ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Workers in Their Own Right

Despite their crucial role in welfare services, scheme workers continue to struggle for recognition of their rights.

 

For the greater part of February, over two lakh anganwadi workers have been agitating for their demands in Maharashtra. In Bihar, cooks under the mid-day meal scheme (MDMS) in schools also went on a long strike in January dema­nding a pay hike. These anganwadi workers and cooks are among the “scheme workers” across the country who bring the central and state governments’ social welfare schemes to the people. In ­effect, they are the ambassadors and ­implementers of these schemes, many of which are flagship schemes of the respective governments. It is ironical, then, that their demands are met only after they go on strikes or agitate and, even then, the acceptance of their demands is made in a paltry and reluctant manner.

All across India, these scheme workers provide core services in basic areas like health, education, and nutrition. Termed as “volunteers,” they are poorly paid, carry a heavy workload, and are not eligible for any benefits that government employees get. There are around 27 lakh anganwadi workers and helpers, predominantly women, under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), a similar number under the MDMS, around 10 lakh accredited social health activists (ASHAs) and urban social health activists (USHAs), and around three lakh auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs), all under the National Health Mission. There are many more lakhs under the National Child Labour Project, Small Savings Schemes, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, and National Rural Livelihoods Mission, among others.

Considering their job descriptions and scope, it is obvious that this female-dominated workforce performs a crucial role involving the welfare of marginalised sections. They are the “face” and “hands” of social welfare schemes that cover pregnant women, children, the ill, and the malnourished. Their ­unions point out that, despite their workload, they are also expected to carry out government surveys and data collection drives. However, not only are these workers not considered government employees, they are also paid “honorariums” that are disproportionate to the responsibilities they shoulder. The unions have also pointed out that the various budgetary cuts in different schemes add to their insecurity and their burden of responsibilities. The budget allocation for the ICDS and the MDMS were decreased in the 2015–16 union budget, according to media ­reports. Given the importance of their work, one would assume that the state and central governments would be keen to provide them a decent wage and working conditions.

Not surprisingly, that is not the case. Instead, the Maharashtra government brought their agitating anganwadi workers under the Maharashtra Essential Services Maintenance Act in 2018, while continuing to ignore their long-standing demands to be recognised as rights-bearing workers. In Bihar, when 2.48 lakh rasoiya (cooks) stopped cooking for the MDMS in schools in early January 2019, even though their strike affected lakhs of schoolchildren, it was allowed to go on for 39 days before a paltry hike in their wages was announced. The anganwadi workers’ unions also allege that the government is attempting to close down those anganwadi centres that have less than 25 beneficiaries. Maharashtra itself has 97,000 major and 10,000 mini anganwadis, and each of the former employs at least one ­teacher/
administrator and a helper, whose livelihoods would be at stake.

On 17 January 2018, more than 50 lakh workers under central government schemes went on a nationwide strike and held protests at district headquarters all over the country. The strike was called by all the 10 central trade unions. The government’s disregard for their concerns can be gauged from its inaction on the Indian Labour Conference’s (ILC) recommendations from May 2013 that central government scheme “volunteers” should be recognised as workers, get minimum wages and pensions, and have the right to bargain collectively. The demands of the workers currently on strike include the implementation of the ILC’s recommendations, coverage under the Employees’ Provident Fund and Employees’ State Insurance schemes, adequate financial allocation in the union budget for the centrally sponsored schemes, commensurate infrastructure, and the stemming of attempts to privatise some of these schemes by involving non-government entities to implement them.

These workers have pointed out that their work is under­valued and their demands have been ignored because their work is treated in the same way as all “women’s work” is treated. The attempts to privatise and cut budgetary allocations to these schemes are also part of the state’s larger move to divest itself of its core responsibilities. The struggle of these workers, therefore, must be recognised as going beyond just the economic ­demands of a section of workers.

Updated On : 27th Feb, 2019

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