By Riddhi Verma (UG22)
Following allegations over the summer of workers being mistreated and, in violation of their contracts, coerced to resign, the Student Government, in early August, had put forward three common-sense demands: re-hire all workers who resigned under the coercion, pay salaries to those who resisted the coercion, and investigate those responsible for the coercion. In turn, Vice-Chancellor Malabika Sarkar had announced a slew of measures to allay growing concerns about the university’s commitment to the welfare of its workers, including an investigation into the allegations, and a charitable fund under the administration’s Workers’ Welfare Committee (WWC) to financially support workers in need.
On 3rd December, the SG announced that all the workers who were made to resign would be returning to their jobs. Four months before this announcement, VC Sarkar created a seat for a student observer in the WWC for the first time, acceding to a demand first articulated by the 5th House of Representatives’ Charter of Demands in October 2019. The SG unanimously nominated Jahnavi Rudra, a Prakrit member of the 6th House, to fill the seat. Through this newfound student representation, the SG is striving to achieve greater job security, a safer working environment, and the ability to speak out against mistreatment, for the university’s workers (i.e. contractual staff for security, housekeeping, catering, gardening, laundry, etc).
The SG met with VC Sarkar for weekly two-hour-long meetings through the summer, which became fortnightly as they entered the monsoon semester. According to the SG, all workers, those who resigned and those who did not, were re-hired on 3rd November on a 15-day rotational basis, after protracted negotiation with VC Sarkar over a proposal that was made in consultation with over 20 workers. The date of their first joining was retained in the payroll records (rather than the date they were called back), said the SG’s email, allowing workers who have rejoined, should they choose to leave this job before 2025, to still receive employment benefits like PF and gratuity, which can only be availed after being on the job for five years.
The administration faced multiple allegations of impropriety toward workers during the onset of the pandemic-induced campus shutdown, at the height of economic distress in the country. The university currently does not employ its workers directly but rather outsources ancillary work such as security to third-party vendors that in turn contractually employ them. Since late May, more than 100 workers in the laundry, housekeeping, infirmary, and other departments have allegedly been fired or furloughed by these contractors. Others have complained about late and incomplete payment of salaries. In July, several members of the housekeeping staff reported receiving threatening calls and house visits from their supervisors, pressuring them to resign. (The Edict could not independently verify the claims.)
In its public emails, the SG named Bhaskar Mishra, VP Operations, and Sachin Sharma, Registrar, accusing them of inaction and giving empty assurances. (Both of them did not respond to our requests for comment.) The student body petitioned the university leadership in a barrage of emails, demanding, alongside faculty members such as Professors Bittu, Madhavi Menon, Aditi Saraf, and Justin McCarthy, that the coerced resignations, if true, are halted and reversed immediately, and that action is taken against those responsible. The SG claims that these coerced resignations were brought to halt only in mid-August, more than two weeks after officials first claimed that the process had been made completely voluntary.
“No direct action has been taken against anyone involved in the coerced resignations,” said Jahnavi, since there are no rules that they ostensibly broke. The internal investigation launched by VC Sarkar, which Jahnavi says is “still undergoing”, is ultimately fated to be toothless because the alleged perpetrators were under the employ of the vendor to whom the university outsources its housekeeping operations. To address this schism of oversight, the WWC has also created a subcommittee to recommend standardised rules to manage contractual vendors. The SG is pushing for regular consultation with the workers — who are the primary stakeholders — while codifying these rules.
The SG is also arguing that in the long term, the university directly hires its workers, given the issues that arise out of the many legal convolutions in the present system. Third-party contracting often allows the university to eschew the need for transparency, and to downplay their ability to directly control the way workers are treated. Some members of the WWC also claim to have seen parts of some workers’ contracts which enable arbitrary hiring-and-firing (the Edict could not independently verify their claims). With direct hiring, there is likely to be more direct accountability on the administration, along with more transparency and control.
In an update on December 11th, VC Sarkar said that the WWC, through its fund, had provided financial assistance to more than 65 workers, and called for another round of tax-deductible donations to replenish the fund. Independent from the administration’s fund, the SG and the Democracy Collective (a student association unaffiliated with the administration) also kickstarted their own fundraising effort on Milaap. They have managed to raise an amount greater than the SG’s entire annual budget, and have transferred Rs. 12,000 each to over two dozen resigned workers, and given additional aid to others who are not receiving enough help from the WWC’s Fund (which only transfers Rs. 6,000 at a time).
Nevertheless, workers continue to face financial problems due to the lack of alternative sources of income and being made to stay at home without pay. As part of the challenges yet to be tackled, the SG claims that employees working on a 15-day rotational basis are not paid their entire salary at once. Rather, they reportedly receive deferred payments in small amounts, causing problems in paying for medical expenses, rent, and school fees. Moreover, many of their names are allegedly not updated on the database used for marking attendance, which can make it difficult to prove that they were present at work when collecting their salaries.
The number of workers per shift is also reported to be sparse, leading to unhygienic conditions on campus. Multiple workers have expressed, with no avail, the need for more workforce on campus, a demand that is also echoed by the SG. Housekeeping workers on campus consistently report being overworked, with over-nine-hour-long shifts, in excess of their eight-hours-a-day contractual limit. When campus begins to partially reopen, with an unspecified number of students returning, the workers will further face increased workloads, possibly without compensation or consideration of the risk to which they are exposed.
There is still reported harassment and discrimination against workers who have decided to stay on against the coercion of their employers. They have reportedly received their Diwali bonuses late and were kept out of team meetings. The SG says that the 15-day system is only meant to be a temporary arrangement. Changing this general working environment and culture, as well as the social hierarchies and dynamics, will take a lot more effort and interaction between the various offices and with the workers. The offices of the VC and the Pro-VC did not respond to our requests for a comment on this article.