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Poor earnings, no social security, unprotected by law: Plight of India's 'stigmatized' jobs

By Sumeet Mhaskar*
All the stigmatized occupations fall in the informal economy. An exception is in the case of sanitation workers, a tiny minority among whom is part of the organized workforce. As per the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 employers are required to hire labour on a regular employment basis for jobs that are perennial in nature.
Given the fact that sanitation work is perennial in nature, the overwhelming majority of sanitation workers should have been part of the organized workforce. However, state authorities in connivance with contractors have found ways to defy contract labour regulations and hire majority of the sanitation workforce on a contractual basis.
For instance, the contract labour regulations are applicable to establishments that hire more than 20 workers. To bypass this provision, the Mumbai municipal corporation has been outsourcing sanitation work to over 200 contractors who hire less than 20 workers. Although hired on contractual basis, sanitation workers have the right to demand permanent employment if they were engaged continuously for 240 days under the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947. This provision too is by-passed as contractors hire workers for 210 days and then subsequently hire them on a new contract.
Due to the contractual arrangement, sanitation workers are then deprived of all other social security benefits that are available to a regular employee such as paid leave, gratuity, bonus, medical facilities and retirement benefits. One, therefore, encounters sanitation workers and manual scavengers with lower wages.
At times, there is a great deal of disparity among them too. For instance, a permanent sanitation worker of the municipal corporation draws a monthly salary of say INR 25,000. The same employee, after working for nearly 15-20 years, draws a monthly salary that ranges from INR 90,000 to INR 120,000 per month as per the seventh pay commission. In addition to salary, permanent workers are also eligible for wide-ranging social security benefits.
On the other hand, the contract workers are paid on a daily basis and the salary can range between INR 6000 to INR 11,000 per month. Besides, as contract workers, it is a complicated process for them to claim compensations in case of death, especially while cleaning sewers.
The employment conditions of rag pickers are complicated by the fact that they are considered self-employed and therefore there is no legal relationship between the scrap collector, who are at the lowest rung in the urban informal economy, and the municipality or its traders. 
This is despite the fact that some of the waste picking activity is organized through contractors. As a result, their work is not legally recognized, and it is not uncommon for the waste pickers to experience ‘abuse, unwarranted suspicion and harassment from the police, municipal workers and citizens’.
In terms of their earnings, on an average waste pickers earn about INR 50 per day. A study on the Delhi waste pickers found something unusual. A section of the waste pickers belonging to a village in the eastern Uttar Pradesh had registered themselves under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA). A few of them even returned to claim the 100 days guaranteed employment under the scheme.
While the proportion is small it is nonetheless an interesting finding as to what the state led employment programmes can achieve. The working conditions of workers in the butchering and leather industry is more or less similar to what has been explained so far.
In the case of leather industry, the Factories Act, 1948 prohibits women and children from working in these industries. However, employers have been flouting these regulations resulting in an illegal expansion of the leather industry where women belonging to Dalit castes are hired. Given the illegality involved in the hiring, the employees are neither in a position to claim legal protection nor any other benefits under welfare schemes offered by the central, state or local governments.
Besides, the wages women receive are consolidated and they do not receive any additional payment for any extra work done by them. As for butchering, the spatial location for these occupations has almost always been on the fringes of the locality. The rapid expansion of cities in the 20th century has meant that the slaughter houses increasingly acquired central spaces and were gradually shifted to the outskirts.
The ban on beef in several Indian states has complicated this situation further. All the occupations explained above have undergone transformations. One of the ways of improving working conditions has been the mechanization of work. While this seems like a way ahead, it is at times met with hostility by the workers themselves due to the fact that the introduction of such technologies does not accompany alternative jobs for the potentially redundant workers.
Moreover, the technological transformation of occupations has little if any positive bearing for the workforce. In some cases, such as the use of chemicals for tanning the leather resulted in health complications for the workforce. This aspect is explored in the following section.
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*This is the second part of the three part series on the state of stigmatized occupations in India, excerpted from “The State of Stigmatized Employment in India: Historical Injustices of Labouring”, published by Oxfam Inida in the book “Mind the Gap: The State of Employment in India”. Click HERE to download

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