Accounting the daily working conditions of a woman engaged in managing waste and sanitation of our homes, colonies, and cities at large
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Household chores are considered a woman’s primary job. If they are lucky, they might have a liberal husband that “allows” them to work as some kind of a part-time hobby. This unhealthy attitude towards the idea of working women originates from Brahmanical patriarchy – a system where caste and sexism come together, creating a system that insidiously influences all the rules in society and perpetuates caste and gender hierarchies.
The workplace environment is not built to comfortably accommodate women thus causing them to be seen as a liability. This results in rampant discrimination that manifests in an overt manner – such as sexual harassment; or systemic ways – where the structure of the organization itself is an obstruction to women reaching the top.
Despite several laws being passed to eradicate manual scavenging, it continues to be a sustained practice in both rural and urban spaces in the country. The Swachh Bharat Movement (SBM) grew immensely popular in name, but it has made little impact in changing the lived realities of sanitation workers for the better. The execution has failed to include sanitation workers in the participation, process, and consequences of this nationwide movement. One of the schemes under the SBM financed the building of toilets to eliminate open defecation. This scheme sought to empower women by giving them the privacy required to maintain personal hygiene. Dalit women who are employed to clean toilets, however, are completely left out of this movement, there is the absolute disregard for their physical or emotional wellbeing, so much so that they are not even provided with basic protective equipment to clean toilets and are forced to scoop feces with their bare hands.
Almost the entire workforce of sanitation workers is comprised of extremely marginalized Dalit subcastes – Arundathiyar, Bhangi, Chooda, and Valmiki to name a few. These communities have spent generations working in this industry with little to no scope to climb the socio-economic ladder – almost 60 percent of the population of these communities is still engaged in sanitation work.
Three types of workers can be found employed in this industry – permanent employees of the municipal corporation, contractual employees of the municipal corporation, and outsourced workers. Permanent workers draw the highest salaries (Rs.25,000 to Rs.30,000 per month) and are eligible to claim medical benefits, provident fund or pension, and earned leave; they are also given uniforms and payslips. However, contractual workers only earn a half (Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000 per month) and outsourced workers don’t even earn one-fourth of the salary (Rs.4,000 to Rs.7,000 per month) of permanent workers for doing the same job, moreover they are not entitled to claim any of the other benefits that the permanent workers receive.
Women, you guessed it, are mostly employed as contractual or outsourced labour. They experience fear, risk, and insufficiency since their job does not guarantee them even bare minimum social security, and cannot afford to take even a day off as they will lose wages for that day and might even get replaced since it is easy to hire and fire contractual and outsourced workers. This creates fear in the minds of the workers and keeps them from revolting against unfair conditions. Contractual workers are entitled to 4 days of leave in a month however these days are decided by the superior officers (usually male) whose benevolence the women have to depend on to be granted leave for festivals, illnesses, or pregnancy. Taking leave is absolutely discouraged, instead women are given certificates for perfect attendance. Female sanitation workers are forced to take pain killers to be able to show up to work during their days of menstruation. The 12-26 weeks of leave that they should be entitled to as per the Maternity Benefit Amendment Act, 2017 is a distant dream and most pregnant women work until their final month of pregnancy and return to work a week after giving birth.
Women are not made aware of the laws in place to ensure financial security, they lack knowledge about mandatory salary deductions, payslips, or salary structure even though a minimum wage has been fixed and issuing of payslips or wage books has been made mandatory by the Minimum Wages Act, 1948.
Since women are unaware of these existing laws, they are unable to challenge unfair salary deductions and are sometimes even forced to pay bribes just to receive their salary. This unchecked culture of corruption is bolstered by the absence of an official grievance redressal mechanism to protect the rights of women sanitation workers. The lack of a formal system to file and address complaints makes it easier to dismiss the issues like working hours and wages, compounding the power dynamics of the system of contractual employment where the lowest rung is occupied by women.
Women sanitation workers are usually employed as sweepers, garbage collectors, and toilet cleaners in schools. Opportunities for growth are restricted for women. This limits their upward mobility both economically and socially, despite years of service. For example, a woman joining a school as a cleaner but retiring as a peon is almost unheard of but a man being promoted from a cleaner to a peon is not uncommon– the gender discrimination cannot be more apparent. Nepotism is rampant in the appointment of contractual workers and superiors employ their relatives when any vacancies arise.
Since men are promoted more easily, women sanitation workers must work under and must report to male superiors on almost all levels. This is likely to cause an uncomfortable work environment since their male bosses may not be sympathetic to all their problems. Upon being interviewed they generally do not complain about sexual harassment and jokingly say that men are scared of them as they are equipped with jhaadus to drive off any creeps or perverts. However, there is no system in place to ensure justice if anyone is subject to sexual or violent behaviour. Like other laws, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 are neither made known to the workers nor implemented at the workplace. Women work efficiently and diligently, are less demanding, and unlikely to confront their male superiors who use this to their advantage and pay them very less. The workers’ unions can only be formed by permanent workers and thus are exclusively male-dominated spaces, disallowing the concerns of female sanitation workers from reaching the larger forums. Women are only called for meetings when announcements are to be made or when a show of larger numbers is required. Women perceive unions as community politics since leaders only work for the vested interests of the communities they belong to and the real issues faced by all the workers get sidelined.
The occupation comes with several health hazards but no attempt is made to ensure the safety of those employed.
Most women have to work without any safety equipment, even a pair of gloves is not afforded to them for handling wastes like human and animal feces, broken glass, and nails. Most women sanitation workers have no access to a resting place or a designated area where they can clean up after working and sometimes no access to even a toilet. There are no patrols to maintain traffic discipline that might result in accidents of sweepers that keep the roads clean. They suffer from short-term and long-term ailments – cuts, bruises, and allergies to sprains, weakening eyesight, and low blood pressure. They have no access to medical aid through employment and may avoid going to the doctor which causes the problem to aggravate in the future or seek immediate assistance which may set them back hundreds of rupees in fees and wage cuts due to absenteeism.
Most women are addicted to chewing tobacco as it is the only respite from the smell of garbage and their husbands are addicted to alcohol – could you enter a sewer sober? Mental health support is neither expected nor given; capitalist and patriarchal conditioning is so deeply rooted that they cannot even conceptualize the fact that their employer can be held accountable for their physical and mental wellbeing.
There is no doubt that the structure and functioning of the waste and sanitation industry need to be reorganized to comfortably accommodate the rights of women employees. But more importantly, efforts need to be taken to maximize mechanization of sanitation and waste management. Dalits need to be empowered by equipping them with education and other skills and need to be rehabilitated and given other jobs so they don’t fall prey to the cycle that is serving and cleaning the city for the benefit of the oppressor castes. Each citizen should be made responsible for their own waste management as far as possible, which will create habits that are sustainable for communities and the environment and ascribe the dignity of labour to waste management, waste disposal and sanitation
- The Print: 282 Deaths in last 4 years – How Swachh Bharat Mission failed India’s manual scavengers, 2020
- Dalberg Advisors: Sanitation Workers Project- Phase 1: Understanding the problem, 2017
- Oxfam India: The scourge of manual scavenging, 2019
- Ministry of Labour and Employment: Maternity Amendment Benefit Act, 2017
- Ministry of Labour and Employment: Minimum Wages Act, 1948- n.d.
- PRIA: Lived Realities of Women Sanitation Workers, 2019
- WaterAid India: The hidden world of Sanitation workers, n.d.
- Legislative Dept. of the GOI: The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013- 2018