[GROUND REPORT]: UNITED STRUGGLE OF WORKERS AND STUDENTS OF NATIONAL LAW UNIVERSITY, DELHI

Ekta //

After a relentless struggle of 163 days, Delhi Government orders reinstatement of workers.

Still, University Administration refuses to immediately implement the order and calls police on workers and students who went to University asking for implementation.

Despite police detention (later released) and threat of FIR, the 6-month long struggle continues unabated.

­­­­­­­­­The sanitation workers of National Law University Delhi (NLUD), who were removed from work without any proper notice, have been leading a relentless struggle for reinstatement since 4th January along with the students. It started when these workers, working in the University under contract system since as long as the last 12 years (since the University’s inception) were suddenly asked to not to report on duty the next day since the contractor had been changed and the new contractor would now employ his own set of new workers. No notice was served to them either by the contractor or the University, which is the principal employer even under the contract system.

These were the same workers, based on whose hard labour the University bagged the 3rd place in the nationwide Swachh Campus Rankings. While the University never stopped boasting about this achievement, which is advertised to this date on the University’s website, the workers solely responsible for it were thrown out of the University gates the same month.

Background

Since 2008, two contracts, one for sanitation work and the other for security guards, were active in NLUD. A total of around 100 workers and guards were employed since the last 12 years under these two contracts. To give a picture of the conditions of these contracts, it is pertinent to state that they even prohibited the workers to unionize, which is a clear violation of their fundamental rights. It would have been amusing to describe such an incident of non-observance of labour laws in a LAW University, had such a case of violation of constitutional laws been an isolated incident and not the prevalent status quo in our constitutional democracy.

Even before the removal of workers, the University Administration had initiated implementing its divisive tactics. It terminated the contract of security guards first in November and, after a month, the sanitation work contract was then terminated, in order to divide the removed University’s workers. Additionally, the first termination was at a time when the students’ semester exams were about to happen, and the second, when the students had vacated their campuses and went back to their hometowns due to semester holidays.

However, despite all divisive tactics, the sanitation workers ultimately decided to unite and struggle for their reinstatement in the University. Their appeal for support was heeded by the few students who were present on campus for their research work or internships. Thus, the united workers-students struggle commenced, which not only painted the hitherto apolitical campus with a progressive colour, but also gave a platform for the students to raise their voices against glaring injustices meted out to the workers. Consequently, on 4th January 2020, the workers and students staged a protest demonstration at the University gate which marked the beginning of the struggle.

The Struggle Begins

In the initial days, the University Administration called the police which intimidated the workers and students by threatening to detain and lodge FIR against them. In addition, the students were personally warned by the Administration of proctorial action being initiated against them for indiscipline and misconduct. However, such act of warning by the administration was met with overwhelming condemnation from the student body through collective solidarity mails. Despite such threats, the workers and students kept the struggle going forward uncompromisingly. Subsequently, a decision to form a collective of students, for steering the struggle in coordination with the workers, was arrived at which led to the formation of ‘NLUD Workers-Students Solidarity’. After a month of the protests, in February, all the students returned back to campus on account of the commencement of the new semester which gave a boost to the struggle.

On 10th February, a night protest demonstration was staged outside the University gate in which more than 150 students participated in solidarity with the struggle of their fellow workers, and stood there even after midnight, shouting slogans and singing songs to keep the fire of student-worker solidarity burning even in the chilling winter night. Such a strong united response from the student body and an unprecedented display of student-worker unity, along with active media coverage, gave a spirited boost to the struggle.

Since the commencement of the struggle, the workers had voiced their demand of reinstatement before the Labour Minister of Delhi, since NLU Delhi was a state government-funded University, asking him to intervene in the matter. After numerous failed yet persistent efforts including gathering collectively at the Labour Minister’s residence, cognizance of the matter was finally taken by him and on 14th February, a meeting of the workers’ and students’ representatives was held with the Minister. Consequently, a factual report on the matter was asked by the Delhi Labour Ministry from the University. Despite the submission of the report, the matter was stalled by the Ministry on account of the heinous pogrom in North-East Delhi in February.

However, as a result of the unrelenting courage and continuous efforts of the workers and students, on 13th March, a meeting of the workers’, students’ and University administration’s representatives was called by the Labour Ministry of Delhi that was presided by the Officer on Special Duty, in which the Administration was directed to reinstate all removed workers under the existing contract, and cancel the new contract if it’s unfit for reinstatement. A final meeting with the Labour Minister to ratify these directions and bring them in written form was due just when the nationwide Lockdown got implemented suddenly on account of the Covid19 pandemic. This led to an indefinite postponement of the final meeting and despite the presence of a favourable direction from the Labour Ministry, the University refused to implement it giving the excuse of the directions not being in written form.

Braving Unemployment, Poverty And Lockdown

Three months of unemployment, coupled with daily protest demonstrations at University gate, assembling at Labour Minister’s residence, visiting labour office, paying house rent, children’s tuition fees among other essentials had depleted the already meagre savings they had. It was in this situation that the lockdown was implemented all of a sudden. Where on the one hand, the rich were hoarding enormous amounts of ration, the workers didn’t have enough money to afford ration even for a week. The lockdown proved to be another devastating blow to them after unemployment.

As a result, the workers failed to pay rent and children’s fees, buy ration and essentials, and on some days, even skipped meals to make the limited ration last longer. Some of them started considering the option of migrating back to their villages. Poverty even led to the death of a family member of a worker who not only couldn’t afford proper healthcare, but also didn’t have enough money to arrange for the last rites of the deceased. In such dire conditions, the students unitedly, through fund drives and appeals, arranged funds and ration for the workers and their families, and again, as a result of workers-students unity, the struggle was kept alive even in the most dreadful circumstances.

The Struggle Is Victorious

In May, the workers and students raised the demand before the Labour Ministry to publish the directions, given by it in the 13th March meeting, in written form. After unceasing efforts involving both students and workers physically approaching Delhi’s Labour Minister’s residence numerous times and innumerous memorandums, calls, messages, and emails, the Labour Minister finally called a meeting, presided by himself, of the workers’, students’, administration’s representatives and the new contractor. The meeting took place on 15th May, which was the 163rd Day of the struggle.

In a victory to the struggling workers and students, the Administration was finally directed by the Ministry to cancel the new exploitative contract and reinstate all workers, under direct payment until retendering process. Such order in written form was also released by the Ministry on 17th June. Congratulatory messages poured in from all corners after the victory to this 6-month long struggle, which also caught media’s attention. In addition to reaffirming the strength of workers’ unity, this struggle sets an example of the indestructible strength that the unity of workers and students possesses. This struggle manifests the need for the students, youth and other sections of the society to merge the fight for their rights and against injustice with the struggle of the working class.

Unitedly Facing New Challenges

However, even after the written directions by the Labour Ministry of Delhi, the University Administration, yet again and as a delay tactic, refused to immediately implement them citing ‘policy questions’ which would require due procedure to be followed. In response to this, the workers along with one student went to the University on 19th June, with copies of the directions in hand, to inquire about its implementation. However, not only the Administration refused to even meet them or let any of them inside, it called the police to disperse the workers and students peacefully waiting to have a word with the Administration while following physical distancing norms. After continuous intimidation, disrespect and threats to the workers and student, the police finally detained a worker and the student (both females) and made them sit in a police vehicle with only male police personnel. They were taken to Dwarka North PS and their mobile phones were seized. After an hour of intimidation and threats to lodge an FIR against them, the police finally had to let them go without an FIR after pressure was created from various lawyers and activists coming up in solidarity. However, they were warned of further action if they were spotted near the University in the future.

Despite such anti-worker and anti-student actions by the University Administration, and despite all hardships, the struggling workers and students have refused to move back even an inch and are determined, more than ever, to take this struggle forward. The courage and determination shown by them has attracted overwhelming support from the students, lawyers and the progressive voices in the society. The Administration, undoubtedly restless by this, has begun to offer hollow promises of alternate employment to the workers, but, the workers have collectively rejected any form of charity from the Administration and are determined to take this struggle for their rights forward, terming it as “a fight not only for their employment but for their dignity.”

This struggle while presenting a small example of the immense strength rooted in the working class and reaffirming the indestructible power of the unity of the workers and students, has taught the struggling workers and students the importance of constant struggle in an unequal and unjust system. The workers and students, standing together, are resolute to take this struggle towards a successful end.

(The writer is associated with ‘NLUD Workers-Students Solidarity’, a student-worker collective which is leading the struggle)

Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 3/ July ’20)

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