Modern times: Watches keep tabs on Chandigarh’s sanitation workers

ByDavid M. Conte

Jun 12, 2022

Safai karamcharis complains about pay cuts; legal experts question ‘dehumanizing surveillance’

Safai karamcharis complain about pay cuts; legal experts question ‘dehumanizing surveillance’

Tied not only to their hands, but also to their daily wages, GPS-equipped watches have kept safai karamcharis (sanitation workers) in Chandigarh under constant anxiety since its introduction by the Municipal Corporation in 2020.

With laws or regulations yet to be formalized that could control the misuse of such invasive monitoring devices, many legal experts believe that the “constant and dehumanizing” surveillance of sanitation workers must be stopped immediately.

The Municipality of Chandigarh had introduced GPS watches to mark the attendance of these workers and verify the misuse of the manual attendance system. On the ground, however, the safai karamcharis complained that this device had made it a modern-day slave.

Ms. Sheila, a sweeper attached to the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation, said she was forced to wear the GPS-enabled watch all day and even made to tend to its maintenance. “Most of the time, I don’t even know if it works or not. According to the instructions given to us, it works automatically. We just have to wear it. But I get dizzy every time I wear it,” said the 48-year-old, whose shift starts at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 11 a.m.

“I live in constant fear, because any defect in the watch could lead to a reduction in my salary. There have been several instances where my salary has been reduced, without even giving a valid reason,” said Ms. Sheila, who has had to face deductions of up to ₹2,000 from his paltry monthly salary of ₹14,000.

The Chandigarh Municipal Corporation has introduced the GPS-enabled watches to verify the misuse of the manual attendance system.  Photo: special arrangement

The Chandigarh Municipal Corporation has introduced the GPS-enabled watches to verify the misuse of the manual attendance system. Photo: special arrangement

Ms Darshna, another sweeper, said there was always fear that wages would be cut even during breaks. “It takes 1h30 to recharge the GPS watch. Sometimes it stops working. There were also instances where it showed a different place than where I worked,” the 48-year-old said.

Ms Darshna, who works two shifts – 6.30am to 11am and 3pm to 8pm, said she also faced deductions of up to ₹1,500 per month from her salary.

Sonu Vinod Kumar, 25, said his blood pressure fluctuated every time he wore the GPS watch. “When I complained about it, the authorities said I had to keep wearing it while I was working or my salary would be deducted,” he said. “I’m not sick or anything. I am a healthy person. But every time I wear this GPS device, my blood pressure starts to rise. If I remove it while working, my salary is automatically deducted, up to ₹4,000 to ₹5,000 per month,” Mr Kumar said.

Krishan Kumar Chadha, the former president of the Chandigarh Sanitation Workers’ Union, said: “This [GPS watches] is a sword suspended above us. They are after our safai karamchari community. We want this to stop”.

Several times, GPS watches showed wrong locations, Mr Chadha said, citing cases where sanitation workers working in Sector 20, Chandigarh, turned out to be located in Ludhiana, Badrinath, Ambala and elsewhere. “It made us slaves. We are not free,” Mr. Chadha said.

Bhuvaneshwar Kewat, a Ranchi labor leader, said the town’s civic body had purchased 900 compatible GPS watches. “They have not yet been forced to safai karamcharis,” Mr Kewat said, adding that most safai karamcharis belonged to the Dalit community.

“There was a time when people from the Dalit community had to tie a broom around their waist, just to indicate that they belonged to a particular community. These GPS watches are a new form of suppression that we of the Dalits or s afai karamchari the community used to endure earlier,” Mr Kewat said.

Recently, the All India Lawyers’ Association For Justice (AILAJ) and the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) wrote a joint letter to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) regarding the growing surveillance of safai karamcharis in the country.

AILAJ and IFF have expressed concern about the effect of these actions on the privacy, dignity and autonomy of safai karamcharis.

“We have not seen any notification or order on the basis of which they are doing this. They are definitely violating the fundamental right to privacy of these workers,” said IFF’s Anushka Jain. The Hindu.

“The safai karamcharis are led to work more thanks to this monitoring device. We don’t know how they [corporation] ensure that work is done simply by tracking the location of workers. A safai karamchari could go to his workplace and just hang out,” Ms Jain explained.

“Although no law specifically addresses these issues in India, the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment on the right to privacy is violated in this situation,” she added.

AILAJ National Officer Clifton D’Rozario said: “While privacy is not an absolute right, any state intrusion into privacy must meet the thresholds of legality, necessity and proportionality, established by the Supreme Court in the decision on the right to privacy”.

“However, the use of tracking devices on safai karamcharis does not meet these thresholds because first, there is no anchoring legislation or legal framework,” Mr. Clifton said, adding that constant monitoring of employees can never be a justified objective of the state because it would lead to mass surveillance of a large category of citizens.

“Finally, the resulting surveillance is grossly disproportionate, in terms of the harm it would cause, to any state objective that would give such surveillance a purpose, thereby exceeding the threshold of proportionality,” Mr. Clifton said. .

He pointed out that sanitation workers continue to suffer under the contract system. “Instead of addressing these fundamental issues, new forms of surveillance are being introduced, leading to even more oppressive working conditions,” Mr Clifton said.