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Millennium Post

Earning less than minimum

The report in this newspaper that the Delhi High Court has pulled up two major organisations for non-payment of minimum wages comes as a shock because it is not some rogue private institute in some godforsaken place that has been pulled up. The workers concerned here are working overtime to keep the premises of All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) clean and congenial. This is a premiere government institution in the heart of Delhi and it has outsourced the daily cleaning programme to Sulabh International, a charitable organisation, which is involved in sanitation maintenance and cleaning under various verticals across India. Many public utilities in India are maintained by Sulabh and they have a monopoly over the pay-per-use toilet facility now we see across in the cities, a facility which has come as a boon to the public harassed by dirty and unusable public utilities. But apparently none of the organisations above have been paying the minimum wages to the workers who have been working hard to keep AIIMS clean.

A petition saying that the workers are being denied minimum wages under the Minimum Wages Act was submitted to the Delhi High Court by the Regional Labour Commissioner (RLC). This was challenged by AIIMS and Sulabh saying that Sulabh, the organisation for which the cleaner ‘works’, is a non-profit charitable organisation which signs no contract of employment with employees but enlists volunteers. So they work for Sulabh as volunteers and not as workers which means that neither is Sulabh their employer nor is there any violation of minimum wages. Sulabh has been contracted by AIIMS, so it willy-nilly also becomes an employer and hence comes as the target of violation rebuke. The Delhi Court, while hearing the petition of Sulabh and AIIMS, pulled them up for reasoning that volunteers are not entitled to minimum wages and hence there is no violation of such a matter. The high court has refused to interfere with the petition of the RLC, effectively saying that the petition that accuses the two organisations of violation of the act to give minimum wages, becomes binding. Unless the two organisations move further with the case, they have to comply with the verdict of the high court and treat the so called volunteers as workers and pay the minimum wages due to the workers.

One must really take the issues emerging out of this case further. Does Sulabh have this practice in all its facilities? Is this how charitable organisations bully those who work for them? What is the definition of volunteering when labour involved is for durations which are binding to employment and not strictly volunteering? May be the media and the government must both look into these aspects more carefully because it’s a serious matter.
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