‘’We Are Being Intimidated For Seeking Job Security And Fair Wages’

There are growing instances of criminalisation of women workers protesting for better work conditions and wages. After ASHA, Anganwadi and Mid-Day Meal workers, this is happening to the communications workers at Dial 112 in Uttar Pradesh

“We believe that new employees are being hired as we saw job postings on websites. New trainees have been hired and some of them have received their offer letters. But women who have been working with Dial 112 for years now are yet to receive their joining letter,” an employee who wished to remain anonymous told Behanbox

The service, launched in 2019 by union defence minister Rajnath Singh, is a pan-India emergency response support system.

Criminalisation of Workers Protests

Chanting slogans, the protesting women workers have been demanding that the UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath intervene. On the second day of the protest, the police removed them from the site, moved them to another location and then detained them. They filed an FIR under the Indian Penal Code Section 1860, Act 147, 149, 188, 283 and 341 against the women, naming five employees and leaving 200 unnamed.  The charges included rioting, unlawful assembly, and deliberate disobedience of an order that is duly promulgated by a public servant.  

FIR filed by the Uttar Pradesh Police on protesting women workers of the 112 helpline

Women protestors allege pressure and intimidation. 

“After we began our protest on November 6, we were subjected to misbehaviour from both our department and the police. They locked the Dial 112 building where we were protesting. The washrooms and water facilities were denied to us. We sat here all night and the government responded by cutting the electricity and not letting us use blankets ,” Sarita told Behanbox. “We wanted to walk to the CM office to talk with him but the police barricaded the area and beat our workers. Several women workers sustained injuries.”

Undeterred, the women sat in the dark of the night with their mobile phones turned on for light after the electricity was shut off. Up to 300 of them are still reportedly detained.

“We did not break any laws. We have three simple demands: an increase in the salary in line with inflation, offer letters and job security,” asserted Sarita.

The protesters also said that the police have not shared any information on the FIR with them. “We have received a copy of the FIR. It is a technique to deter us and scare us,” Kriti*, a protesting worker told us. 

In recent times, there has been an emerging pattern of state repression and criminalisation of protesting women workers, especially scheme workers such as ASHA, Anganwadi and Mid-Day Meal workers, demanding fair and better work conditions. For instance, on November 7, hundreds of Anganwadi workers (sevikas) and helpers (sahayikas) were hosed down by water cannons and lathicharged after they staged a demonstration outside Bihar’s Vidhan Sabha demanding a hike in their honorariums, among other demands.

Similarly, when Haryana’s ASHA workers protested for a hike in honorarium and retirement benefits in October this year, their union leaders were put under house arrest. Sunita Rani, the general secretary of Haryana’s ASHA workers’ Union, had said in an interview with Behanbox: “When we were attempting to reach the Haryana Legislative Assembly for a protest demonstration on August 28, vehicles booked for the rally were impounded. ASHA workers put into buses and dropped at far-off deserted places to deter them from joining the protest march.” 

Meena Singh, a member of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, a socio-political women’s organisation affiliated to CPI (ML), said this is a worrying trend. “The absolute criminalisation of women’s movements, especially workers, is of grave concern. The FIR, detentions and intimidation follow a pattern. We have seen the use of brute force to suppress women’s movements previously too, even in cases where the issue of violence against women was being raised such as the Hathras rape case and the rape case in Unnao,” she said. 

UP’s Congress chief Ajay Rai on Tuesday wrote to CM Adityanath addressing the demands of protesting contractual workers. Before this, Rai had met with the protesting female communication officers of Dial 112. Former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav too, tweeted the videos of the women calling out the hypocrisy of the government. There has been no official response from the office of UP Chief Minister yet.

Rising Contractualisation Of Work

The anxieties of the women workers are rooted in the issue of a  push towards contractualisation of work and the absence of job security. With the growth of outsourcing, where third party organisations recruit, provide services and manage employees, the framework of accountability goes missing and this affects the tenure and rights of workers. This makes it easier for agencies to hire and fire workers, not pay them fair wages and make them work at a whim. 

The fear of job loss has especially affected women. According to the Periodic Labour Force Data 2022-23, 46.3% women in UP work without a job contract, social security and paid leave. UP is one of the worst performing states, after Delhi (53.7%), Rajasthan (50.6%), Madhya Pradesh (48.1%) and Punjab (47.2%). On average, women in salaried positions earn 29% less than men in the state.

“The impact of contractualisation can be seen on everyone. There’s no job guarantee and the pay is meagre. But, this disproportionately affects women because there is an additional vulnerability and burden on them. These women are dependent on this work,” said Subhashini Ali, a member of the All India Democratic Women’s Association and former Member of Parliament from Kanpur.

This is not the first time women doing  contractual work are protesting. Ali shared a similar situation that women workers on another helpline 181 faced. 

“During the Samajwadi Party government, the helpline number 181 was launched but it was only to address issues faced by women. It was separate from the functions of the police system. That scheme had a positive impact. Thereafter, the helpline [workers] had to sit on an indefinite hunger strike to demand their salaries that had been pending for over a year. I remember one of the 181 workers’ had died by suicide due to monetary distress,”  said Ali.

Ali emphasises that contractual work still needs to follow the framework of labour laws.

“None of this [police action] is legal. Even if this is contractual work, there are still labour norms. There is a minimum wage for any work. Here, the workers are working at the will of the contractor. The government that has given the tender to a new company is washing its hands off of any responsibility towards the workers. There is an increase in contractualisation because the government wants to be absolved from all responsibility,” said Ali.

*This is a developing story.

*Names changed to maintain anonymity.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

Support BehanBox

We believe everyone deserves equal access to accurate news. Support from our readers enables us to keep our journalism open and free for everyone, all over the world.

Donate Now