Pandemic, Workers, and Responsibility of Public Academic Institutions

A Hamara Manch response to commonly held misconceptions

September 2021

Context

It has been 17 months since the first of a series of pandemic related lockdowns in the country, and working class livelihoods have yet to recover from its devastating consequences. Hamara Manch has come up with a series of reports on the conditions of campus workers during this period (all the reports, including the ones cited here, are available at: https://nirvaakiitk.wordpress.com/). We have also reported that the conditions of workers have become qualitatively worse after the second wave, especially for those who work in the hostels.

  • In June this year, we brought out a report on the conditions of women mess workers, most of whom are the only earning member in their family and who have been practically without any work for 15 months. As the wages have stopped, so has the ESI support, leading to a severe medical crisis for the workers. As narrated in the report, one woman mess worker in her 20s, who is unlettered with two small children, has a husband whose both kidneys have failed. Without ESI support, she now needs to find Rs. 30,000 every month for just the dialysis.
  • One work that has been going on all along amidst the pandemic is construction. Some of these women mess workers tried to find work on a construction site, and from them, we came to know that all the women construction workers on one site were fired in July 2021. When Hamara Manch went to enquire about it to one of the residential sites of the construction workers, we found that they were living in containers that are generally used for shipping/transportation. Twenty persons were packed in each container in these times of ‘social distancing’! A young woman died on the same day due to a lack of access to any medical facility.
  • In August, over a thousand workers signed a letter addressed to the community seeking support for a dignified existence, mentioning that some of them do not even have the money to get the free government-provided rations milled.

Institutional Response

What has been the institutional response to the loss of livelihoods of thousands of its workers?

  • The administration, while making appropriate noise on social media about how much it is doing for ‘Covid-19 relief’, has by and large kept quiet on the issue of the workers and how they were surviving this prolonged lack of employment.
  • The campus community, too, has not raised its voice about the workers. When opinions are expressed, they usually justify the complete lack of accountability of the Institute towards its workforce. For example:
    • These are not our workers’, meaning they belong to the contractor and hence not the responsibility of the Institute.
    • The workers are presently ‘non-worker non-employees,’ that they are neither working in the Institute nor on its rolls, so they are not the Institute’s responsibility.
    • Where is it written in the contracts that the Institute would be responsible for these workers during the times of pandemic?
    • The most common refrain is that the Institute is short of funds and hence cannot indulge in any charity towards these workers.
    • As a corollary to the above is the offer of personal monetary contributions

Hamara Manch’s Position

We have discussed these responses at Hamara Manch and would like to briefly articulate our position in four points.

1. The Lack of Money Argument

A cursory look at the annual accounts of IITK shows that for the latest financial year ending March 2021, the Institute income was more than Rs. 700 crores. Even 1 percent of this can take care of the minimum needs of the workers during these distressing times. (https://www.iitk.ac.in/new/data/Finance_Officer_Office/Balance-Sheet-account-03-09-21.pdf). Therefore HM is of the view that this complete lack of sensitivity towards the condition of the workers is a reflection of the priorities of our Institute and not a shortage of funds.

2. The no Legal-Liability Argument

 The Government of India has come up with three explicit office memoranda (available at https://doe.gov.in/whats-new) during the pandemic, the latest being in June 2021, repeatedly stating that all government establishments are to consider their entire ‘contractual, casual and outsourced staff’ who have been forced to stay at home as “on duty,” and ensure that they are paid their wages accordingly. IITK has not done so.

In fact, IITK keeps flouting labour laws, and most of us keep quiet about it. This is most evident on the construction sites where legal wages are not paid, and legal safety protocols are not followed. This has real consequences too. There were three deaths at the construction site of the Earth Science building in 2019. HM associates at IIT Bombay report that four workers have died in construction activities in the last one year.

3. The Claim of Striving to Emulate the Best of the West

For everything regarding the Institute – rankings, research, faculty entitlements, we invoke standards of the best in the West, except when it comes to our workers where we choose to justify things by comparing with the worst possible practices like the local labour mandi. During the pandemic, most countries that we look up to have implemented generous furlough policies by paying as much as 80 percent of wages while considering employees’ on leave’: https://www.bigissue.com/news/employment/furlough-in-other-countries-supporting-workers-through-the-covid-crisis/).

4. Hamara Manch’s Position on the Workers of our Institute

We believe that these workers are an indispensable and integral part of the Institute. It is their hard work that makes possible the construction of our buildings and their maintenance, the campus security, our sanitation facilities, the lawn maintenance, nutritious food in messes and canteens, basically everything that ensures the smooth functioning of this Institute.  As such, they are the Institute’s responsibility.

The law of the land mandates that all workers have dignified work conditions and minimum wages with benefits for health and pension. And being the Principal Employer, the Institute is responsible for ensuring this, especially as a public institution built and run on taxpayers’ money. IIT Kanpur claims in its mission statement that it aspires “To pursue excellence in education, research, and innovation by nurturing leadership qualities with a sense of commitment and accountability, and inculcating values and ethics in thought, expression, and deed.

Then why should the workers of this public-funded academic Institute have to repeatedly appeal for support for dignified existence?

Hamara Manch is convinced that the answer to the workers’ appeal is not some piecemeal individual charity but a concerted institutional effort to uphold workers’ rights and dignity. Steinbeck’s powerful lines in The Grapes of Wrath best captures the need for ensuring the dignity of our workers, especially amidst the pandemic:No one complains about the necessity of feeding the horse while he is not working. But we complain about feeding the men and women who work… Is it possible that this state is so stupid, so vicious, and so greedy that it cannot clothe and feed the men and women who help to make it…? Must the hunger become anger and anger fury before anything will be done?

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