Regularisation as has been promised by the Karnataka cabinet and chief minister Siddharamiah
3) Weekly off, festival off and national holiday off
4) Direct payment of arrears and future salaries from the government
The Commissioner responded with the following assurances:
1) Rs. 21,000/- will be deposited in workers accounts in 2 weeks, the remaining will be deposited in 1 month.
2) BBMP will regularize Powrakarmikas, but modalities need to be worked out so it will take time
3) Weekly off will be started soon. Commissioner will meet with the Union representatives next week to discuss modalities of the weekly off on rotation basis.
4) The Chief Minister has also ordered BBMP to pay arrears and future salaries directly, and this will be started in the next few weeks
The Commissioner came out to speak to the workers and make the agreement public. When he said “the Government wants to ensure that the children of powrakarmikas are not forced to become powrakarmikas in turn, one of the workers, Anjamma retorted, “The only way to ensure this is by regularizing the contract workers today.”
Based on the assurance given by the commissioner, the strike was withdrawn. There was some scepticism as the same promise had been made about four times before as well. However, in the week following the Strike, the government has slowly started paying the arrears to the workers. While they are yet to reach all the workers, the March 8 Women’s Day protest certainly succeeded in pressuring the government to pay the workers their wages and ensure a minimum dignity of labour. However, there is still a long way to go with the modalities for the weekly off and the proper implementation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act for powrakarmikas, yet to be worked out.