Milind Ranade, who quit his job at a textile mill to work in the slums of Bombay, founded an alternative labor union that counters discrimination against "untouchables" scavenging in municipal garbage dumps and raises their social status towards full and equal citizens.
The New Idea
Milind Ranade's Kachra Vahtuk Sanghash Samiti is a new kind of labor union: autonomous, apolitical, and committed to the overall welfare of its unique membership -- untouchable trash collectors neglected by India's mainstream labor organizations. By improving trash collectors' health, welfare, and bargaining power, Milind is challenging the prescribed status of menial workers in Indian cities.Until the advent of KVSS, which means "the waste collectors and transporters union," social workers tried to help scavengers by counseling them to find better jobs. But Milind Ranade recognized that people who collect and sort garbage provide an important service to Indian cities, and he began campaigning for their constitutional rights as workers. He wants employers, other workers, and the state to acknowledge that scavengers are legitimate and productive citizens. Milind and KVSS make it possible for scavengers, who work under an unfair contract system, to communicate with Bombay's mainstream labor advocates: human rights lawyers, occupational health specialists, counselors, and established labor groups. Moreover, the union creates opportunities for members to address serious problems affecting their communities, including alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, and illiteracy. By organizing within the community of waste collectors, then reaching out to India's broader labor rights movement, Milind Ranade has helped scavengers pave new avenues for self-help and public participation.
Scavengers work at the bottom of India's vast heap of unorganized labor. As untouchables, or dalits, scavengers are not merely of low caste like other poor workers, but are casteless–shunned by the caste system altogether. Although the constitution outlawed untouchability in 1950, legal reform did not end the traditional social hierarchy which keeps dalit workers, including scavengers, at the bottom. Custom prohibits them from certain public spaces, such as buses and restaurants. Amnesty International has counted scavengers among India's most vulnerable people.Socially untouchable, scavengers are isolated from their employers as well. In Bombay, scavengers are paid by the Municipal Corporation, but they are not public employees. They are hired wage workers secured by contract or provided to the Corporation by a subcontracting agent. Procuring and controlling contract labor is considered a corrupt, lucrative business monopolized by Corporation employees. Scavengers have no choice about where, when and how they work, and though they put in long hours under harsh conditions, they earn less than $50 per month.
Picking through Bombay's garbage is a dirty and dangerous job. Scavengers handle animal carcasses, human waste, and refuse from hospitals. Although they work up to twenty hours a day, scavengers in the dumps have no clean drinking or bathing water. They are allowed no rest periods and take no holidays. "More than 2000 scavengers worked in the dumping ground for no less than fifteen hours a day," Milind remembers from his early visits to the dumps in 1995, "They had no protective gear, drinking water, or washing facilities. No one would respond to any attempts at communication. Years of mechanized work in a hazardous environment had made them as unresponsive as silent walls." Most scavengers are illiterate migrants who cannot speak the language of the cities where they work.
Despite the hardships scavengers endure, established labor unions have failed to address their concerns, improve their conditions, and guarantee their economic security. Just as custom keeps dalits out of public view, established labor unions ignore their need for education, organizing, and legal recourse. To Milind, Bombay's mainstream trade unions are too large and too involved in politics -- in a word, too institutional -- to reach dalit workers and muster their strength.
Milind shows scavengers, employers, and activists that untouchable workers can organize and make their presence felt. His strategy comprises four main tactics: 1) building solidarity among scavengers through community organizing, 2) improving work conditions through collective action, 3) teaming up with other labor rights groups, and 4) pushing the legal system to enforce scavengers' constitutional rights.To bring scavengers into a labor union, Milind first had to bring the union to them. Trained as a community organizer, he entered the world of scavengers at Bombay's Shivajinagar dump in 1995. There he spent about nine months observing the trash collectors' lives. At first, Milind overcame their reticence by communicating in simple sign language. His daily effort eroded their hostility and gradually earned their trust. "This only meant I could travel with them on garbage trucks," he recalls. Over the next six months, Milind talked with scavengers about their working conditions and basic rights. He visited Bombay's other dumping grounds by day, and by night conducted informal meetings in wards that sent waste to Shivajinagar.
Milind identified the lack of clean drinking water as a serious problem, one simple and tangible enough for the scavengers to remedy through their first collective act. In 1996 more than one hundred scavengers went on a hunger strike, demanding that Bombay Municipal Corporation make drinking water available in the dumps. The Corporation conceded, but held back on the protestors' call for bathing facilities. Milind and the scavengers had demonstrated their power. Encouraged by success, they established KVSS.
Today, with two thousand members (about half of Bombay's contract scavengers), KVSS works in all of Bombay's thirty-two municipal wards. In each ward a three-member team coordinates the union's work, holding meetings, resolving conflicts, and maintaining contact with the rest of the organization. Above the ward level, five of the union's seven core committee members are trash collectors. Milind and his team assembled the committee by choosing scavengers who know how to solve problems and communicate well. The committee advises the union during emergencies, debates, and negotiations. As Secretary General, Milind coordinates the wards and communicates with the media, lawyers, doctors, mainstream union leaders, and partner organizations.
Training is an important bridge connecting the union to India's labor movement at large. Milind organizes weekly training in which workers from different wards study labor law, India's industrial court, bookkeeping, and how to manage the media. The training draws expertise from a variety of people and organizations. These include the Human Rights Law network; the Navjeevan Society, which offers counseling, literacy, and health care; Contract Parishad, a neighborhood network of all contract laborers; the Bombay Occupational Health and Safety Center; and the Tata Institute of Social Service, which places student volunteers with KVSS. Training helped scavengers set up an Alcoholics Anonymous group and begin a peer counseling project. They now participate in a citywide food security program for the urban poor.
As the union grows stronger through effort and experience, it expands. Workers trained by KVSS have begun organizing scavengers across Maharashtra State, starting with more than twenty-five hundred workers in New Bombay and four hundred more in the town of Nasik. Milind intends to help organizations throughout India replicate and refine KVSS's work. Educational exchange programs between union members and other contract laborers have begun in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.
In 1999 the union brought its chief complaint to Bombay's High Court. KVSS sued the Bombay Municipal Corporation, charging that it violated the Contract Regulation and Abolition Act of 1978 by paying unequal wages to contract laborers and by illegally inviting tenders from subcontractors. In an historic judgment, the court directed the Corporation's Solid Waste Management Department to discontinue its contract system and hire 782 contract workers as permanent employees. The ruling set an important precedent for municipal corporations across the country. KVSS is currently locked in a Supreme Court battle to uphold the ruling against the Corporation's appeal.
As more employers hire contract scavengers as permanent employees, KVSS members will be absorbed into municipal corporations and their established trade unions. For Milind Ranade and his waste collectors' union, these victories signal a need to adapt to changing times and changing relationships among large and small unions. Milind plans to reduce his role in KVSS over the next five to seven years and hand the union's future over to the core committee.
A native of Maharashtra, home of the Indian labor movement, Milind has been thinking about workers' rights since childhood. As a boy he was inspired by his grandfather, who was a political activist, and his mother, a schoolteacher who helped local workers organize. In 1982 Milind was an engineering student in Bombay when labor activist Datta Samant led textile workers in a strike. Milind and his friends also took action, joining a local welfare organization helping Bombay's poor. He worked at a textile mill until riots between Hindus and Muslims broke out in Bombay in 1991, when he resigned to set up the Dharavi Rashtriya Ekta Samiti, an organization devoted to communal amity in one of Bombay's most contentious slums. For this he won the Rajeev Gandhi Award for Excellence.
Milind began working with scavengers in 1995. Riding a local bus, he noticed a man sitting atop a passing garbage truck. The man was eating from the heap of trash on which he sat. Shock and fascination led Milind and two friends to follow the truck to the Shivajinagar dumping ground, and a new phase of advocacy began for India's urban poor. Milind volunteers full-time in KVSS. He lives in Bombay with his father, his wife, who is a college lecturer, and their ten-year old daughter.