Cases of Rail, Bank and Sanitation workers
Ever since the all-India lockdown which began on 24th March, the conditions of workers in different sectors have been catching the attention of the people. On one side are those who are suffering because they have no work. On the other side are those who are working hard to maintain supply of essential goods and services. In addition to the health sector workers and those engaged at the retail level in supplying medicines and essential daily needs, there are the workers in railways, banks, telecom, electricity, water supply, sanitation, police and others.
Based on telephone interviews conducted by Mazdoor Ekta Lehar with workers in specific sectors in the Maharashtra region, we present below, in summary form, the difficult conditions of rail workers, bank workers and sanitation workers.
Indian Railways is playing a critical role in transporting food grains, vegetables, fruit, milk and medicines from their place of production to all parts of the country. It is also transporting oil and maintaining the supply of fuel and cooking gas. It is transporting the coal to run the power plants which generate electricity.
One of the struggles which the guards and loco pilots of Indian Railways have recently waged is to stop the practice of making the workers take a breath analyser test and place their fingers on a screen to register their biometric daily attendance. Both these practices are dangerous at this time because of being potential sources of transmission of the virus Covid-19.
Responding to the workers’ protests all over India, the Railway Board issued a circular on 28th March, to temporarily suspend these practices during the period of the lockdown. The struggle is still continuing to ensure that the authorities in every zone actually stop enforcing the breath analyser test and the biometric attendance.
Another problem is the inadequate supply of protective masks and sanitizers. Every time the crew changes, both the engine and the guard cabin need to be sanitized, before the new crew takes over. However, in many zones this is not being implemented. Loco pilots and guards are have to take charge of engines and cabins which have not been sanitized. One loco pilot has tested positive for corona virus so far, at Palanpur in Gujarat.
Those workers who look after the maintenance of the railway tracks are facing especially hard and harrowing times. The medical advice of maintaining a distance of at least six feet between one another is being violated on a large scale. The nature of work of the track maintenance staff involves close physical contact in gangs, to lift and replace damaged rail tracks. In Nandurbar, Maharashtra, three track maintainers have been quarantined after showing symptoms of Corona. Having no means of transport of their own, these workers depend on whatever skeletal public transport is available. They often reach their homes late at night. In big cities, there have been reports of the residents of some local areas having locked the gates, making it difficult for the railway workers to even reach their own homes.
The workers who maintain and operate the signalling systems are facing increased workload during the lockdown period. They are being made to carry out measurement of cables and other such general maintenance work, which involves opening the relay room at the railway station. The relay room contains hundreds and thousands of circuits and cables. Workers are pointing out that it is dangerous for their health, to open these secure rooms in these times, for the purpose of routine maintenance work.
When the lockdown began, only half of the bank employees were asked to report for work. With the suspension of public transport, they were asked to use their own modes of transport, with no reassurance that they would be reimbursed for the additional expense.
After the Central Government announced the disbursement of Rs. 500 through Jan Dhan Accounts starting on 3rd April, all workers in public sector banks have been asked to report for work.
The bank offices are not sanitized every day after customers leave. There is not adequate supply of masks and hand sanitizers for the bank workers even in the cities. In the 38,000 rural branches of the public sector banks, there is no protective equipment at all.
At present, five customers are allowed to enter the bank premises at a time. In banks where previously the period for servicing customers used to be from 10 am to 2 pm, it has now been extended to 4 pm. Overall, bank workers are facing a greater workload, more tension and higher risk of getting infected by the virus.
Mumbai city is one of the cities most affected by COVID=19. Sanitation workers of the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation have a very important role to play. If a building is identified as having a corona positive patient, sanitation workers are sent in immediately to do the sanitation work. This is extremely hazardous work. According to a leader of the contract workers union of Safai Karamcharis of the BMMC, the six thousand contract workers have an even more difficult job then the regular safai karamcharis. The contract workers have to do the most difficult and risky work, even in normal times. In the conditions of the corona virus, it is these contract workers who are sent in as frontline workers as soon as a building is identified as having a COVID-19 patient. However these workers are not provided with masks, sanitisers and protective gear. They are neither paid the risk allowance that regular workers get, nor are they covered under medical insurance if they fall victim to the disease.