What is the backbone of any institution? Human capital – the most valuable asset for successful functioning of any organisation. But we often fail to acknowledge the contributions of workers who toil day and night to ensure the smooth functioning of various institutions.
The students at Jawaharlal Nehru University have been fighting for the rights of many such workers for many years now. The administration often fails to give equal attention to the grievances of these workers. Recognizing this utter negligence, the students in JNU gathered together in unison to make a change.
The JNU Student’s Union (JNUSU) recently organised a two day health camp for the contractual workers of JNU. There are around 1400 contractual workers who are employed in various workplaces, ranging from administration to mess service. Working for a campus that houses almost 7000 students means that all hands need to be on deck at all times. Exposed to long and tedious hours of sanitation and mess services, these workers have become prone to respiratory and skin diseases. The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1979 instructs that protective gear be provided to the workers seeing as they have the right to safe working environment, but the administration has failed to do the same.
“These workers are doing manual scavenging; they use their naked hands for the job. We have given the administration photographic evidence, but they are not doing anything” said the All India Students Association (AISA) led JNUSU president Ashutosh Kumar.
With the administration in a state of indolence, the students collected funds themselves to buy medicines for the workers. These workers don’t have any access to affordable health facility and safe working environment. They are denied admission (except in emergency cases) to JNU health centre. Additionally, they have limited access to the Employees State Insurance (ESI) run hospitals. Due to long working hours, their movements are limited as a consequence of which most of the workers are forced to approach private health care facilities. A single visit for consultation at private health facilities would cost them around INR 100 to INR 200, and the monthly costs of treatment and medicines runs into thousands of rupees, whereas the monthly salary of a contractual worker is just INR 7,500 – INR 9,000.
“Isn’t it farcical that we talk about gender, labour, alienation etc. but tolerate crass injustice with workers on campus? Since they do not vote, no one takes up their issues, apart from the JNU Students’ Union” said Shehla Rashid, an AISA activist, when asked about the movement.
The health camp was divided into two parts – the first part consisted of a socio-economic survey while the other was medical check-up of the workers. The social-economic component included documenting the socio-economic and working conditions of the workers, while the medical component mapped the occupational health hazards and provided basic medical care.
“The data from this medical camp will feed into the larger struggle by workers demanding affordable health facility and safe working environment” said Abha Arya, a PhD student who actively helped in organizing the health camp, along with Arun Kumar, an MPhil student.
The preliminary analysis of medical data points towards various health issues in workers which were directly related to their working condition, and lack of proper nutrition. Many of the workers employed in sanitation services were diagnosed with scabies and skin diseases because of their precarious work environment and lack of protective equipment. Also nutrition related cases were reported along with physical ailments like chronic backache, osteoarthritis etc. The socio-economic data analysis shows various issues faced by workers like lack of access to affordable health care, lack of protective equipment, and discrepancies in bonus and provident fund.
“The primary objective of the Health Camp was to document occupational health hazards of contractual workers and to provide basic medical care… The data from the medical camp will help us in the future struggle for the workers’ accessibility to basic minimum health facilities in our campus” said Agnitra Ghosh, another active member of the health camp.
This health camp is part of the larger movement spearheaded by the contract workers’ union and JNUSU in ensuring rights of the workers.
Recognizing the worker’s as the “invisible force” that drives the whole institution, the JNUSU president said, “These workers are major stakeholders in the running of the institution, but the administration tends to forget that. Their contributions are not recognized and appreciated enough by the administration which is shameful for a progressive institution like JNU. Our objective as the student body representative is to ensure the rights of the workers on campus”.
As JNUSU endeavoured to pull together free medicines for the workers at the health camp, a major chunk of the contribution was made by Dr. Chanjiv and the NGO Give2Heal. These students have truly shown that sometimes matters need to be taken into our own hands to make a change. Their teamwork is a personification of strength in unity. It is only by directly engaging within our community that we can achieve the kind of environment we want to live in.
Only when we are struggling are we progressing.