Resisting Exploitation In The Maximum City

In Mumbai, workers employed by the biggest biomedical waste treatment factory are on strike, demanding better work conditions.

While Bombay was the scene of strong labor movements, Mumbai, as the city was renamed in 1995, is the thriving economic capital of India, where companies are blessed by liberalization measures and structural adjustment policies. Labor protests have become rarer, with class politics slowly giving way to communal politics. In the 1982 strikes that shook the city’s mills, nearly 250,000 workers took to the streets to protest their squalid working conditions and low wages. Today, apart from a few notable exceptions, strikes remains largely ignored by the public and intellectuals, and hardly receive any media coverage.

The strike undertaken by the SMS Envoclean workers is no exception. Although the workers have had the factory shut down for the last 25 days, in protest against their working conditions, their action has not received any attention from the media. Yet, SMS Envoclean is India’s largest biomedical waste treatment facility, Set up in 2008, the plant is treating and incinerating biomedical waste generated by most of the health care establishments across Mumbai. Its going on strike is unlikely to go unnoticed, and yet, no journalist has come forward to cover the event and the workers’ struggle. Is it because the plant is surrounded by slums that repel journalists? Or because labor movements do not make sensational headlines in the Indian media?

Amol Pagare, Community Correspondent in Mumbai, lives in Sathe Nagar slum, located next to the plant. Living in close proximity to the workers, Amol empathizes with them. Sharing a similar sense of destiny and struggles prompted him to report on the event. He covered the strike, gathering information on the workers’ impressions and demands. Many workers confided in him, glad to receive attention and to be given a platform to voice their claims. The workers described their grueling working conditions, where basic protective gear is not provided to them while handling potentially dangerous waste, such as needles, blades, shards of glass and waste with infectious, hazardous and toxic substances.

“We’ve gone on strike because our demands have not been met. We’ve been working for three years but we’re not being taken care of. No gloves or mask are provided. No boots.” says one worker on strike. Another adds, “If we are injured by a blade or a needle, we’re not medically examined. (…) There are no regular medical checkups.” The workers also recount the quasi-informal status they are given by their employers; “No pay slip, no employee insurance or any kind of medical insurance.” “We get to work in the mornings, but there is no fixed closing time. (…) Also, there is no drinking water in the premises.”

The SMS Envoclean’s workers’ situation is no exception. For many in Mumbai, employed in the industrial sector, working conditions are not far from those encountered in the informal, unregulated sector, with extensive hours of work, poor facilities, inferior protection and no security. Many employers display a similar disdain for labor laws and regulations, endangering their employees’ health and lives. As the employees underline “our demands are few. A payment slip, drinking water and eight hour workday is all we are asking for”. The workers have not received wages since they went on strike. With courage and determination, and the hope that they will be rewarded, they anxiously wait for their employer to grant them their simple demands.

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