When fears about COVID-19 abound, the super-rich can afford to isolate themselves. They are stocking up food, sanitisers, toilet paper, and also checking into resorts in exotic locations. Some are also chartering private jets, taking along personal doctors, nurses and support staff, just in case. Little is the world thinking about those who are fighting to contain the disease.
Our pourakarmikas, BWSSB workers, ayahs, nurses and those who work at burial grounds and crematoriums, have little choice. They must work, no matter what – all to ensure the city is clean and the rest of us are protected from the dreaded virus.
From time immemorial, India has exploited its waste workers. Forget decent pay, even the little they are paid now comes from long and arduous struggles. Access to healthcare, access to restrooms at the workplace, protective gear, and even sick leave (forget insurance), are largely absent.
Stringent provisions in law, policy, and protests across the country to assert rights, have failed to guarantee humane working conditions for them. If we don’t do right by our pourakarmikas during a pandemic, it is well-nigh never.
We need to do the following on a war footing, to ensure these workers neither get infected nor unwittingly infect others:
Give sick leave when necessary
One, provide pick-up/drop facility between home and work for pourakarmikas. Just like IT workers, pourakarmikas work at all hours, through the day and night. They have the same levels of anxiety as the rest of us, and they have families too.
When they are not able to make it to work because of the chance of falling sick – given the kind of work they do – they must be given paid sick leave. Currently, the majority of pourakarmikas are never granted paid sick leave. ‘No show = No pay’ must be a thing of the past.
Provide protective equipment of good quality and design
Two, ensure all the protective gear they need for work is made available to them on site, in ample quantities and good condition. If there’s no protective gear, they should not work. For, their Right to Life and Livelihood also includes the right to healthy working conditions, like the rest of us. Protective gear must include appropriate respiratory masks (N95, especially for those working with hospital waste), eye glasses (to avoid dust and infection), and gloves, shoes and boots. Also, appropriate clothing such as aprons.
Third, equipment design should be such that workers find it suitable, and not so that some bureaucrat high up in the chain of command can favour a company. Take for instance, the garbage pick-up trucks used in Bengaluru. Workers are sinking in waste inside them. Those must immediately be banned if we have to have a chance of protecting workers and containing the pandemic.
Women pushing broken carts, which in any case are terribly designed, must be a thing of the past. Short-handled brooms must be replaced with long-handled broad-brush brooms, to make their work easy and dignified. Footpaths have to be paved well to ensure dust is controlled.
Also, it is criminal to make workers sweep busy streets in the midst of merciless traffic. In any case, their work gear must have reflectors so they do not become victims to careless drivers. Proper work equipment goes a long way in not just ensuring workers’ health, but also in demonstrating that the city cares about them.
Facilitate maintenance of hygiene, health check-ups, insurance
Four, make sure workers have access to facilities for maintaining personal hygiene. They must be able to take bath after work on site, in a safe, dignified way. There should be toilets too, with adequate amounts of soap and water. Women must be provided rest areas – pourakarmika women also get periods. Anganwadis are a must on site, as some may need to nurse their infants.
A Civic Amenities (CA) site in every neighbourhood can be allotted for such facilities Bathrooms and changing facilities can even be provided around the existing dry waste collection centres in some CA sites. Special consideration must be extended to pregnant women so that their work does not affect their well-being or that of their child.
Psychosomatic disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, respiratory problems, and chronic illnesses like arthritis are very common among these workers. Diabetes and hypertension are common too, as their work conditions, combined with poor nutrition, make them more vulnerable. Hence women in particular, and all pourakarmikas in general, should have access to regular meals, medicines on demand, and necessary health supplements like vitamins and calcium to boost their immunity. Given the nature of their work, they are also prone to addiction to tobacco and alcohol, and this must be addressed head on.
Five, all workers must be regularly screened for exposure to toxins and infections. Their medical records must be accessible to them with ease, and privacy of the records guaranteed. Besides, it is critical that counsellors reach out to them proactively so they can be counselled when needed, and referred to better treatment facilities if necessary.
Six, pourakarmikas have little or no access to insurance, especially health insurance. It is well-known that their lifespans are way below the national average, and hence they should get a special package.
Creating awareness on staying safe from COVID-19
Seven, they must be trained about public and environmental health – and not just during a pandemic – so that they can be messengers of healthy living. And particularly during a pandemic, they must be trained to protect themselves from risks and to ensure they do not become vectors.
For example, they must be told everything we now know about COVID-19, risk factors, and how to deal with those. For, they are our front-line warriors to keep the virus at bay. Many of these workers are not young, and it’s important to counsel them on the risks of exposure to the virus.
Helpline for workers
Eight, a helpline, possibly facilitated by a non-profit organisation, must immediately be set up to register workers’ grievances incognito. This would help workers, especially women who are at high risk of harassment and sexual exploitation. There should be zero tolerance to such abuse.
All of us can fight for workers’ rights
By ensuring the above, we aren’t doing workers any favours. Rather, this is the minimum we are required to do. Pourakarmikas’ rights derive from Article 243 of the Indian Constitution that specifies the responsibilities of municipalities, Article 38 on promotion of welfare of people, Article 39 on right to livelihood and protection of workers against exploitation. Additionally, Articles 41, 43 and 47 of the Constitution deal with the right to work, proper wages and standard of living. These are enshrined in various labour laws, the Environment Protection Act, Minorities (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and so on.
Hence, violation of the standards mentioned above is inhuman and unethical, and in some cases, patently illegal. Citizen groups should take to task officials who neglect to meet these requirements.
So, nine, we can consider fighting for pourakarmikas’ rights as part of our civic consciousness. Are the workers getting bonus? Shouldn’t they also get food coupons? Shouldn’t their children get free education? What about Leave Travel Concession – they too need to go on vacations.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for us to demonstrate our humanism. Let’s get it right, right now, so that all of us – and not just those who can afford to quarantine themselves – can stay healthy.