“Our Unity And Struggle Gives us the Dignity as Workers!” - An Interview with Scheme Workers

“Our Unity And Struggle Gives us the Dignity as Workers!”

Excerpts from Interview of Activists of Scheme Workers’ Movement

Sucheta De

Thousands of scheme workers from different parts of the country joined the massive protest gathering (Mahadharna) at Delhi on 21 November 2023. The Mahadharna was organised by AICCTU to intensify the struggle of scheme workers for recognition as workers and for the guarantee of their rights. Different unions of the scheme workers - ASHA, Anganwadi and Mid-day meal, participated in the Mahadharna and turned it into a massive success. Thousands of women running the country’s health care, child care, education and nutrition schemes on ground painted the Parliament Street red with their energetic presence, speeches, slogans and banners.

On behalf of the editorial team of Workers Resistance, some of the leaders of unions, affiliated to AISWF (All India Scheme Workers Federation) and AICCTU, from various states, were interviewed about three main aspects of their movement. We asked them about their working condition and demands from the government. Most of the scheme workers are women, identifying themselves as workers and forming their own union for demanding their rights. Women scheme workers which marched on the streets of Delhi defying the patriarchal value system that denied women their independence as a thinking and vocal human beings. So we asked them about their experience of forming or being part of an union and speaking out for themselves. We also asked them about their experience of being part of the Mahadharna that saw participation of thousands of other women like themselves. Following are the excerpts from some of the interviews with the scheme workers.

The Union is Our Strength to Fight against Exploitation and Betrayal
Mayadevi, Bareilly, UP

As ASHA workers, we have to make ourselves available for work for almost 24 hours a day. If any emergency arises, we have to be present for duty, but the government does not even care to pay our honorarium in time. The meagre amount of honorarium promised by the government has not been disbursed since the month of January. We were the ones who were on duty even during the dreadful Covid wave. We did not have the luxury to stay at home. When everyone was scared to go out of their homes and work, we were the ones who were on duty day in and day out. Even the doctors in hospitals used to instruct us to stay away from them but the government did not bother to ensure our safety. We were not even provided masks and sanitisers.

The government thinks that we are easily exploitable. We perform the most important task in making India’s health system functional but when we demand our dues, the government officials tell us they don’t have the budget to settle our dues. This is the same government that claims to be the protectors of women. However, in reality, we see no concern whatsoever from the government for the rights of women workers like us.

In such circumstances, we have unionised ourselves. Now we have the ability to stop work if we decide so. As individuals, we are only at the receiving end of exploitation, but as union, we can go for strike if the government does not pay us our dues. Today, we have the capacity to stop work indefinitely if the government does not recognise us as government employees and give us all the rights that any government employee is entitled to.

We Nurture the Future of the Country, but Our Own Future is Not Secure

Mannavi Karim Sheikh, Anganwadi Worker, Ahmadnagar, Maharashtra

I am working in Anganwadi since 1993, for almost 30 years now, with the hope that we will eventually become permanent and draw salary akin to government employees. We take care of the pre-school children. We nurture the future of the country. We are nurturing them with the hope that we will be treated with dignity by the government, but the government is not interested in acknowledging our labour.

I am a widow. Many widows and abandoned women work in Anganwadis. Is it because of our social status that the government does not value our labour? Our duty hours are from 9 am to 2 pm but even if we are assigned duty after 2 pm we will have to report. I work in the Anganwadi of a village. We are given many tasks beyond our duty by the panchayat. Forget about over-time payments, we are not even paid proper salary for the huge amount of work that perform every day.

We have been tolerating the humiliating work conditions for a long time now. Ultimately, we thought of building up our own union and fight back. After forming the union, we have realised that our strength has multiplied. Our union is fighting for recognition of Anganwadi workers as government employees and proper salary for Anganwadi workers.

We have come to participate in the Mahadharna with many hopes in heart. We have come with the hope that the Prime Minister will listen to the plight of the Anganwadi workers. It is impossible for us to survive on the meagre amount of allowance given to us. We are serving to make the future of the country better. We have come to Delhi to demand our share for our contribution to the nation.

Our Fight Makes Our Voices Heard
Atarjan Begum, ASHA Worker, Cachar District, Assam

We are working for the last 17 years as ASHAs. Yet, we have not been recognised as workers by the government. We formed our union in 2010 to fight for our legitimate rights. Our first demand is to get a fixed monthly salary. Our union demands a minimum of Rs. 26,000 as monthly salary. Our second demand is to get permanent government position.

The government had promised additional one thousand rupees almost a year ago, but that promise has turned out to be empty. We have not been given the additional amount for last eleven months. There is no end to the amount of work that we are made to do. Along with taking care of the pregnant women and new born children, we are made to do other tasks like giving injections patients. We are made to work even late at night. So many ASHAs face sexual harassment and assault in these odd duty hours. We have to face all these hostile work conditions without even being recognised as workers.

To gain the capacity of collective bargaining, we formed our union in 2010. The name of our union is Sadau Assam ASHA Sanstha. After the formation of our union, we were treated with dignity. With the strength of our union, we fight back humiliating work conditions. Today, we get called ‘Didi’ by the villagers as a mark of respect for our contribution and our collective fight has helped us to ensure that at least three fifth of the promised honorarium is given.

It is through the call of our union that we have gathered here for the protest in Delhi. We are thankful to the union for organising this protest and giving our issue the required attention. We have spoken from a national stage today. We are thankful to the union for giving us this opportunity.

We Were Left on Our Own During the Last Covid Wave, Shall We Survive the Next One?

Reeta Kashyap, ASHA Worker, Udham Singh Nagar, Uttarakhand

We have been fighting for our justful rights for a long time now. There was an unprecedented strike of the ASHA workers in 2021 demanding increase in payment and guarantee of workers rights. After the strike, the government promised to give us Rs. 6000 per month, but in effect, only Rs. 1000 has been increased to our honorarium making it to Rs. 3000 at present. The rest of the demands we had raised remain unaddressed. We have demanded at least Rs. 26000 per month. Whenever there is an emergency, we are called immediately to duty. During the last covid wave, our health safety was not in the consideration of the government. We were working almost for 24 hours. The government’s flagship slogan is Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, but in effect, women workers like us are not even given minimum rights.

We had endured a lot of exploitation. It is after formation of our union that we have learnt to fight. We have acquired our dignity. The doctors, the press and the larger society takes us more seriously due to our association with the union.

It is through the union that we have gathered at Delhi. Thousands of workers from ASHA, Anganwadi and Mid-day Meal sectors have gathered in this Mahadharna. Our participation here has strengthened our solidarity with each other. It has brought the realisation that just like the ASHAs, other workers are also contributing their labour and fighting for their rights.