By Dipanita Malik (UG22)
At the onset of the pandemic-induced lockdown, the tenures of contractual maintenance workers at Ashoka University, who are hired by third-party vendors, became susceptible to threats – an issue raised by the Student Government (SG). On 6th January, the Edict published a news article — titled “How the SG negotiated the reversal of coerced resignation of workers, explained” — detailing the processes involved in raising awareness and garnering support for the cause.
Another player besides the Student Government that assisted in mobilising for worker’s rights was the Democracy Collective, a student association, unaffiliated with the administration, that advocates for democracy through education and activism. Several SG representatives are also members of the collective and Biplob Das, who belongs to both, revealed in an interview that Democracy Collective was one of the main sources of information about workers’ plight, along with faculty members and students staying on campus who received distressed calls from several workers.
Das added that the SG had informed Vice-Chancellor Malabika Sarkar about these problems in the month of June. An email to the entire university body, sent on 24 June, alleged that five workers were laid off without compensation after May and they received “nothing thereafter despite repeated reassurance by senior [administration] members.”
The SG’s July 30 email to the students, faculty, alumni members and the administrative staff of the Ashoka community read: “Several workers have been laid off across departments without any compensation or assurance of employment when the campus reopens.” The email also alleged that some members of the administration attempted to coerce workers’ resignations “whether outrightly or in a deceptive manner.”
Das qualified that the public nature of that email was borne out of a necessity to “build pressure on the administration” as “no fruitful response” was received from the Vice-Chancellor and administration about the coerced resignation of workers. “Communication was not that great [between the administration and SG] and that is why we directly sent an email to the entire Ashoka body.”
The SG’s July 30 email alleged that upwards of “100 workers have been laid off or coerced to resign since the beginning of the lockdown.” The email also attached a petition which demanded the university to refrain from acts of coercion and mistreatment of contractual maintenance workers. The petition till date has only 144 signatories, including undergraduates, postgraduates, and faculty members.
On 3rd August, VC Sarkar announced the creation of a student observer seat in the administration’s Workers’ Welfare Committee for the first time, fulfilling an SG demand first articulated by the 5th House of Representatives. The SG unanimously nominated Jahnavi Rudra, a Prakrit member of the 6th House, to fill this seat.
The SG’s July 30 email that exposed the dire circumstances of the housekeeping staff simultaneously invited funds to provide financial relief to such workers. “The minimum goal is to raise at least enough funds to be able to transfer Rs.10,000 to each worker who was laid off. As per our estimates, the amount comes up to Rs. 10,00,000,” the SG stated. Calling this as the “bare minimum amount,” Paytm and bank transfer details were mentioned in the email for receiving money.
Within 23 hours, Rs. 70,780 was raised. Five days later, the SG announced that two-lakh rupees had been raised, inching closer to the goal, in addition to adding a new link for fundraising via Milaap, considered to be South Asia’s largest crowdfunding site.
These developments occurred in light of VC Sarkar’s August 3 email about a Workers Welfare Fund (WWF) planned to be introduced by the WWC. To this, Das said, “The Milaap fund and WWF function independently. We decided to create Milaap fund because the concerns [of the workers] were too urgent.” Although VC Sarkar had hinted about WWF to the SG earlier as well, the SG “kept waiting only” for that to happen. The WWF was introduced on August 8, eight days after the SG first started its collection of funds.
By August 26, the SG had raised Rs. 3.7 lakh, an amount exceeding its annual budget. An email on the same day made a new announcement about the eligibility of workers to receive financial assistance: there was a disparity in the urgency of funds between the workers who had not resigned and the workers who were given their dues upon resignation. The SG, therefore, divided the workers in need of financial support into three categories: those who were fired, who resigned, and who had not been called into work.
Earlier, in response to the SG’s July 30 email, VC Sarkar had claimed that as part of routine downsizing, contractual workers who had ceased to be in service were asked to voluntarily sign resignation slips to formally entitle them to receive retirement benefits such as gratuity and provident funds. Nearly a month after this email, the SG decided to “focus on the workers who have not resigned.”
With these developments, the SG provided Rs. 12,000 to 26 workers, instead of the initial projection of 100 workers receiving Rs. 10,000 each. The administration’s WWF has also provided financial assistance to at least 68 workers, as per an email from VC Sarkar dated 11th December. In effect, the two platforms, while working independently, acted as alternative routes to provide financial assistance to as many as 94 workers.
On 3rd December, the SG voluntarily released a folder titled “SG Emergency Fund For Workers Transaction Logs” to disclose payment amounts ranging from Rs. 12,000 to Rs. 5,000. The folder, containing twenty-four screenshots of payment records, does not disclose the name of any recipient, citing confidentiality reasons.
The SG Budget Policy does not provide adequate regulations for their crowdfunding campaigns. Given the fundraising potential witnessed this time, there is an emerging need to institute formal requirements for financial responsibility and transparency.
The VC’s December 11 email called for another round of tax-deductible donations and appealed for more contributions to replenish the fund: “we urgently need to increase our resources to be able to continue to help.” The SG too continues to help the housekeeping staff on an ad hoc basis.
Comparing the functioning of the fundraising platforms of the SG and the administration, Biplob Das said that “we are more accessible,” while also pointing to the “more bureaucratic” nature of the latter. He remained optimistic about the cause of justice for the university’s workers, which includes greater job security, a safer working environment, and the ability to speak out against mistreatment.