Contract Workers at IITK: A Response to Commonly Held Misconceptions

– Rahul Varman

In light of the ongoing strikes of sanitation workers at JNU, we have elected to republish this article from Sanhati. While about contract workers at IIT Kanpur specifically, it is relevant to every institute of higher education across India, and talks about issues entirely ignored by the academic section of these institutes, see for example “We Are No Longer Afraid” and “Higher Learning and Exclusion.”

We at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IITK henceforth) today are dependent upon contingent workforce for most of the work and services and a large amount of such work has been contracted out. Today the campus, where close to 10,000 of us work and stay, is almost completely dependent on contract workers, whether for cleaning, horticulture, security, messing, civil & electrical maintenance, construction, laying cables, research assistance, the list can go on. By reliable estimates, as the institute has no system to keep consolidated records of such workers, the contingent workforce can be as high as 3,000 1. Given such a large workforce and given the fact that they work without any framework of rights and responsibilities, we keep hearing of arbitrary hiring and firings, accidents, grievances, signature campaigns, office orders, reports, and so on relating to the contingent workforce, and yet we do not seem to be any closer to addressing the ‘problem’. The present write-up is based on my 2 interaction with various constituencies on the issue during the last 15 years. Over these years of my stay in the campus I have primarily endeavoured to understand the problem from ‘below’ by interacting fairly closely with various kinds of workers. In the process I have also engaged with different constituencies on the issue – students, staff, faculty colleagues, authorities at various levels, contractors and have also been involved with minimum wage monitoring, handling worker grievances officially, etc. In this brief piece I am attempting to understand various aspects of the problem and what can be the possible ways of addressing them as I have understood personally with all its biases and limitations.

The Problem

Over the years I have heard various kinds of positions on the issue, especially from the administration and officials; I have divided these positions into four broad assertions – below I take them up one by one for discussion.

I. “It is Not Our Responsibility”

This is one of the first claims that is often made – after all “what is the point in hiring a contractor if we have to think about the workers?” Let us consider two aspects of this issue:

  1. First and foremost: all these workers are working for us, that is, primarily the academic community, faculty and students, and partly for the regular employees and the residents of the campus, the family members of faculty, staff and students. If someone is serving us ensuring all the facilities, then why are they not our ‘responsibility’? After all, they are the ones who clean our toilets, tend our gardens, provide us with food, keep the campus secure, repair our rooms and offices, electricity, plumbing, sewage, and the list can go on. Why is it that we do not stop thinking about the buildings and the gardens when we contract them out but we do not want to spare a thought for those who produce those services? Moreover, so many of us are convinced by the notion of ‘corporate social responsibility’ and will argue that Nike has at least some minimum responsibility towards those who make the shoes in Vietnam; then how come we do not have any responsibility towards those who directly serve us working within the four walls of the same campus? We are not even separated by distance and boundaries of continents and nation states like Nike.
  2. The second argument is in continuation with the first one – that it can get the institute a ‘bad name’ in the same manner that it has got a bad name to Nike and Wal-Mart, who have been accused of producing and serving under ‘sweatshop’ conditions. This is what has precisely happened in the case of IITK as well, as various constituencies across the world have repeatedly reminded the institute of its responsibilities in recent years. Take into account the following facts:
    1. At present more than 900 alumni have signed an ongoing petition 3 in which they declare: “We believe that IIT Kanpur can and should become a model in providing social justice to the marginalized, poor, voiceless and powerless human beings – the contract workers on its campus…Alumni of this world class-institute who have signed this petition have decided to withhold their future donations to IIT Kanpur Alumni Association till they see that significant progress has been made towards providing justice and fairness to the poor and voiceless contract workers…”

    2. Last year in an open letter signed by 90 members of the community – faculty, students and staff voiced their grave concern to the administration over a series of serious, including fatal, accidents at work sites and complete lack of safety precautions and medical facilities for the contract workers in the campus.

    3. In September 2007 in the wake of a succession of worker deaths in the campus, 900 people worldwide signed a letter 4 in which they stated: “These are avoidable deaths that have occurred on grounds of an Institute that claims excellence in technology internationally. We expect that good technical institutions would provide technically safe and efficient working conditions in their campuses, as required by human rights legislature, born out of equal respect for the lives of the elite and labouring classes. These events expose a completely opposite picture.”

II. “We are Not Legally Responsible for the Contract Workers”

Another common refrain is that aside from some moral responsibility the institute has no legal responsibility towards the contract workers and whatever is being done for them is being done based on conscience and on ‘humanitarian grounds’. But this is not the case. I would strongly recommend for everyone to glance through the Contract Labour Act (CLA) 1970 5 in which there is a stipulation of a ‘principal employer’ – the principal employer is the one who has contracted its services out to a contractor and for whom ultimately the workers are working. The responsibilities of the principal employer as per the CLA 1970 are wide ranging which is borne out by the fact that the term ‘principal employer’ is mentioned 16 times in a 16 page bare act! It fixes responsibility of the principal employer for maintaining proper records, for providing basic amenities like toilets and creches, and ensuring proper wages, etc. For instance, clause 21(4) of the Act states: “In case the contractor fails to make payment of wages within the prescribed period or makes short payment, then the principal employer shall be liable to make payment of wages in full or the unpaid balance due…”

Not only is it enshrined in the law of the land that we have legal responsibilities towards the contract workers but the institute has formally stated so at various occasions. To cite the most dramatic of these, on 16th September 2007 the institute issued a 16 page office order 6 in the wake of worldwide condemnation of a series of deaths of contract workers in the campus, where it promised to ensure various things – minimum wages, safety, proper work hours, provident fund, insurance, medical facilities, amenities, like rest rooms and creches, and above all ensuring due process for the contract workers in the campus. Office order specifically states that: “All the institute administrators shall strictly ensure implementation and compliance of these statutory provisions by the contractors/concerned incumbents without fail.” Can we still get away by saying that “it is not our legal responsibility”?

III. “We are Doing Our Best”

Often, interestingly, the discourse shifts quickly from “this is not our problem” to “there is no problem”! On 12th March this year, the institute has given a written undertaking to the Regional Labour Commissioner (Central) 7 that “there is no violation of any provision of any Labour Law” in IITK. At various forums within the campus and outside the authorities have been claiming that they take ‘great pains’ in implementing the labour rights in the campus, that they have developed an elaborate and a fool proof system for ensuring it, and that they have a Minimum Wage Monitoring Committee (MWMC) which is headed by a faculty member and a large set of faculty and student volunteers help it in monitoring the implementation.

The sentiments of the Minimum Wage Committee and its large number of volunteers, who worked hard for years to bring a semblance of order and accountability in an otherwise absolutely arcane set of practices with which the contractors and institute officials functioned, can best be summarised in the words of the terminal report 8 of the then chairman of the MWMC, submitted to the institute in 2007: “(MWMC) feels distressed about the sorry tale of lost opportunities, inaction, active resistance and lack of cooperation on the part of the administration. The MWMC is the most ignored committee in the Institute. Thus overall in spite of the heroic efforts of the MW volunteers, very little of what was possible has been achieved in terms of ensuring minimum wages and dignified work to the most vulnerable section of the campus citizens – the contract workers… Our communication to the administration has been largely one way. We have sent countless suggestions, complaints, reminders to the administration, but they have usually chosen to ignore them, forcing us into an unprecedented situation where we had to file an RTI even to get information from the administration. And even then we were not provided with complete information.”

This in some ways captures the experience of seven long years of the volunteers since the formation of the committee in 2000. Perhaps this was one of the rare committees which had such a large volunteer base who were so eager to help and support and give time while the institute was very keen that this is one committee which should do as little as possible! In these seven years the committee wrote hundreds of letters and scores of reports to various officials without a reply to even a single letter from the higher officials. The committee attempted to consult and take the interest of various constituencies into account while formulating systems and policies (because there were none before!) – the officials, contractors, and of course the workers 9. To begin with, the committee was not a product of the administration’s concern to ensure implementation of labour laws in the campus but an outcome of the embarrassment that it faced by the state of affairs being brought out by the vigilant community. Perhaps an immediate reason for the formation of the committee was a report by a group of students on the stark conditions of workers at the then construction sites of CSE and GH1 buildings 10. Thus MWMC is a committee which the institute never wanted to constitute in the first place and was made only to do some window dressing. But when the committee, with the active participation of the community, started doing work in earnest which originally it was never really intended to do, it faced recurrent non-cooperation, active resistance and downright sabotage from the authorities. For two more examples of how ‘seriously’ the institute took its own committees and their recommendations see Appendix 1 & 2 on medical committee report and environment building workers respectively.

IV. “It is a Very Complex Problem”

Finally, when all other arguments get exhausted, then the authorities declare that the problem is ‘too complex’ and that the volunteers are ‘utopians’, an impractical bunch who do not understand the ‘ground realities’. First of all, I do not understand why it is such a big crime to be ‘utopian’ in a place where we claim to be going to the space via micro-satellites, where we feel proud to put our accomplishments in the womb of earth for the aliens, where we are making our buildings ‘smart’ and we are turning the whole place into Mandrake’s Xanadu, like the entrance of the VH! And more to the point, what is so utopian about minimum wage – all it provides for is primarily minimum calories and some bare essentials for a family of four to live as biological beings? Probably, the basic problem is not that there is an impossible ‘problem’ to ‘solve’ but prevalence of a certain kind of attitude; here is a sample from the statements of the highest authorities:

“It is human nature not to take responsibility, neither me nor my wife likes taking responsibility for our son; similarly, the institute does not want to take responsibility for the workers.”

“I am treating him (a high official) over the best of scotch tonight, only he can solve the problem of minimum wages in the campus.”

“I have papers to write, I cannot be thinking about the workers.”

The ‘Problem’: My views and possible ways to address it

To me the essential problem 11 is this kind of mind-set, which paradoxically on the one end puts the problem on high pedestal and utterly trivialises it on the other at the same time. Obviously it is not an issue which can get addressed over drinks or simultaneously while writing papers or even by invoking the ‘human nature’. It is an institutional problem which requires basic changes in our functioning that can happen only through a long drawn process. But it is eminently doable and a significant difference can be made in a very short time through a combination of administrative commitment and community participation. During my experience, there have been contracts, contractors, and brief moments when at least part of the contract work force in the campus has attained some of their legal rights – every time due to the efforts of some combination of involved community, vigilant officials, conscientious contractor and workforce which is aware of their rights and confident that raising grievance will not lead to arbitrary firing, has made the difference. The collective experience of volunteers signifies that it can be done in two broad ways.

I. Policies and Procedures for Providing a Framework of Labour Rights

In March 2006 the MWMC met the director and it was decided that a ‘policy document’ will be created within 3 months to provide an overall framework for implementing the labour laws with regard to the contract workers in the campus. Based on its experience over five years the volunteers worked on a very practical set of recommendations as initial steps towards fulfilling institute’s obligations regarding labour laws. It is all of a four page document 12 that outlines how to ensure labour laws, right from the time of drafting the tender document, to awarding the contract, enforcing appropriate working conditions, guaranteeing minimum wages, taking care of worker grievances, etc. The document was submitted in the month of June of the same year. What was the administration’s response? Till the date of writing this, to the best of my knowledge and of all the volunteers and the then MWMC chair, who created the document, it has not been seriously discussed even in one meeting, let alone trying to implement it. Nevertheless this document can provide a beginning point for attempting to create a basic framework for implementing labour laws and fulfilling some of the very essential obligations towards the contract workers.

II. Establishing a Worker Exchange

One of the persistent problems is that as long as there are workers willing to work at less than the MWs (actually often at half the rate) the problem is difficult to be addressed (though implementation of policy document can make a significant difference). Because, as a set of workers are sensitised due to the sustained campaign, feel confident to demand and stand-up for their rights, they are summarily removed and replaced by another set of workers with whom again the whole process has to start from the beginning, and the cycle is repeated. That has been the story in brief of various kinds of concerted campaigns by the volunteers, whether in hostel messes, sanitation workers, construction contracts, and so on. So the primary issue is not the dearth of workers for the contractors in the vicinity of IITK, or lack of skills, but the heart of the matter is that the contractors take great pains to avoid employing an ‘aware’ worker and as workers are made aware due to the efforts of MW volunteers they are regularly replaced by fresh supply of ‘unaware’ workers, often migrants who have no local moorings, do not even understand the local language, and hence find it even harder to demand their dues. When a group of workers who have been sincere in their work are removed for no fault of theirs, it leads to an overall demoralisation and lack of motivation amongst the worker community, which in turn is bound to reflect on the quality of service provided. As long as this practice continues, no amount of procedures and safeguards are adequate for ensuring the basic rights of the workers. We are of the view that this can be addressed effectively by having a ‘worker exchange 13’ that will register and certify workers for daily wage and contract employment at IITK. Thus as a policy we can make it mandatory for all the contractors to recruit workers only from such an institution and only if the workers of a particular specification are not available with the exchange will they be allowed to bring workers from ‘outside’. Ironically, in some tacit way partly there is already an ‘exchange’ which is working at IITK. For every kind of work, whether it is sanitation, horticulture, civil maintenance or even construction, it is usually the same set of workers who keep working for decades – only the contract and sometimes the contractor keeps changing (see Appendix 3 on Ram Vilas). It is only when workers begin asking for their due wages and other rights that suddenly the contractors want to exercise their right to hire and fire and officials are too eager to honour it. Else a large section of the contract workers working in the campus have attained their employment through contacts of somebody or the other – gardener, maid, driver, etc. of those who matter. Given this fact, what is wrong in registering all these workers with an independent society based on seniority and skill while introducing a clause in the contract specifying that the workers have to be employed from this society, if available, in the same way that a new contractor inherits the entire infrastructure from the old contract?

Let me end by relating a recent incident when labour commissioner (central) of UP came visiting the campus on 7th May. He came for inspection primarily because the environment building workers, who lost their jobs even after it was proven by an institute committee that the contractor had violated their rights while the same contractor was awarded contracts worth Rs. 25 crores (see Appendix 2 & 3), had filed a complaint about widespread violation of labour laws in the campus. When he visited some of the construction sites (in front of the swimming pool), he found Chattisgarhi workers including women and children being hidden behind the bushes and several tractor trolley full of workers being smuggled out of the campus by the back gates right in the middle of a working day – and senior institute officials were present during this inspection according to some of the eyewitness accounts. Now how long do we think we can continue by hiding workers behind bushes? The whole situation reminds me of Shanghai factories a hundred years back – when Blackburn mission came visiting Shanghai in 1896, this is what they complained about Shanghai workers: “Comparing this Oriental labour and our own, there is on the one hand, cheap, plentiful, submissive, capable labour, plus the best machinery we can give it; on the other hand, dear, dictating and exacting labour (back in England), plus the same machinery. Can anyone call these equal conditions? Are they not in favour of Shanghai capitalists 14…” Within 30 years the same Shanghai was witness to a virtual revolt of the working classes that led to some of the cataclysmic events not only for China but for the world history that are still reverberating around. My point is to those of us who have a long term stake in IITK unlike the present administration: do we wait for such cataclysmic events to take place and let the history slip out of our hand or do we act now and facilitate and participate in what is just, fair and therefore sustainable?

Appendix 1: Medical Committee Report

The institute formed a ‘committee for implementation of medical facilities’ for contract workers through the 16th September 2007 office order (this is the same office order which came out after the international signature campaign in the wake of several worker deaths in the campus). The committee submitted a report in December 2007 outlining a whole system for taking care of the first aid and basic medical needs, right from OPD, medicines, pathology to even more involved needs of the contract workers in the campus; but the institute has yet to acknowledge the receipt of the report let alone acting on it. Last year the convener of the committee filed a series of RTIs in his private capacity as a citizen of India (since he was not provided any information officially as convener of the committee) asking the institute about the status of the recommendations of the committee. The response of the institute makes an interesting reading. To begin with, the institute could not even locate a copy of the report and finally after several rounds of correspondence when they were asked to provide the minutes of the meetings where the recommendations of the report were discussed, the appellate authority under the RTI Act stated 15: “I trust you will appreciate that such record is not maintained, and therefore, cannot be provided… you may… inspect any, or every related files available…” By all accounts including those of the workers, neither the report has ever been read nor any other medical facility provided for the workers. Same was the fate of many other important committees, like for instance on worker safety.

Appendix 2: Environment Building Workers

In August 2007, 25 workers of the M/s Gupta Enterprise working for the then under construction Environmental Building Site filed a complaint regarding the rampant malpractices in payment of minimum wages. This large building project was being constructed by the funds provided by the then Member of Parliament, Shri Arun Shourie, from his MPLADS endowment. Persuaded by the complaints of these workers and also due to the efforts of the MW volunteers, the administration constituted an official committee on ‘Complaints about Partial Recovery of Wages Paid to the Contract Labours by Certain Contractors’ on 23rd October, 2007. The committee deliberated on the case for about 5 months and submitted their report on the 20th of March, 2009. Findings of the committee 16 clearly showed that there were malpractices in minimum wages payment by the contractor M/s Gupta Enterprises as 23 of the 25 complainants’ claims were found to be valid. The Committee clearly stated in its findings that in each of the 23 cases the contractor had been systematically withholding part wages apparently to ensure “completion of work on time”. Further the committee found that the contractor followed no “rational norms” for payment of wages. Many of the workers were not paid in the presence of IITK’s representative, the principal employer (legally mandatory according to the Contract Labour Act, 1970). In its recommendations the committee stated that the dues of the workers be settled. The Institute accepted the recommendations of the committee and directed the contractor to disburse the sums. The contractor did that and also immediately dismissed all these 25 workers. In spite of the repeated requests by the MW volunteers, the ambit of investigations was never extended to other hundreds of workers working on the site. And a commonsense question to ask, what was the penalty for the contractor? He was awarded construction contracts worth more than Rs. 25 crores in the campus as of 2009 17. We can imagine what kind of signal this peculiar form of justice will send to the workers, contractors, the volunteers, and the officials.

Appendix 3: Profile of a Construction Worker

Ram Vilas ji is in his late 50s and hails from a village that is close to Shobhan Mandir, more than 20 kms from the campus. He is a skilled mason, who has done masonry and plastering work in the campus almost continuously since 1988, primarily for M/s Vishnu Saran/Gupta Enterprises (same owners – they were the contractors for environment building – see Appendix 2). He has been involved in construction of the auditorium, RA hostel, alumni building and environment building; besides, he has done civil-maintenance work in ACMS, type IV and I houses, etc. In fact when one of the balconies of the auditorium fell during construction in the early 1990s injuring several workers and killing a couple of them, Ram Vilas’s leg was fractured – he still has that x-ray with him. Incidentally when the accident happened nobody knew how many workers were under the debris as there were no proper records.

Unlike what is said that “contractor workers are brought everyday from the market” and hence “it is very hard to regulate their conditions”, we can see from this profile that actually the same workers keep floating from contract to contract till of course they ask inconvenient questions like their legal dues. Ram Vilas was one of the 25 workers who asked for their full wages (see Appendix 2 above); immediately he became an ‘unskilled’ and a ‘bad’ worker and finally was dismissed after the inauguration of the environment building in 2008 after having worked in the institute for 20 years. He tells us that now no contractor in the campus will employ him as he is branded as a ‘trouble maker’ and he also suggests that officials liberally pass around the word about his ‘dangerous’ past to all the new contractors in the campus!

  1. This means almost one worker for every one student and 10 workers for every one faculty. This in not counting the domestic help personally employed by the households, some of who stay as well in the ‘servant’s quarters’ in the campus. ↩︎

  2. Though I use the first person here as if I am the author of this piece, in reality only the words are mine here; this is the collective position held by a large number of volunteers and worker friends who have worked untiringly on the issue for years and decades against heavy odds – they have been my teachers and what I have learnt from them is being argued here. Detailed inputs of Manali Chakrabarti and Suchitra Mathur on an earlier draft are gratefully acknowledged. ↩︎

  3. ↩︎

  4.,com_wrapper/Itemid,201/ ↩︎

  5. Please note that the conditions of work and pay of a contract worker are governed by several acts, like Minimum Wages Act, Payment of Wages Act, PF Act, ESI Act, Workmen Compensation Act, Equal Remuneration Act, Interstate Migrant Workers Act, Construction Workers Act, and so on. I have mentioned here the Contract Labour Act as it defines the most basic part of the relationship between a contract worker and IITK, else each of these acts have relevant provisions for defining the liabilities of a principal employer. ↩︎

  6. ↩︎

  7. He is the labour commissioner for the central government having jurisdiction over the entire states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. ↩︎

  8. The whole report can be found at: I very strongly recommend the reader to go through this report as it captures the essential problem and the possible answers as understood by the collective of the volunteers and the committee based on their substantial experience on the ground. ↩︎

  9. The early years of the committee and its painstaking, patient and ‘Gandhian’ efforts have been captured in a long piece that is available at: ↩︎

  10. You can find the report at: ↩︎

  11. There are other possible reasons like high monetary stakes: in an article published in August 2006 in Voices, the alumni magazine of IITK, it was estimated that amount of money that is being siphoned away from the workers from what is legally their due is around Rs. 2.7 crores. Given that minimum wages has doubled during this period due to extraordinary inflation and the rise in number of workers, we can easily double this estimate today. The full article can be accessed at: ↩︎

  12. The document is available at: ↩︎

  13. For an introductory note on worker exchange see: ↩︎

  14. Forces of labor: workers’ movements and globalization since 1870, Beverly Silver, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003, p 88. ↩︎

  15. Letter No. Estt./PIO/59/2009/IITK/430 dated November 20, 2009 ↩︎

  16. You can find medical report, safety committee report and more about this case at: ↩︎

  17. Response to RTI: letter no. Estt./PIO/56-57-2009/IITK/233 dated July 2009. ↩︎

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