231 days and counting: Sanitation workers at LHMC decry illegal termination

Sanitation workers at a protest | Picture by author

Sanitation employees from Lady Hardinge’s Medical College (LHMC) and other institutions held a protest outside the Delhi hospital director’s home on June 28 last year.

Arbab Ali and Ubair ul Hameed | TwoCircles.net 

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NEW DELHI — On June 2 of last year, Neeta Ujainwal, 44, arrived for her regularly scheduled shift as a sanitation worker at Kalawati Saran Children’s Hospital, a multi-speciality facility in New Delhi and one of the largest paediatric hospitals in Asia. A security guard at the hospital’s entrance advised her to go home as the facility had terminated her contract.

She persisted in her desire to talk with a hospital official since she thought there might be some confusion. But she received no communication from the hospital. When we met on the chilly morning of January 10 at Jantar Mantar, a location that has been a well-known gathering place for dissidents since 1993, Ujainwal confessed to us, “I walked back home crying.” 

About 40 of Ujainwal’s coworkers, both male and female, were also fired in the same way on June 2 of last year. On January 10, the majority of them were present at Jantar Mantar to protest their dismissal. They carried signs with slogans like “Safai Karamchariyon ki hai ye pukaar, na karo ye atyachar” (This is the call of the sanitation workers, don’t do this torture) with them.

They have been protesting outside the hospital gate for more than 220 days, and according to Ujainwal, they came to Jantar Mantar out of dissatisfaction that no one is paying attention to their cries. “I would like my job back. I’m the sole breadwinner of my family. Since I lost my job, we are just scraping by, she told us.

According to Surya Prakash, the state secretary of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), this dismissal was in violation of a Delhi High Court decision on May 31 that prohibited the hospital from terminating its employees. The sanitation workers at Lady Hardinge Medical College are part of Surya’s trade union.

The ruling was in response to demands made by workers, especially employees at the Kalawati Saran Children’s hospital, demanding a minimum pay of about 7,000 rupees.

Sanitation employees from Lady Hardinge’s Medical College (LHMC) and other institutions held a protest outside the Delhi hospital director’s home on June 28 of last year. They took issue with the institution’s refusal to allow workers to be reinstated in accordance with court orders.

In compliance with the Minimum Wages Act, the hospital was required to pay Rs. 83, 75,900 in respect of the claims of the 193 workers, plus one time of the said amount as compensation, within 30 days of the date of the order. This was mandated by the Regional Labour Commissioner (Central) on December 29, 2021, which was a year earlier.

Rekha, a 37-year-old sanitation worker, said, “The hospital had verbally notified us that we would be terminated from services from May 1, 2022.”

A new group of contract workers, who Rekha claimed may have been made to pay the hospital “illegal extortion money,” took the place of the sanitation workers. “As a bride, they wanted us to pay between 30,000 and 40,000 rupees. Rekha stated, “We lacked the sum.

According to Prakash, it is not permissible to replace contract workers with a different group of contract employees.

Ujainwal informed us that they had a direct employment relationship with the hospital and Sulabh International Social Service Organization (the contractor) was merely a front for denying them the same benefits as normal employees. Some of them had been employed there for as long as 13 years. She claimed that they had been deceiving them for years by labelling their work as “volunteering.” 

The agreement between the hospital and the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation also mentions the engagement of voluntary social workers for the work of sanitation during the period of the agreement. 

The Sulabh International Social Service Organization is a voluntary social service organization of charitable and Philanthropic nature registered under the Society Registration Act, of 1860. They operate on a ‘no profit and no loss’ basis. Hence it is not in compliance with the provisions of the Minimum Wages Act of 1948. They do not pay wages to the ‘volunteers’ rather they pay an honorarium to the ‘volunteer’ which is equivalent to the circulated wage rate of the Government of India.

Sulabh International was rapped by the Delhi High Court in 2012 for exploiting the sanitation staff at AIIMS. According to the Delhi High Court, the staff were entitled to minimum wages but had only received a pittance from the Sulabh International Social Service Organization. The Court noted that while Sulabh International was working for a good cause on the one hand, on the other hand, it was exploiting the poor under the guise of volunteer labour.

Justice Suresh Kait said, ‘The organisation may be voluntary, but a poor person who has to fill his belly and has dependent members of the family can not afford to be a volunteer. Respondent No. 2 is a person whose survival depends upon whatever given/paid by employer. If he works voluntarily even for a day, his family starves.’

The employees claimed that because sanitation personnel are not regarded as employees but rather as “volunteers,” hospitals find it simple to terminate them. 

“We execute critical activities that are similar to those done by the hospital’s permanent staff, but for less pay. Very little,” Rekha remarked.

Their everyday responsibilities included sweeping, mopping, dusting, garbage disposal, and disposing of biomedical waste, including radioactive waste and items like blood, syringes, infected tubes, and ducts that were left lying around on hospital floors after emergency patients were treated.

According to Central Government Health Employees Federation Secretary General Gautam Das Gupta, Ujainwal and her coworkers provided crucial assistance during the Covid-19 pandemic. “They were the ones helping the public when nobody wanted to leave their houses during Coronavirus and the entire healthcare infrastructure failed. In the process, many of them even contracted the virus. Not only is it unlawful, but replacing them would also be cruel, claimed Gupta.

Another fired sanitation worker, Phool Singh, revealed to us that they frequently receive threats from the police to stop the protest. Over the previous eight months, “We have been detained numerous times,” claimed Singh.

We reached out to Mansukh Mandaviya, Minister of Health and Family Welfare via email. He has not responded to the email. This story will be updated when and if he responds. 

Harbans Singh, office administration, and Mr Narang, the office superintendent at LHMC, were also contacted, but we did not receive a satisfactory response.

Ujainwal questioned, “What is the point of showering flowers on us if you dismiss us whenever you choose and force us to protest in such cold weather?”

Arbab Ali and Ubair al-Hameed are fellows at the SEED-TCN mentorship program.