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Workers who keep the Delhi Metro rail stations shining are victims of exploitation by contractors

22 May 2011

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Business Standard

Sreelatha Menon: Labour rights taken for a ride

Workers who keep the Delhi Metro rail stations shining are victims of exploitation by contractors

Sreelatha Menon / New Delhi May 22, 2011, 0:30 IST

The city glitters. There is the Metro rail with its sparkling floors and railings, with nice food stalls inside, just like little boxes as if they were from a toy story. Who can tell if it is Singapore or Delhi? Young boys and girls — some dropouts, others still students from distant villages and, sometimes, from the city itself — are behind the maintenance of the Metro stations and their kiosks. They should have been considered fortunate to have found work there. But appearances cannot be more deceptive. Many work on less than half the legal minimum wage entitled to them, and are also denied any weekly off or leave. The only ‘privilege’ is that they don’t have to work for 24 hours. They work only eight hours a day.

Metro authorities pay little attention to the condition of these workers. In fact, right under their nose, one of the greatest transport success stories in the country is about workers being exploited and labour laws violated. Private contract agencies provide cleaners and housekeeping workers in the Delhi Metro stations. There are several of them. A board is displayed in the Anand Vihar Metro station, which says the minimum wage paid under the Minimum Wages Act to unskilled workers is Rs 223 a day, to the semi-skilled Rs 243 a day and the skilled Rs 273 a day. It even gives names of the three labour officials who are to ensure this is being done. But a search through six Metro stations failed to yield even one worker who was getting wages matching any of these scales.

Ask a worker at a Metro station and you would find that many of them are not paid the minimum wages and are also denied their right to a weekly day off.

Take the case of Sunder (name changed), a boy from Uttar Pradesh. He says he gets Rs 4,000 a month or Rs 130 a day. He is entitled to provident fund (PF) and employees’ state insurance (ESI), but gets nothing, he says. He lives in a rented room and pays Rs 1,200. He walks several kilometres, as he has no money for transportation. He then saves Rs 1,200 and sends it home. He never gets a weekly off. And, his salary comes invariably 20 days late every month. He does double shifts to raise more money, but says he is even denied overtime wages.

Kanak earns Rs 180 a day or Rs 5,200 a month. Again, no weekly offs and salaries arrive more than two months late. A degree student, he gives tuitions at home in the evening to support his parents.

The Metro must surely be paying enough to contractors. But, it has not provided any channel for workers to contact them and inform them of non-payment of salaries. Contract labour won’t hurt workers if payments are made directly to workers by the employer, rather than through contractors. The Metro spokesperson says the victims should complain to the Chief Vigilance Officer, whose cell phone number is available on the Metro web site. Prompt action will be taken, he says, adding exploitation is rampant even outside the contract system and people should have the courage to complain to bring about a change.

Food stalls at Metro stations are an example. Cafe Buddys, which has 100 stalls in the stations and plans to expand all over north India, has workers who say they are being paid salaries as low as Rs 2,200-4,000 to workers, with no weekly offs. A lone worker stays at the stall for 12 hours and gets a salary that does not match the minimum wage. Money for PF and ESI is deducted, but no one has seen an ESI card or a PF number yet. And, the boys say the price of the stale or unsold food is deducted from their meagre salaries too.

The salaries of workers in six stations, including in Noida, West Delhi and East Delhi, were found to be between Rs 2,200-4,600. Sudhir Gupta, the director of the venture, denies everything and says people get paid over Rs 5,500, besides a daily incentive of Rs 50 for meeting targets.

Time perhaps for greater sensitivity towards the rights of those who keep the country’s showpiece mass-transit project running.