Temporary workers keep Chennai going at great personal cost

Temporary and contract workers are engaged in jobs providing crucial public service across Chennai but have no job guarantee or benefits.

“Thamizhaga arase Thamizhaga arase, saga venduma nangal? Appo than paarpaya?” (Will the government of Tamil Nadu pay attention to our plight only when we die?) This was the chorus of around 1,500 temporary workers of Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply & Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) that echoed at the entrance of the Board’s office for ten continuous days. The reason for the protest was the decision to outsource manpower through private contractors and overlook the demands of temporary workers engaged by the CMWSSB.

Even as Chennai has grown in the past few decades, the sanctioned posts in many key departments remain vacant or have been significantly reduced. Be it solid waste management, water supply, sewage maintenance, health or electricity, many workers providing crucial services to the public work under conditions of great precarity by being engaged on a temporary or contract basis.

Chennai metro water temporary workers protest

Do you find your road silt-free, sewage blockages cleared and receive drinking water on time? Here is what you need to know about the workers who make your lives easy.

Ganesh*, who joined the CMWSSB as a temporary worker 22 years ago, starts his day as early as 5.30 am. He lives in Urapakkam and has to travel over 30 km to Royapettah for work. 

“We are called ‘Kala Paniyalar’ (field workers). We clear blocked manholes, sewage and drinking water lines. Some of us are also deployed for clearing silt along the roadside, operating super-sucker machines, jet rodder trucks and pumping stations,” he said.

The hours are uncertain as the work would be scheduled based on public complaints. “We do not have any particular working hours. Whenever there is a complaint, we have to be there,” he said. 

On days when he has to attend to complaints at night, he would often not be able to travel home due to the non-availability of transport. During times of floods or heavy downpours, the workers stay at the office for days together to clear the blockages in stormwater drains and sewage lines.

Despite the principal employer being the government, the pay for temporary workers remains meagre. When S Venkatesh joined as a temporary worker at CMWSSB 19 years ago, his salary was Rs 2,800 per month. In 2021, his pay was Rs 6,000 per month. Following the implementation of minimum wages, he has been getting a sum of Rs 11,000 per month. 

With the government’s move to outsource the manpower through a private contractor, temporary workers would now get Rs 9,000 per month as the contractor takes a cut.

“We do not have week offs. Even if we are given four days off in a month, we get paid only for 26 days. We do not have any benefits that a permanent employee would have which include health insurance, accident coverage, government holidays, casual leave, medical leaves, maternity leaves or provident fund contribution. We are not paid extra for the additional hours of work we do but the salary is deducted when we take a day off,” noted Venkatesh.

Janakiraman, a temporary worker who was working with the CMWSSB for nearly 10 years, met with an accident while operating a machine a few months ago during work. He has not been given any compensation to date, leaving him, the only breadwinner of his family, in a bedridden condition.

Last month, the Board announced that the temporary workers would now be working on a contract basis under a private contractor and any grievances should be addressed to the contractor directly. This led the workers to go on a 10-day sit-in protest at the office of CMWSSB. 

“Though there were no promises made at the time of our employment that we would be made permanent, we were hoping the government would recognise our service and ensure job safety. Now that we are left at the hands of a contractor, who has not met us to this date, we are being threatened with lay-offs if we question them,” said Venkatesh.

What did the government do when the workers, who have been toiling to make our lives easy, sat in protest? The local officials hired new employees on a daily wage basis to carry out the work usually performed by the temporary workers.

Read more: Hired under NULM, fired without notice: Conservancy workers in Chennai wait for justice

Chennai’s conservancy workers hit by temporary status

Apart from the low pay, the major fear of these workers was that they could lose their jobs at any time. The treatment of the temporary sanitary workers and conservancy workers is a testament to this.

According to D Subramaniam, a sanitary worker employed on a contract basis with Greater Chennai Corporation, the GCC has been outsourcing sanitary work since 2000. However, only three of the 15 zones (zone 9,10 and 11) were given to private contractors back then. Now that the solid waste management (SWM) contract for 11 zones has been privatised, many contract workers lost their jobs as they were not rehired for the role.

J Kamatchi (45) worked as a temporary sanitation worker with the GCC for nearly 15 years. When the local body gave the SWM contract to Urbaser Sumeet, one of the two contractors, she was let go. She was told that she was too old and was not eligible for the job. The contractor mostly retained able-bodied men among the workforce.

“Their problem was not our age but that we have been working here for a very long time and we would question them. If a new person is employed, who has no experience in the work, they could easily threaten to terminate them and get the work done,” she said. 

Kamatchi was one among the thousands of sanitary workers who risked their lives and worked in containment zones when the COVID gripped the city. She, like many other temporary workers, did not receive any incentive or monetary benefit for her work during the pandemic. She now works as a household help to make ends meet.

S Kasi, one of the sanitary workers, who was retained by the new contractor, said that the manpower was very low in the zones where solid waste management has been privatised. “There are 40 workers in a place where there should be 100 workers. Though we insist on source-level segregation of garbage, not many residents do it. This adds to our workload,” he said. He added that in the zones where the permanent employees we adequate in number, the workload was comparatively less. 

Further, contract workers report to duty as early as 6 am but are unable to leave home by the same time the permanent workers leave. “We are often given additional work but are not paid for the extra working hours. Besides, earlier we were given jobs near our residential areas. But now the contractor assigns us duty at far away wards citing that we would sleep at our homes if deployed in our own wards. If I cannot go home for lunch, I should spend at least Rs 50 per day on food in addition to the travel expenses. How can we manage expenses and provide for our family?” he asked.

The powerless workers of TNEB

The issues faced by temporary workers extend to those employed by the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB). Earlier in March this year, contract workers affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) working in the wiring, cable connection departments staged a sit-in protest at the premises of TNEB head office, pressing charter of demands, including regularisation of their services. 

Alleging that the Tamil Nadu government accepted the demand of a minimum salary of Rs 380 per day in the year 2018, they said that the move has not been implemented to date. 

“The DMK government promised regularisation of jobs for contract workers in its election manifesto for services rendered during disasters such as the Thane, Vardah and Gaja cyclones, but none of us has been made permanent so far. Be it the public or the government, we are remembered only when they require our services but do not pay heed to our demands when we are in need,” said J Karnan, a contract worker in TNEB who has been working for nearly 15 years. 

He said that many of them are often at the risk of dying of electrocution and work under risky conditions but have no health insurance for themselves or their family members. “I put my life on the line to ensure the public has uninterrupted power supply but who will take care of my family if something happens to me?” he asked.

While there are over 40,000 vacant posts in the state, the government continues to hire workers on a contract basis, said the TNEB workers urging the government to rather regularise the service of existing temporary workers.

Hospital workers engaged on a temporary basis speak out

According to C Saravanakumar, State General Secretary of Multipurpose Hospital Workers (MPHW), the Tamil Nadu government passed a government order in 2012 which clubbed five categories of work under one post of MPHW. This includes sanitary workers, sweepers, hospital workers, male nurse assistants and female nurse assistants. 

Based on merit and seniority, over 2,700 MPHWs have been deployed in primary health centres and over 450 MPHWs have been deployed in government hospitals across the State since 2013. Though the workers were given an oral promise of being made permanent after five years of service, even after nearly a decade their status is on par with daily wagers.

Murugan*, an MPHW working in a government hospital in the city, describes his routine. “I report to work at 8 am. I first clean my Medical Officers’ room, clean the hospital floors and sterilise the medical equipment. Once the outpatient timing opens, I issue tokens. Following lunch, I clean the hospital floors again, collect the medical waste from different rooms and also do gardening if needed. All these are in addition to the personal works of the respective medical officers, nurses, pharmacist and also frequent short trips to block medical offices, for which we would not even be provided petrol allowance,” he said.

Murugan claimed to also clean the wounds of patients with injuries. Though he is not technically qualified or allowed to do any treatment procedures for the patients, he does so following the orders of staff nurses or doctors. 

How much does Murugan get paid for all this work? He makes Rs 15,000 per month after nine years of service. He also noted that while the regular staff are entitled to all benefits, all that the temporary or a contract staff gets is a pay cut for days off. 

“More than the low pay scale, the way we are treated is what hurts me more. Be it the permanent staff or the public, they do not treat us with respect. They call us names and give orders like we are slaves,” he added.

The MPHW Association also staged a protest in March seeking to make their jobs permanent. They have been told that the health department awaits funds and once it is allocated, the order would be passed.

Chennai mini clinic workers protest
Health workers engaged in mini-clinics stage protest against termination. Pic: Shobana Radhakrishnan

Read more: It’s not just the pay! Why Chennai’s resident doctors are stressed and unhappy

Chennai’s doctors turn temporary workers

Doctors too are no exception to the exploitation of the contractual system as evidenced by the experience of some first-generation doctors working in the city.

Becoming a first-generation doctor was a dream come true moment for *Magizhan. Having worked at different private hospitals for nearly 8 years, he passed the exams conducted by Medical Services Recruitment Board (MRB) in December 2018. 

Awaiting the call to serve in a government hospital, Magizhan quit his job at a famous private hospital that paid him a handsome salary. 

“I quit the job expecting a government posting but then the pandemic hit. This stalled the recruitment process. However, in 2020 there was a notification on the MRB website calling the eligible doctors who cleared the exams for COVID duty. Later, all doctors, irrespective of their clearing the MRB exams, were asked to report for COVID duty if they wished to do so. I took up the job hoping it would later be made permanent. However, when I was employed at a government hospital in June 2020, I was recruited only on a contract basis,” he said.

Sharing his experience in handling COVID cases, he said, “The cases were already at their peak when I joined work. There was also a manpower shortage. I would handle at least 30 outpatient and 40 in-patient COVID cases per day. This was in addition to other referral cases and deaths declared frequently. We could not drink water, eat anything or use the restroom when we wanted to. Meanwhile, I got sick, my family members were also infected and worse I lost a few of my colleagues to the virus,” he said.

After six months, the doctors were told that the contract period was over and terminated from work without any prior notice. After the new government came to power, they were again recruited on a contract basis to work at mini-clinics. Then COVID cases increased again. 

“This time there was a staff shortage as well. The crowd in the hospital will be the same be it 2 am or 4 pm. Seeing many grieving families and constant deaths all around made me develop depression,” Magizhan added.

In March 2022, Magizhan and over 3,500 doctors who were employed on a contract basis were terminated again. For the past two months, he has been unemployed. 

“Many people think that doctors earn a handsome salary and once we become doctors our lives are sorted. It is not the case for many first-generation doctors like me. I have a child, family and mounting debts. The contract model of work is only a pure form of exploitation,” added Magizhan, who has now served 21 months in state-run facilities.

Yet another first-generation doctor, Aravind* graduated with an MBBS degree in 2019. As the MRB exams have not been conducted since 2018, he has given up waiting and now works at a private clinic while preparing for NEET PG. Aravind was also employed on a contract basis for COVID duty and later terminated.

The hiring of workers on a temporary basis with the promise of permanent employment has been an issue that is decades in the making. The casualisation and contractualisation of crucial public service exploit workers who spend years of their lives working taxing jobs with little to no safety net. 

While the yearly rains, the pandemic and other occurrences highlight the importance of the jobs undertaken by these workers, there has been little support for them in their struggles. 

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