India is learning what happens when you treat sanitation workers like garbage

Garbage is strewn along the roadside during a sanitation workers' strike in New Delhi on June 11, 2015. Workers were striking again in October — again for non-payment of salaries.

NEW DELHI, India — Delhi is a mess, and a worse one than usual. Since late last month sanitation workers here have been on strike, refusing to pick up garbage and even dumping piles of trash in the streets.

The capital generates 9,000 metric tons of waste every day. Residents have complained that it’s irresponsible for workers to abandon the city in the middle of the festival season, a time during which trash volume has been known to spike 30 percent. But it's the city that has abandoned the people who clean it up, workers contend.

Sanitation workers have one key demand: their salaries. Of the three city government units in the capital, East Delhi alone owes its 14,000 workers $30 million. That amounts to well over $2,000 each owed to workers who only make $5-10 a day.

A pending payment of that size represents a crushing income deficit.

“I was married, but my wife and child have left me because I couldn’t provide for them. I am also very ill now,” said Joginder, a 37-year-old Delhi resident who has been a sanitation worker for 18 years. He hasn’t been paid for three months. “I am so tired of my life, it feels like a burden.” 

Despite his difficulties, Joginder has it easier than many of the people he works with. He is a “regularized” worker, being paid a monthly salary unlike temporary workers who earn a daily wage. Daily wage-earners make half the amount permanent workers do, just $5 a day. 

This isn't the first time this year that pay for Delhi's cleaners has been held up. Sanitation workers went on strike in June after months of waiting for their pay. It took 12 days of demonstrations to get the government to agree to release their salaries. 

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It didn't take long for the payments to stop again. Rajendra Mewati, a sanitation workers’ union leader, says the workers who are getting by are doing it on credit. “As they don’t get paid they have to take out loans, and then they have to live their lives in debt,” hesaid. “We simply want [the municipalities] to implement the policies they already have.”

But the mayor of the East Delhi Municipal Corporation, Harsh Deep Malhotra, claims the municipal body is helpless.

“We can almost agree with the rest of their demands, find a middle path through discussions, but our financial status is not such that we can pay the arrears now,” said Malhotra. “It’s the responsibility of the Delhi government to make the municipal corporations financially viable, which they are not doing.” According to Malhotra, the state government isn't keeping their promise to cover the massive municipal deficit.

While sanitation workers struggle to keep their lives going, their paychecks are caught up in disagreements between state and central authorities over administration. The local governing bodies blame the state for withholding promised funds; the state blames the central government for not allocating enough money. 

Beyond their salaries, the striking workers are also demanding better job protection.

India’s Industrial Disputes Act of 1947 and its subsequent amendment in 1964 award a worker the right to claim a permanent position or "regularization" once they have worked for 240 days. Unions cite this law and subsequent judicial rulings to claim sanitation workers' right to be regularized after eight months, but some of Delhi’s daily wage earners have cleaned the city for decades without getting permanent positions. 

Unions report that people are frequently kept in temporary positions for 10 to 12 years. Even the relatively-better-off Joginder worked at day rates for seven years before he got permanent status. 

Sanjay Gehlot, the president of an umbrella organization for 27 sanitation workers’ unions that together represent 80,000 people, says avoiding regularizing workers is a way to cut costs. “As this work falls in the ‘essential jobs’ category, they would have to hire substitutes if a permanent worker is on leave, and they don’t want to do that,” Gehlot said.

“They have started a ‘Clean India’ campaign, but if they invest that money in the sanitation workers instead they wouldn’t even need [a campaign]. But nobody pays attention to the sanitation workers.” 

Mayor Malhotra, however, contends that “regularization” is continuing at a steady pace, and says claims to the contrary are "politically motivated."

“We have regularized 7,500 workers in 2009, and in the last three years we have regularized 4,500 in East Delhi itself,” said Malhotra. “It has increased our financial burden, but in spite of this we have given them permanent positions.”

The workers unions organizing the strikes have two more demands: provision of safety equipment and healthcare reimbursement. Right now, workers pay for their own medical care, and often do not even receive uniforms, let alone protective equipment.

Workers sweep the streets, clean the drains, and enter 8-foot-deep sewage systems without any masks, boots or safety cables. 

“They do the dirtiest work, right from the moment they wake up," said Mewati. He added that many of these workers die from the toxicity of their jobs. “If in the country’s capital, they are treating sanitation workers like slaves, you can imagine what is happening in other parts.” 

Unfortunately, the strike is unlikely to do much for the 120,000 sanitation workers the unions say service Delhi. Those driving the garbage trucks are continuing to work, and outsourced agencies are picking up the trash. Malhotra contends that the impact of the strike has been minimal, and says the workers will simply have to be patient.

But it's getting harder and harder for them to wait.

“We just want to be heard. If you visit our houses, you’ll see there is no water, electricity, or food. It will bring you to tears,” said Joginder.