The Battle for Minimum Wages

Supreme Court comes to the rescue of consolidated Sanitation Workers of Health Department
Representational Pic
Representational Pic

Mehraj u Din Kumar’s struggle for wages is almost over. He is finally at peace. This consolidated worker who has been working in Health Department district Kupwara got a great relief from Supreme Court of India recently. The Apex Court directed the government of Jammu & Kashmir to pay his due wages and that of twenty other workers, which have been pending since 2004.

In the special leave petition, Dr Kunzes Dolma v/s Mehraj-ud-Din Kumar, a bench of Justices B.R. Gavai and A.S. Bopanna also directed a regular monthly payment to be made to existing sanitation workers (sweepers) from the month of May 2022, without any break. The Court also directed the government to clear all the pending arrears of the sweepers within two months. The Supreme Court issued the new directions while considering a special leave petition against the Jammu and Kashmir High Court’s order dated May 15, 2019, by which it while refusing to entertain the LPA had observed that the same was an abuse of the process of law. The J&K High Court bench, in the impugned judgment, had noted that despite repeated directions, the sanitation workers from the Kupwara district of J&K continued to be paid very meagre wages of Rs 100 per month.

Background

Mehraj’s legal battle started in 2008. He had approached the J&K High Court regarding payment of wages as per the Minimum Wages Act, which was Rs 2100 per month (Rs 70 per day for unskilled workers). He was appointed as a sweeper on part-time basis by Block Medical Officer, Langate District, Kupwara in 2004.

His co-petitioner, Manzoor Ahmad, was also hired by the Department of Health and Medical Education in 2004. Both were paid Rs 100 per month. They were told their wages would be enhanced after some months, but when the wages were not enhanced even after four years, Mehraj and Manzoor had no choice but to move the High Court to address their grievances.

After a year or so, two more similar petitions were filed in the High Court by six dozen sanitation workers (sweepers) who also were paid Rs 100 per month by the department. In 2009, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court directed the government to pay wages to around 20 sanitation employees as per the Minimum Wages Act. The Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Kupwara implemented the High Court direction and started paying Mehraj, Manzoor and eighteen other workers the monthly wages as per the Minimum Wage Act (Rs 4500 per month) when that abruptly stopped in 2014.

DHSK violates High Court Order

In 2014, the Director of Health Services, Kashmir, directed the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Kupwara to stop paying Mehraj and other 19 sanitation workers Rs 4500 per month. The payment was made from the Non District Plan funds and the CMO enquired from the District Magistrate, Kupwara as to who had paid these workers from District Plan funds.

After some months, the payment was stopped from District Plan funds as well, as the Director of Health mounted more pressure on CMO Kupwara. The Director himself was under pressure from his administrative department as the government realised that they would have to pay all the need-based and part-time sanitation workers as per MWA. After six years, the wages of these poor sanitation workers were stopped, but they continued to work with the hope that they would get some relief from the high court, or that the government might listen to their grievances. These sanitation workers finally moved a contempt petition before Jammu and Kashmir High Court in March 2015. The High Court directed the government to pay these workers’ wages as per the pay scale of the MWA.

The Director of Health, Kashmir finally released an amount of Rs 3 lakhs after pressure from the high court. When the high court mounted more pressure on the Secretary, Health to appear personally, the government released Rs 15 lakhs in 2019. But this amount was still not sufficient as the government was required to release an amount of Rs 39 lakhs as wages from 2008 to 2014 for the 20 sanitation workers.

Appeal before DB

After releasing Rs 15 lakhs and after several physical appearances orders were issued to the Secretary, Health, the Government of Jammu and Kashmir filed an appeal before the high court’s division bench in 2019. The division bench appeal did not help the government.

The bench issued an order again for personal appearance of Commissioner and Secretary of Department of Health and Medical Education. This was the ninth time such an order was issued. The Court also slapped a penalty of Rs 5000 on the Secretary for not appearing and for not implementing the high court’s order. The government finally approached the Supreme Court to appeal.

Risking their lives in COVID 19

This is not the case of only 20 sanitation workers from Kupwara. There are an estimated 2600 need-based, part-time sanitation workers and other similar staff working in the state Health Department. During the COVID 19 pandemic (2020 and 2021) these workers did commendable work. Gulzar Ahmad Chopan from Khansahib Budgam, a consolidated worker and driver in Sub District Hospital, Khansahib district, Budgam has also been fighting for consolidated workers. For the last twelve years he too is struggling to make sure all 2600 workers get paid as per Minimum Wages Act. Gulzar is a professional ambulance driver but is paid mere Rs 100 per day.

In 2011, he met the then Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, who sought a detailed report from the Jammu and Kashmir Finance Department. The Finance Department issued a circular asking the Department of Health and Medical Education to provide details of people working on a consolidated basis. After a long struggle, the department prepared a list of 1,541 persons (mostly sweepers and helpers) in the Kashmir division. From the Jammu division there are around 1100 such workers who are also paid very meagre wages.

“ The government had raised the query some years back whether these 1,541 workers in Kashmir valley are employed part-time or full-time. The Directorate of Health and the Drawing and Disbursing officers (DDOs), such as the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) and Block Medical Officers (BMOs), clarified that all 1,541 workers in Kashmir division were full-time workers in the Health Department, on the job from 9 am to 5 pm, and many work during night too. The designation like part time or need based is merely a paper designation and actually these workers work from 9 to 5 pm and many perform night duties as well” said Gulzar Ahmad Chopan, while talking to this writer.

Recent Govt order

After the Supreme Court’s decision on May 20 this year, the Health and Medical Education Department issued a circular on the same day seeking details about the part-time and full time workers in the department. The government has sought details from the Commissioner of Food and Drug Administration, the Director of Health Services, Kashmir, and the principals of government medical colleges in Srinagar, Jammu, Baramulla, Rajouri, Kathua to finally identify those working part-time and full time.

The official circular reads :

“I am directed to invite your attention towards the above captioned subject and to request you to kindly clarify that the workers which have been proposed for grant of benefit of minimum rates of wages under Minimum Wages Act are working in your respective departments / organisations on part time basis or full time basis , enabling this department to make a distinction between part time and full time workers.”

This has already been cleared by drawing and disbursing officers of the Health Department as discussed above. Hopefully other organisations, such as the medical colleges working under administrative control of the Health and Medical Education Department, will soon provide these details to the government so that all the health workers who have been working as bonded labourers for last many years will finally receive their due compensation as per the Minimum Wages Act.

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow. He is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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