CHENNAI: Kamala* pulls nine-hour shifts sweeping eight streets in the city, right from dawn till the blazing afternoon sun saps her out - a dedicated toil to earn the promised Rs 9,000 a month. But in reality, what the daily wage worker takes back home to feed her four kids and keep a roof above her head is far lesser. Ask her where the remaining vanishes and she quietly lists out: “Rs 500 is the monthly bribe that is automatically seized from our salaries by superiors. Another Rs 500 for cleaning vehicles that come up for repair work - tyre puncture, filling air, tube bursts. Tube bursts are the worst,” says the 30-year-old who has been part of this routine for eight years now. And when she or anyone dared to take even 3 or 4 days’ medical leave or leave for the death of parents, a week’s salary was cut with a cold rhetoric, “we are answerable for your absenteeism; so take what you get or leave,”.
But it does not nearly end there. For Kamala and a sizable number of contract-based conservancy workers forming the backbone of the city Corporation’s labour populace, there is a huge laundry list of daily agonies that have become a part and parcel of their work. With no toilets facilities or even changing rooms, the women have to swallow their shame and ask favors from residents, while some, too ashamed to do so, are brusquely pointed to road corners.
“Especially during the menstrual cycle, it is highly torturous for us women to endure the attitude of our bosses. Even when we have borne the embarrassment of telling them about our condition, asking to be let off work once we are done, the answer remains ‘go but don’t come back from tomorrow’,” says 41-year-old Muthumari* who works along with Kamala.
“I don’t ever get to see my son to school or attend even a single parent-teacher meeting. I don’t get that half-an hour leeway even though he studies close by where I work,” says Meena*, who clears garbage for a company that serves ward 96 (Anna Nagar).
But that is not all. From the broomstick she uses to sweep to the gloves, mask, shoes and raincoats - everything required to do her work comes out of her old thatchy pocket. “They don’t buy us any equipment. I buy three broomsticks a month. I end up spending for some company, bribing corporation officials and god knows who else just to keep my job,” she says voice choked in tears.
As an insult to injury, she adds that their jobs are often the target of jibes and taunts from drunk lorry drivers and seedy officials, whom they have to brave every day. The lack of a job status (a valid Identity card and Provident Fund) denied by almost all companies enlisted by the civic body as it is a contract-based work also exposes them to a host of problems.
“Last night there was a robbery alarm in one of the neighborhoods where my husband works. He is a very straightforward man, and has even been awarded for his work. But last night, that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he claimed to be a sanitation worker but could not even produce an ID card. He was roughed up and carried to the police station despite being innocent,” adds Kamala quietly.