A Dialogue Between Sanitation Workers of India and UK
A webinar was organized on 18th November jointly by the All India Central Council of Trade Unions, the Cleaners and Facilities Branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and the South Asia Solidarity Group to share and build solidarity between sanitation workers across countries.
The speakers at the webinar included Com. Nirmala, the president of the BBMP Pourakarmikara Sangha (Bangalore), Sucheta De, Vice-President of All India Central Council of Trade Unions and Charlie Macnamara, IWGB Head of Organizing and branch support, Wilson Ayala, IWGB Cleaners and Facilities Branch Chair and Maritza Castillo Calle, Vice-President, IWGB. They were joined by several sanitation workers from London and India.
Com. Nirmala spoke on the experiences of sanitation workers struggles in Karnataka. She detailed the manner of formation of the union in Bengaluru and how it spread to various parts of the state. She said that this is a caste ordained occupation, workers are almost entirely from the Dalit community and almost 90% of them are women. She spoke of the harsh working conditions and the triple oppression of caste, class and gender faced by them. She elaborated the struggles of pourakarmikas (sanitation workers) for basic rights and dignity and the workers strikes in 2017 and 2022 that resulted in successful elimination of the contract labour system and moving towards secure employment. The struggles of the workers and the union were not only for economic demands, but also for their social dignity. The fight for dignity is a core of our trade union practice because of the caste-ordained nature of the work and also because the entire workforce was only Dalits. Workers are subjected to untouchability, not even provided drinking water, or any basic amenities. We fought for an economic justice together with social justice. We fought for dignified working and living conditions, permanency, fair wages, annihilation of caste and for the emancipation of women.
Com. Sucheta, Vice-president of the AICCTU shared the experiences of the struggles of sanitation workers in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She narrated how AISA, the student’s organisation and AICCTU, the trade union came together to fight for the rights of the workers in the campus. She explained the militant movement of thousands of students and workers who came together to ensure the workers’ rights. The workers were working in extremely dire conditions, not even being paid minimum wages. The administration was so adamant in denying workers their rights, terminating them and even rusticated students, but the movement stood strong, and forced the administration of JNU to acknowledge the right to minimum wages of the workers. She detailed the concerted effort of the forces of domination to deny workers their right, to perpetuate caste hierarchies and historical oppression. The fight for the right to dignified working conditions that began in 2009 in JNU continues till date. The union not only ensured payment of minimum wages and provision of social security, but also stopped heinous practices such as manual scavenging inside the campus. All this was possible because of the undaunted fighting spirit of the workers. Sucheta described how sanitation workers engaged on contractual basis in institutions across Delhi were denied of every basic rights. From minimum wages, timely payment, regularisation, ESI, PF, provision of safety equipments, to equal pay for equal work - every single right of sanitation workers is being blatantly violated. Recently, AICCTU led a struggle to ensure minimum wages for contractual sanitation workers in hospitals in Delhi. It is indeed shameful that the administration of Kalawati Saran Hospital Complex in Delhi has retrenched sanitation workers for demanding minimum wages. AICCTU units in Delhi are fighting battles for the dignity and rights of sanitation workers despite facing a series of crackdowns from managements.
Com. Charles Aprile, an IWGB Organizer who has worked across the Cleaners and Facilities and IWGB Universities Branch spoke about their union that was started about 11 years ago by precariously employed migrant workers, largely from Latin America, who work as outsourced cleaners. The Union has now grown into 12 different branches, working with workers who have been ignored by traditional trade unions in the country. The struggles have been primarily against outsourcing and to demand equal rights for the outsourced workers on par with direct employees. The union emphasises the need to take direct action to demand rights, in a situation where there is racial discrimination and migrant precarity. This includes public shaming of employers by bringing the abuse and illegalities to light, mobilizing people to take action to support workers, conducting strikes and boycott of employers to compel them to meet the demands. He spoke of the similarities to the experiences in India, where there has been a repeated attack against migrant workers and indignity is used to humiliate workers, and the fight for rights is also a fight for dignity.
Wilson Ayala Romero, the Chair of the Cleaners & Facilities spoke of how outsourcing, and the contract system were the ultimate modern exploitation system, where contractors exploited workers and made large profits exploiting the labour of workers. Today, outsourcing companies are offering cheaper services, which means that workers are pushed further into vulnerability and are forced to work under poor working conditions. Being migrant workers, only adds to their precarity. He spoke of a recent camping that took place in a hospital, where workers were not given the necessary vaccines, and were also facing discrimination in their treatment. Cleaners are forced to work very long hours to make the money needed to survive but are denied even basic rights like sick pay. As a union, the push is to empower workers to be able to raise their voice and demand their rights. He spoke of the importance of this meeting, to be able to share experiences and be there for each other.
Maritza Castillo Calle, the Vice-President of the Independent Workers' Union of Great Britain spoke about the manner in which the union fought for their rights and her own transformation from an outsourced cleaner into an activist. She was working as an outsourced cleaner at the University of London, where she suffered a lot of labour abuse, including overworking, precarity, sexual harassment and being treated as a second class worker. Migrant workers don’t know their rights, don’t speak the language which increases their precarity and the union is important for them to come together to demand their rights. The IWGB has a campaign demanding 3 things – full sick pay, better holiday, better pension equal to the direct staff. The campaign lasted 10 years, which not only fulfilled these demands, but also ended outsourcing and discrimination in the industry. This campaign resulted in one of the biggest strikes of outsourced workers in the history of higher education in the UK. This fight isn’t easy, but with the collective fight of workers and support and solidarity of allies, this injustice can and will be fought.
It was an important conversation where striking parallels, as well as many key differences came out. The manner in which outsourcing has become a common means to deny workers their rights and to perpetuate structural oppression is something that clearly stands out, with the primary fight being against this oppressive system. There was a clear resolve that outsourcing, one of the worst forms of exploitation would have to be brought to an end, and the fight was one for fair and dignified working conditions. This conversation brought out the need for workers across countries to come together and think through ways in which solidarities could be formed across borders.