Regularisation and EPFO Benefits of Sanitation Workers of Karnataka
by Maitreyi Krishnan

In two consecutive victories to the struggles of powrakarmikas (sanitation workers) of Karnataka, the State Government has declared that 24,005 workers will be made permanent, and the High Court has directed the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) to deposit Rs. 90,18,89,719/- (Rupees Ninety Crore Eighteen Lakh Eighty-Nine Thousand Seven Hundred and Nineteen only) along with 12% interest to the accounts of pourakarmikas.

In July 2017, under the banner of BBMP Powrakarmikara Sangha (affiliated to AICCTU) thousands of powrakarmikas across the state thronged the capital city of Bengaluru and demanded that the contract-system be abolished and the workers be made permanent. In response to this in 2018, the state government removed the exploitative contract system, and brought the workers under the direct-payment system, through which the municipal corporations and the local bodies paid wages to the workers directly. However, it was only the sweepers who were brought under this direct-payment system, whereas the drivers, helpers, loaders and other such workers involved in transport and handling of garbage remained under the contract system. The government, at the time, assured that the workers would be made permanent in a phased manner. Thereafter, the powrakarmikas have consistently launched struggles demanding that the government regularize their services, since the assurances were not kept.

In 2019, a notification was issued by the BBMP inviting applications for a few permanent posts of sweepers. The BBMP Powrakarmikara Sangha fought against the discriminatory and unscientific notification, that would exclude the majority of the existing powrakarmikas from being eligible for the job. After a day-long protest by thousands of workers in 2019, the BBMP was forced to withdraw this notification. Thereafter, the government had failed to move forward in declaring permanency for the workers. A jatha was also organized to mobilise the workers on the issue over a period of one month in October-November 2020.

In July 2022, the workers launched a state-wide four-day strike seeking that the then BJP government make them permanent. The state government had then given a written assurance that the workers would be made permanent and a notification to that extent was issued by the respective local bodies. However, the then BJP state government failed to keep its promise. A state-level Conference of pourkarmikras held on 6th November 2022 adopted a declaration to fight until workers were assured dignified working conditions.

Subsequent to the 2022 Assembly elections, where the Congress came to power after promising permanent jobs to the powrakarmikas in their election manifesto, the union engaged in constant protests to ensure that the assurance was made a reality.

On February 8th, 2024, the union gheraoed Vidhan Soudha where the workers were detained by the Bengaluru Police and despite the same, stood their ground and sought that the government declare that they will be made permanent. The demand was reiterated in a meeting with the Chief Minister held thereafter. On February 16th, the Karnataka Government declared that 24,005 workers across the state will be made permanent, and the BBMP on February 29th, declared in its budget that 15,000 powrakarmikas in Bengaluru would be made permanent.

It must be noted here, that while the sweepers, under the direct payment system, have been declared to be made permanent, the workers engaged in transport and disposal of garbage, including auto tipper and truck drivers, helpers and loaders continue their struggle for the abolition of the contract system. These workers continue to be plagued with issues of non-payment of wages for several months, non-disbursal of ESI & EPF, harassment of workers, threats of termination, among others. These workers had launched a protest in March 2023 demanding their rights. The union will continue to fight for their legitimate rights and dignity.

Historic order of the High Court directing BBMP to deposit EPF dues

The Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka has passed an order dated February 7, 2024 in WP No. 16539/2022 c/w WP No. 4449/2018 (L-PF) directing the BBMP to deposit Rs. 90,18,89,719/- along with 12% interest within eight weeks from the date of its order to the accounts of powrakarmikas.

The BBMP Powrakarmikara Sangha (affiliated to AICCTU) had filed complaints seeking for the PF dues of powrakarmikas employed with the BBMP, upon which the EPF Authority had passed an order on 26.10.2017 directing the BBMP to deposit Rs. 90,18,89,719/- into the EPF accounts of powrakarmikas, towards their provident fund, pension fund and insurance fund contribution for the period between January 2011 and July 2017. Since the BBMP had failed to comply with the order of the EPF Authority, the Union had approached the High Court seeking for a direction to the BBMP to comply with the same.

The High Court has recognized the services and plight of working conditions of the powrakarmikas and noted that – “These workers (powrakarmikas) are doing great service to the society and the union has worked for several years to ensure that all workers shall receive their dues including proper and regular wages… The Powrakarmikas are almost entirely from Dalit Community and predominantly women. They are employed in the most scientifically backward, inhuman and primitive form of garbage- collection and street-sweeping throughout the year, without weekly or national holidays or any breaks at all. They have ceaselessly protected the health of the public and continued to do so each and every day. This has come at the cost of their own health and safety and they suffer from serious and life-shortening respiratory ailments, heart problems, back and knee problems etc.”

The High Court has also given observation on the injustice caused to the powrakarmikas, noting– “The acts of the respondent BBMP have caused financial and mental suffering to the workers who come from extremely poor and marginalized background. The failure of the respondent No.1 to comply with and implement the order dated 26.10.2017 is highly illegal, violative of public policy in contravention to the fundamental and statutory life of the powrakarmikas.”

The powrakarmikas, who have faced triple oppression of class, caste and gender for decades, have stood steadfast in fighting for their rights and dignity, and will continue their struggle till justice is met.

Sanitation Workers of Karnataka