Field Notes: The Misery Of IIT-Bombay’s Women Mess Workers


What does it take to feed 12,000 students on the campus of one of India's most prestigious educational institutions? At the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B), it takes 18 hostels, 18 full-time messes and often, the exploitation of mess workers like A*

A* has worked at IIT-B’s hostels for 15 years as a contract-based labourer hired through a catering agency appointed by the institute. Typically, the staff hired to cook the hostel meals are always men, so women workers are tasked with other jobs like sweeping, chopping vegetables or serving food at the mess counter. A* has the least glamorous job of them all: scrubbing used dishes in a tiny washing area in the stuffiest corner of the mess.

“There are hundreds of vessels to wash in each shift, and we have to sit barefoot in dirty water for eight to nine hours a day,” said A*, who is in her 40s. “We have been asking for a fan for a long time, but they haven’t provided it. Only we know how much we struggle in this heat, in the middle of all the bad smells of stale food.”

By “we”, A* means the three women dishwashers hired per shift, each paid barely Rs 12,000 a month. Their monthly schedule involves 18 days of continuous work followed by a 12-day break, which A* spends resting her swollen feet and aching back. “We are short-staffed. We have been asking for at least five women per shift, but the contractor we have had for the last three years has said no,” she said.

I came across A* while reporting on another grim matter in which contract-based workers are denied their rights at IIT-B: the institute had refused to pay post-retirement gratuity to three of its veteran blue-collar workers because they were hired on short-term contracts through external agencies. Even though the labour court in Mumbai upheld the contract workers’ legal right to gratuity twice, IIT-B chose to appeal the court’s orders rather than pay up. 

On 3 May, one of the three workers fighting for gratuity—65-year-old gardener Raman Garase—died by suicide.

Garase and his two retired colleagues were the first contract-based workers at any of the 23 IITs in India to demand gratuity. They were among the workers who had already received other benefits like a provident fund, health insurance, and bonuses. However, there are 1,800 contract-based workers at IIT-B, and when I met union leaders, faculty, and students there, they also urged me to explore the plight of women mess workers in some of the hostels on campus. The women’s situation, I was told, was dire – and not just because of the harsh working conditions that A described.

“Last year, 21 women mess workers were abruptly fired when their contractor was changing,” said a faculty member who wished to remain anonymous. 

The “changing” of contractors is a ritual characteristic of the contract system in many public sector organisations. 

In this case, the principal employer—IIT-B—awards short-term tenders to a set of different labour contract agencies, often on a rotational basis, to avoid giving workers the wages and benefits paid to “permanent” employees.

“But there is an implicit understanding between IIT and the contractors that the same workers are retained whenever contractors change so that IIT does not have to train new workers each time,” the faculty member said.

But last year, one of the catering contractors chose to remove 21 mess workers from jobs they had held for ten years or more. Five workers were re-hired after protests from labour unions on campus, but the rest, like B*, are still out of work.

“When the contractor removed us from work, he replaced us with very young men who had just arrived in Mumbai from their villages,” said B*, a 40-year-old who is not only native to Mumbai but also a member of a labour union. “The young boys from the village are not yet in any unions—they are willing to work longer hours for much less pay than us.”

The faculty member I spoke to reiterated B’s point. 

“The women who were fired are assertive and vocal about their rights—they are not as pliant as the contractors want them to be,” the faculty member said. “When some of us confronted the contractor who fired them, he said it too—that these workers are ‘very involved in unions’ and ‘don’t listen to us’.”

For B*, such punishment for unionising has come at the cost of her livelihood. “I used to earn Rs 17,000 a month for my work at IIT, and I was the only earning member of my family,” said B*, who has not been able to find another job that pays as well in the past year. “My husband is ill, and my children are still studying. How will my family survive if I don’t get my job back?” 

A* and B* requested anonymity. 

Read Aarefa Johari’s full story here

Also read:

Write a comment ...