This May Day, let us listen to the plight of workers in Chennai

Chennai's workers have suffered from exploitation, over-working and the impact of COVID-19. Here is what they want the government to do.

A 100 years ago, on May 1, Chennai observed May Day for the first time. A function was held in Marina Beach to mark the occasion. This was the first formal celebration of May Day in India.

In the decades since, the living conditions of workers in the city has worsened and their rights have been eroded. Labour movements in Chennai have been raising their voice on behalf of the workers to ensure basic facilities and protections are granted to them.

We speak with leaders of various labour movements in the city to understand what the workers of Chennai are up against.

Poor and precarious working conditions

Poor working conditions without breaks or basic facilities are a common issue faced by workers in many sectors of the city.

P Srinivasalu, General Secretary, Red Flag Union for Greater Chennai Corporation Sanitary Workers, says, “There are rules around working during summer. It is not implemented. Both permanent and temporary workers have been out even in the afternoon. The workers also do not have proper changing rooms, equipment or regulated work timings.”

“The government has been able to spend lakhs of rupees in renovating the councillor offices across 200 wards. But, they do not have funds to build restrooms for the sanitary workers,” says Srinivasalu.

Auto and taxi drivers of Chennai have uncapped hours and routinely work for more than eight hours at a stretch. 

Zahir Hussain A, General Secretary, Urimai Kural Drivers Union, says “Unless we work those extra hours, we cannot make ends meet. Many drivers in Chennai are from other districts in Tamil Nadu. They drive for 12 hours during the day, sleep in the vehicles during the night, use the public toilets and continue to drive again. What kind of lifestyle can this be?”

In addition to poor and unregulated working conditions, women workers bear the brunt of sexual harassment in the workplace as well. 

Sexual harassment of women workers is rampant, especially in the domestic workers’ sector. We have been demanding a committee to deal with sexual harassment cases in the welfare boards. This must be done in addition to ensuring justice to the survivors,” says, R Geetha, Advisor to Unorganised Workers Federation and Representative of Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam (Construction Workers Union).

The plight of migrant workers in various sectors involving manual labour is manifold. Many of them do not speak the local language and are prone to exploitation and overworking by the employer.

“The number of migrant workers employed in Tamil Nadu has been on the rise. The intention behind employing them is that it is easy to exploit them by paying less and getting them to work for as many hours as the employer wants,” says C Thiruvettai, President of Chennai Street Vendors Association.

Thiruvettai also flags the infringement of the rights of street vendors in the guise of beautification projects. He says, ”The city development plan is only focused on beautification. It is not concerned with the life and livelihood of the working class. The government is evicting the street vendors illegally, despite having laws in place to protect them. Such acts only show that there is no place for the working-class in a ‘Smart City’ like Chennai.”

Read more: Does Uber care? Does Ola provide ‘sahyog’? Drivers struggle to survive during lockdown

Reeling from COVID-19 aftermath

The working class population in Chennai is yet to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. Support extended during COVID-19 has stopped but the effects of the pandemic continue to linger.

Sanitation workers in the city have seen promises made to them by the government during the pandemic all but forgotten. “During the pandemic, the administration treated us with reverence. The contract workers were hopeful their jobs will be made permanent once the dust settles. The previous AIADMK government promised an incentive of Rs 2,500 and the present DMK government promised an incentive of Rs 15,000 to the workers. None of the governments have kept their promises,” says Srinivasalu.

The economic fallout from COVID-19 has had a ripple effect on the livelihood of street vendors. “The target customers for street vendors are people from the working class who continue to use cash. With the pandemic affecting their living conditions, street vendors have also begun to face losses. Unless the government takes measures for the welfare of the poor, there is no way for the street vendors to survive,” says Thiruvettai.

Many taxi and auto drivers in the city lost ownership of their vehicles due to their inability to keep up with payments as a result of the pandemic. Zahir Hussain says, “During the pandemic, many financial organisations imposed hefty interest rates for the vehicles. As the vehicle owners were unable to pay such amounts, the financial organisations seized the vehicles. The drivers who owned a vehicle before the outbreak of the pandemic are now working as drivers under different owners.”

Geetha talks of the lack of a safety net for domestic and construction workers that were exposed during the pandemic. “When people in these sectors fall ill, their finances take a huge hit. Smaller accidents like fractures take three or four months of recovery time. Who will provide the worker’s support during this period?”

Role of labour unions

Labour unions have lent their voices to the working class population in Chennai for decades. However, these days the unions find themselves defanged. With moves towards contractualisation and temporary work, the ability of the workers to unionise and bargain collectively has diminished. 

“We have been raising the same concerns of sanitary workers for years but the administration has refused to lend ear to us. The administration gets certificates for Swachh Bharat Mission but workers who help them get such accolades do not even have basic amenities. The union can raise these issues but it is the administration that has to bring in the changes,” says Srinivasalu.

“There is no way for contract workers to unionise as they are being threatened with termination. This leaves them with no avenue to redress their issues,” he adds.

Talking of landmark legislations such as the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014, Thiruvettai says, “These laws don’t take shape due to the empathy of the administrators. It is the result of years of struggle of the trade unions and labour movements. Unions have played a major role in launching legal battles for a larger social cause. All the rights that exist, at least on paper, to protect the rights of the workers are the result of these protests and legal battles.” 

Echoing the role of labour unions in securing the rights of workers, Zahir Hussain says, “There are only two welfare boards in Tamil Nadu which function on their own revenue. The Tamil Nadu Drivers and Automobile Workshop Workers Welfare Board is one and has over Rs 450 crore as corpus. But the Board has been dispensing a sum of Rs 50,000 and Rs 20,000 for any accidental and natural deaths of the drivers respectively.”

“The drivers’ union had to intervene to ensure that these sums were increased to Rs 5 lakhs and Rs 2 lakhs respectively. The demand was met by the Board after an eight-year-long battle by the labour unions,” says Zahir Hussain.

“The labour rights that we have now did not come easily. It is the result of decades of fight by the labour unions. Even then the workers are not able to exercise all the rights to the fullest in spirit and on paper,” says G Selva, Central Chennai District Secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist).

chennai conservancy workers
Workers have had to take to the streets to secure their rights. Pic: Bhavani Prabhakar

Geetha points out that despite battling for the welfare of workers, many unions do not have adequate representation of women. 

“There is no doubt that unions are male-dominated spaces. We want more women to take an active part in labour unions,” she says. 

Read more: Photo story: Life in single-room homes in Chennai

What the government must do

There is much the State and Central governments can do to protect the lives and livelihood of the workers in Chennai.

“The contract workers should be allowed to form unions. Many contract workers continue to be paid between Rs 8,000 to Rs 12,000, including the ESI and PF. This is much less than the minimum wage. The government should implement the Minimum Wages Act,” says Srinivasalu.

The demands of the street vendors include recognising their rights under the Street Vendors Act. “In case the government has to evict street vendors, it should consult the vendors first and provide them with an alternative space preferred by the vendors that does not affect their livelihood. The Vending Committee should be selected in a democratic way. The government should also ensure fair representation of the vendors in the Committee,” says Thiruvettai.

Auto and taxi drivers in the city want a revision of fares and a means to work outside the ambit of ride-sharing apps like Ola and Uber. “We have been demanding a hike in basic fare for autos and cabs considering the increasing fuel prices. We also want the government to launch a mobile application like Ola or Uber. The government has taken some measures for this and we have also received correspondence in this regard,” says Zahir Hussain.

For domestic and construction workers, better support from the government must come in the way of aid for education and medical expenses, says Geetha. 

“The Construction Workers Welfare Board has a corpus of over Rs 5,000 crore but the amount is not being utilised for the welfare of the workers. We demand the government increase financial assistance for the education of the workers’ children and also provide them assistance right from Class 1,” says Geetha.

“The government has not been filling the vacant posts in the public sector. They have been increasing the retirement age to keep the existing permanent workers and outsourcing the labour force through contractual methods. This leads to an increasing unemployment rate among qualified youngsters,” says Selva.

“The exploitation of the labour force has reached a point where human labour is seen as the cheapest product. This is what the government should rectify on priority,” says Selva.

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