Scenes of hundreds of police officials with their vehicles ready were a common site at Coimbatore’s District Collectorate and Corporation for the last three days as thousands of contractual sanitation workers protested.
Their main demands are equal pay for equal rights and job regularisation.
And as they united to protest and express their dismay over the non-implementation of their 18-point charter of demands, sanitation work in the city came to a standstill.
Nearly 4,500 contractual sanitation labourers work under the Coimbatore Corporation limits.
Almost all the workers, including the conservancy workers from 10 unions in the district, municipalities, panchayats, and Government Hospital Sanitary Workers, went on an indefinite strike, leaving most places uncleaned.
The Tamil Nadu Annal Ambedkar Scavengers General Employee Union general secretary, who led the strike, told South First that they demanded revision of wages as per Government Order (GO) 62.
The order, which the government passed in 2017, directed local officials to pay these contractual labourers ₹721 per day. However, years after the announcement, these labourers get paid ₹323 rupees daily.
Demand pending for half a decade
Nearly five years since the GO promised the contractual labourers equal pay for equal work, the district administration continues to sit on the order, unwilling to implement it, said the protesters.
The contractual labourers get ₹10,000 per month, but permanent labourers get more than what they get, besides other benefits.
“We are not asking for anything bigger, but equal pay for our work. Local officials say the revised wage fixation under GO 62 of the Labour Department has been under process for these many years, but why are they taking so much time? Because they don’t see us suffering?” Selvam asked.
With the lack of permanent employees, the Coimbatore City Municipal Corporation (CCMC) deploys contractual labourers to clean the city that produces around 1,200 tonnes of garbage daily.
“I report to work at 6.30 am every day, and it ends at around 12.30-1 pm. However, I remain on the streets, collecting papers, plastics, and steel to make a living and fund my kids’ education,” Tamil Selvi, a protester, told South First.
“I have to feed my family with only these sources of income. What is stopping the officials from making us permanent employees and giving us the revised wages as per GO 62?” she asked.
Mahalakshmi, a 43-year-old sanitation worker, told South First that her family goes hungry.
“The amount I’m earning is insufficient these days, because of a steep rise in prices of commodities. As a result, my family sometimes goes hungry. We will continue to sit on this indefinite strike until the government fulfils our demands,” she said.
“A dominant-caste Hindu denied me a housekeeping job because of my caste and background when I approached them for a job as I was unable to make a living,” she added.
Her 46-year-old husband Muthu is a daily wager in a private factory in Coimbatore.
Strike called off?
As the indefinite strike continued for the third day, District Collector Sameeran and CCMC Commissioner M Prathap, along with other officials, called on the contractual labourers to talk, which followed the end of the indefinite strike.
Selvam told South First that they held talks with the officials, who promised to look into their demands. He added that the labourers would go on a strike if the promises were not met.
The decision came after the commissioner warned of action if they did not return to work, and the police took thousands of contractual labourers into protective custody on 3 October and subsequently released them.
A highly placed source in the CCMC told South First that the requests of these contractual labourers were a policy decision that required the intervention of the top officials in the state government.
However, Selvam said they called off the strike as the city was reeking due to the trash and not because of the warnings from the officials.
The district collector was not available for comments.
(All names, except that of Selvam, have been changed to protect their identity.)