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LABOUR LAW & MANUAL SCAVENGING IN INDIA

Introduction

Manual scavenging has long been a pervasive issue in India, involving the manual cleaning and handling of human excreta. Despite being outlawed, the practice persists in many parts of the country, often affecting marginalized communities with limited education and alternative employment opportunities. An important aspect of this issue is the violation of labour rights and inadequate legal protections for those engaged in this profession. While India has several labour laws intended to safeguard worker rights, including those of manual scavengers, these laws cover aspects such as minimum wages, social security, and workplace safety. However, effectively implementing these laws remains challenging in the context of manual scavenging. Often, manual scavengers are unaware of their rights and struggle to access the protections offered by labour laws. Further, there are few oversight mechanisms in place to monitor and enforce these laws, exposing manual scavengers to exploitation and abuse. This blog will delve into the issue of labour laws and manual scavenging in India, exploring the current legal framework and its limitations, as well as potential solutions for safeguarding the rights and welfare of manual scavengers.

Labour Laws and Protection

Manual scavenging is a deplorable practice that violates the basic principles of human dignity and is a pressing social problem in India. To safeguard the rights and welfare of manual scavengers, several labour laws have been formulated in India. These laws lay down a range of measures to prevent the exploitation and abuse of these workers in their workplaces. These measures include setting minimum wage standards, ensuring workplace safety, providing social security benefits, and regulating other working conditions. Moreover, these laws also provide legal recourse for workers to seek redressal in case their rights are violated.

Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993[1] makes the employment of manual scavengers and construction of dry latrines illegal. It provides for the identification and rehabilitation of manual scavengers and stipulates that anyone found to be employing manual scavengers can face imprisonment or a fine. This Act can be used to hold employers accountable for any violations related to manual scavenging but the practice persists in various parts of the country.

The Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act of 1976[2] prohibits the practice of bonded labour, which is a form of forced labour that is often used to exploit manual scavengers. The Act provides for the abolition of bonded labour, the release and rehabilitation of bonded labourers, and the prosecution of those who use or promote the practice.

The Minimum Wages Act of 1948[3] sets minimum wage standards for various categories of workers, including those involved in manual scavenging. It ensures that workers receive a minimum wage that is commensurate with their skills and experience.

The Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1923[4] provides compensation to workers who suffer injuries or disabilities in the course of their employment, including manual scavengers. The Act ensures that workers are compensated for any injuries or illnesses they suffer as a result of their work.

The Employees’ State Insurance Act of 1948[5] provides social security benefits to employees in the organized sector, including manual scavengers. The Act ensures that workers have access to medical care and other social security benefits, regardless of their income level or employment status, and can be used to hold employers accountable for any violations related to social security benefits.

Despite the existence of these labour laws, manual scavengers often face challenges in accessing their rights and protections. Many are not aware of their rights or are unable to navigate the legal system to seek redress for violations. Moreover, there is often inadequate enforcement of these laws, leaving manual scavengers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Working for the rights of Manual Scavengers

The Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) is a national movement of manual scavengers and their allies working to eradicate manual scavenging in India. SKA has been at the forefront of advocating for the rights of manual scavengers and has played a crucial role in bringing attention to this issue.[6]

Bezwada Wilson, a Dalit activist and the national convener of the SKA has been instrumental in raising awareness about manual scavenging and advocating for the rights of manual scavengers. He was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2016 for his work in this field.[7]

The National Campaign for Dignity and Rights of Sewerage and Allied Workers (NCDRS) is a network of organizations and individuals working to protect the rights of sewerage workers, who are often forced to engage in manual scavenging. NCDRS has been involved in litigation and advocacy to ensure that the government fulfills its obligations under various labour laws to protect the rights of these workers.[8]

The Jan Sahas Social Development Society is an organization working to eradicate manual scavenging and bonded labour in India. Jan Sahas has been involved in various initiatives to empower manual scavengers and provide them with alternative livelihood options.[9]

Improving the Laws and Welfare of Manual Scavengers

Manual scavenging is a longstanding social issue in India that gravely violates the dignity and fundamental human rights of the individuals involved. Despite the enactment of several laws to safeguard the rights of manual scavengers, the practice still prevails due to inadequate enforcement and the absence of alternative livelihood opportunities. Addressing this issue requires collective action from the government, civil society, and individuals to uphold the rights and welfare of manual scavengers. This includes creating awareness, providing education and training, and implementing effective policies to eliminate manual scavenging and ensure the protection and empowerment of affected communities.

One key recommendation is to advocate for better enforcement of labour laws. The government must take steps to ensure that laws banning manual scavenging and protecting the rights of manual scavengers are properly enforced and that employers who violate these laws are held accountable. Civil society organizations and individuals can also play a role in advocating for better enforcement of these laws. For instance, the human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, states that “the government must ensure strict enforcement of laws that ban manual scavenging and ensure that those who employ manual scavengers are held accountable under the law.”[10]

Promoting alternative livelihood options is another important recommendation. Manual scavengers often face social stigma and discrimination, which can make it difficult for them to find alternative employment opportunities. Providing vocational training and support for alternative livelihoods can help manual scavengers transition out of this degrading profession. Organizations like Jan Sahas Social Development Society have been involved in initiatives to empower manual scavengers and provide them with alternative livelihood options.[11]

Finally, raising awareness about the issue is crucial for bringing about change. The general public needs to be informed about the practice of manual scavenging and the human rights abuses that it entails. Raising awareness can also help to reduce the stigma associated with manual scavenging and create a more supportive environment for manual scavengers. This can be achieved through various means, such as media campaigns, educational initiatives, and public events. The Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) has been at the forefront of raising awareness about manual scavenging and advocating for the rights of manual scavengers in India.[12]

Conclusion

In conclusion, manual scavenging is a deeply entrenched practice that violates the dignity and basic human rights of those forced to engage in it. The existence of various laws aimed at protecting the rights of manual scavengers is crucial, but enforcement has been poor, leading to the persistence of the practice. The government, civil society, and individuals must act and support the rights and welfare of manual scavengers by advocating for better enforcement of labour laws, promoting alternative livelihood options, and raising awareness about the issue. Recognizing manual scavengers as workers who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect is vital, and greater efforts are needed to ensure their rights are upheld under labour laws. It is only through collective action that we can bring an end to this inhumane practice and create a society that is truly just and equitable for all. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”[13]

Author(s) Name: Pradhyumn Kumar Ajmera (Nirma University, Ahmedabad)

Reference(s):

[1] Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 (India).

[2] Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 (India).

[3] Minimum Wages Act, 1948 (India).

[4] Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923 (India).

[5] Employees’ State Insurance Act, 1948 (India).

[6] Safai Karmachari Andolan v. Union of India, (2014) 7 SCC 821

[7] Bezwada Wilson, Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation <https://www.rmaward.asia/awardees/wilson-bezwada/> accessed 23 February 2023

[8] National Campaign for Dignity and Rights of Sewerage and Allied Workers v. Union of India, WP(C) No. 131/2017 (Delhi High Court)

[9] Jan Sahas Social Development Society <https://jansahasindia.org/> accessed 23 February 2023

[10] Human Rights Watch, ‘Cleaning Human Waste “Manual Scavenging.” Caste and Discrimination in India’ (25 August 2014) <https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/08/25/cleaning-human-waste/manual-scavenging-caste-and-discrimination-india> accessed 23 February 2023

[11] Jan Sahas Social Development Society <https://jansahasindia.org/> accessed 23 February 2023

[12] Safai Karmachari Andolan v. Union of India, (2014) 7 SCC 821

[13] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963