Kashmir's Bonded Labourers

When article 370 was repealed a lot was spoken about Valmiki community of Jammu getting the rights. The community that has lived in Jammu for the last more than 64 years mostly works as sanitation workers, sweepers, in Jammu municipal corporationm, and other private institutions. On the other hand when it comes to people doing same menial jobs in Kashmir valley, nothing is said about them. The miserable lives they live, and the challenges they face at the workplace is not even recognized or documented.  People living outside J & K are hardly aware of the fact that Kashmiri Muslims too work as sweepers and sanitation workers? The worst  part of this is that these sweepers and consolidated workers are paid as less as Rs 30 , Rs 100 or Rs 500 per month by the Government ?

If the Government enacts laws for ensuring social justice and empowerment of disadvantaged communities, how can people be used as Bonded Labourers in the Govt run institutions especially when people working as Sanitation Workers in the health department have risked their lives during the COVID 19 pandemic ?

Afroza’s case

Afroza is working as a sweeper on a consolidated basis in J&K Health Department in district Pulwama. She was appointed against a clear vacancy in 1998 by the then Block Medical Officer (BMO) Pulwama on a meager wage of Rs 100/ month. She accepted the offer with the hope that one day she would get regularized. Even after 22 years Afroza who is posted at Sub Center Chewa Kalan Pulwama was neither regularized nor paid as per the Govt’s own Minimum Wages Act 1948 wherein unskilled workers have to be paid not less that Rs 225 per day.

“ Getting regularized is only a dream now. I ruined my youth for the Government and got nothing in return. I have 4 children; I along with hundreds of sweepers and other consolidated workers working in the health department are not even paid wages as per the Minimum Wages Act” said Afroza while talking to this author

Abdul Ahad & Gulzar

The consolidated workers, mostly sweepers working in the health department were not organized. It was only 6 months back when some workers  took an initiative to organize themselves. Gulzar Ahmad and Abdul Ahad Sheikh went to several districts of Kashmir valley to get the actual details of the consolidated workers of the health department and the remuneration they get. Gulzar who hails from economically and socially backward community has been working as driver in the health department Budgam on meager wages of Rs 3000 per month for the last 15 years. Being a skilled worker he is supposed to be paid Rs 350 per day (Rs 10,500 / month). Abdul Ahad Sheikh a resident of Handwara area of Kupwara who is now 54  is paid Rs 100 per month for the last 25 years.

In 2011 Gulzar met the then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah  who sought a detailed report from J&K Finance Department. The Finance Department issued a circular asking the Health Department to provide the details of the persons working on a consolidated basis. After a long struggle, the health department prepared a list of 1541 persons who were working as consolidated workers in J&K Health Department Kashmir province (mostly sweepers and helpers).

In 2016  Government vide its communication No: HD/NG/06/2011 Dated: 4.08.2016 had recommended enhancement of wages in favour of consolidated health workers. The workers paid Rs 100 where to get Rs 500 / month, those paid Rs 500 / month were recommended for payment of Rs 1000 / month and Rs 1500 wages were fixed for the workers already paid Rs 1000/ month. The maximum wages were fixed was Rs 3000/ month paid to only a handful of drivers. Till date the recommendation of Govt has not been implemented except in case of a handful of drivers who are paid @ Rs 3000/ month.

Violation of Minimum Wages Act

The J & K Government issued a notification under SRO 460 in October 2017 wherein rates were revised under the Minimum Wages Act 1948. Under the revised rates unskilled labourers were entitled for minimum wages of Rs 225 , skilled Rs 350 , highly skilled Rs 400 per day respectively. When the revised wages were not being implemented by the Government in case of consolidated health workers a petition titled Nazir Ahmad Hajam v/s Government of J&K was filed in J&K High Court by some workers. While disposing off the case High Court of J&K asked Government to determine the eligibility of the petitioners on the touch stone of SRO 469 of 2017 read with Govt order No: 27-F of 2018 Dated 25th January 2018.

The Director Health Services Kashmir through his official communication DHSK/Actts/2644 Dated : 12.10.2020 requested the Administrative Department for implementation of the Minimum Wages Act in favour of 1541 consolidated workers.  The Director in his official communication told Financial Commissioner Health and Medical Education that that as per budget estimates for the financial year 2021-22 submitted by subordinate drawing and disbursing officers (DDO’s) of the department there are 1541 consolidated safaiwalas, part time workers , helpers working in the department, who fall in the category of unskilled labourers. Director sought a budget allocated of more than Rs 11 crore annually to ensure all workers are paid as per Minimum Wages Act. But from October 2020 till date the file is not moving in the civil secretariat. A delegation of the consolidated workers met with Advisor to Lt Governor Mr Batnagar in Jammu recently. The advisor in his official communication appreciated the work of these workers and forwarded the case to Financial Commissioner Health and Medical Education Mr Atal Duloo.

Conclusion

Section 22 A of Minimum Wages Act of 1948 makes it clear that any employer who violates the act in regards to minimum wages, and working hours, can be penalized for five years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 10000. Govt of J&K is not only violating this act but this is also a clear violation of human rights under the provisions of Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976. The way sanitation workers, helpers and drivers work on consolidated bases in J&K health department are made to work by getting wages @ Rs 30 , 100 or Rs 500 per month for the last so many decades  is simply a criminal offence. The authorities can be tried under the provisions of the Bonded Labour abolition act as well. Government had claimed that people belonging to weaker sections of society would get justice after abrogation of article 370. But people like Afroza or Abdul Ahad who belong to sweeper community in Kashmir continue to face discrimination.

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement