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NLU Delhi admin to delay hard-won gov’t order in students’ epic 6-month battle to get cleaning staff their jobs back in midst of Covid crisis

Despite a Delhi ministry government order to return them to employment, the situation for the workers remains uncertain

After months of protests by NLU Delhi students, who had allegedly also faced threats from the police and administration (denied by the university), the Delhi ministry of labour has ordered NLU Delhi to employ 55 campus housekeeping staff whose jobs had effectively been terminated after the university awarded a tender to a new contractor, failing to protect the workers’ rights of continued employment.

The order dated today (see below) marks a clear victory for the group of students who had been fighting against the termination, which happened after NLU Delhi had awarded the house cleaning contract in late December 2019 to a new agency - ostensibly due to auditing requirements requiring regular re-tendering of contracts - that had claimed it would require only 36 for the job. That is despite the fact that a five-fold increase in NLU Delhi’s student population since the previous contract, should have resulted in a required assessment of 71 staff, according to the order.

The new contractor had brought in their own 36 staff and the existing 55 workers effectively lost their jobs.

NLU Delhi claimed that the workers were not employed by it directly and could therefore not have been removed nor guaranteed employment by the university (see statement below).

But according to the ministry, NLU Delhi had not been able to furnish a “satisfactory reply” to it in a consultation that students had also attended, which added that NLU Delhi should float a new tender for the jobs and in the meantime ensure that all existing 55 cleaning staff should “be directly deployed and paid by the university”.

Despite the order, the administration warned students today that it could not immediately implement the order and for them to exercise “restraint”, citing the continued Covid-19 lockdown (see below).

A group of NLU Delhi students - Ekta Tomar, Vidushi Prajapati, Alind Gupta, Anuna Tiwari, Siddhant Raj and Varsha Sharma - spearheaded the efforts, creating a group they called the NLUD Workers-Students Solidarity.

We spoke to the students about the process and challenges involved in their protest, which allegedly included police action, threats by the administration of being called before the proctorial board (which the university “vehemently denied”, and initially limited support from the student body.

That said, one faculty member told us that “as a teacher”, the students’ work was a “moment of great pride”.

The university told us today in a comment:

1. It is vehemently denied that the agitating students have been threatened with any protocol action.

2. The University firmly maintains that there was never any ‘wrongful’ removal of any work and the present contract is perfectly lawful. Moreover, half of the total workers presently in the University belong to the previous group only hence often touted ‘55 workers’ phrase is untrue. The University does not employ any housekeeping worker and hence it also can not remove any.

The University merely subscribes services and not workers hence this matter pertains to the contractor who incidentally did not attend this meeting. This Contractor has also offered all the remaining workers to give employment within a radius of 5 kms. The University under any circumstances can not assure of giving continuous employment such type of workers in the future.

3. The matter will be placed before the Executive Council/ General Council for further orders.

Battle not won

As signposted by the university’s comment, the apparently unequivocal order and victory from students does not seem complete, as concerns remain that the university could attempt to delay implementation of the order.

An email sent by the administration to students today, noted:

Dear Students,

The Vice-Chancellor considered your mail 17-6-29 (5.18 PM) and accordingly you are conveyed the following for the information of all concerned:

1. The letter from the office of the Minister will be placed before the Executive/ General Council at the earliest as the University administration under the law has no authority to implement the said directions in its present form. This is imperative in view of the policy questions involved in this.

2. As the instructions are not immediately implementable at the level of the University administration, we have placed a copy of the order to the office of the Chancellor, NLU Delhi ( Cheif [sic] Justice Delhi High Court) for his instructions. The University shall await the instructions form the office of the Chancellor.

3. We are also apprising the office of the Minister about the steps taken by us.

4. The University would be pleased to comply with any instructions received from the above-mentioned processes.

5. In view of the above and also on account of COVID 19 instructions of the Government, no one is expected to visit the University,

All are expected to maintain the restraint in the matter.

The group of students had written to the administration earlier today, copying in all staff and students, requesting:

Respected Sir,

As you may know, as per the order received by you today written order dated 17.06.2020 issued by the office of the Labour Minister, directing cancellation of the existing contract with Rajendra Management Group and reinstatement of the previous housekeeping staff, along with direct payment from the University.

A bare perusal of the order suggests that the new contract was signed by the University without any proper assessment and in contravention of the number of workers stated in its own tender. Due to the same, the wrongfully removed workers have had to suffer immensely. In light of the same, we expect the University administration to ensure the effective compliance of the written order by tomorrow i.e. 18th June 2020 to avoid any further suffering to the workers. The workers will come to the University tomorrow with a copy of the written order.

Considering the students have been fighting for more than six months now, it does not seem like they will give up easily.

The start of a movement

“We got involved in this cause when this was rumoured all around that our housekeeping services contract is going to change and consequently the workers too will be removed,” explained NLU Delhi student Tomar, who was part of the core group founding the NLUD Workers-Students Solidarity.

The group first approached the NLU Delhi administration, having a meeting with vice chancellor Prof Ranbir Singh on 30 December 2019, which also included the new contractor.

“However, the meeting turned out to be in vain as VC did not really hear our concerns and tender illegalities that we raised,” said Tomar. “The outcome of the meeting was that only 10 people will be reinstated from the earlier workforce and other will be given employment under the new contractor at his alternative sites.”

“Various mails were sent to the administration to apprise them about tender illegalities and how this contract of housekeeping staff is void ab initio but no response was received,” she added.

The workers had been removed on 31 December, when they were standing outside the main gate of NLUD, with the local police having been called by NLU Delhi’s assistant registrar and section officer, according to Tomar.

“The police told workers that you can not raise your concerns to NLUD because they are principal employer you should go to your contractors,” she said, adding that the “police also threatened workers and students that if they remain standing outside NLUD then an FIR will be filed against them for violating law and order”.

The new year, pre-Covid

The students then temporarily disbursed but started protesting again on 4 January 2020, according to Tomar.

She and Prajapati then met the registrar, Prof BS Bajpai, on 8 January 2020, at which, according to Tomar “he reiterated his stance that 100% retention is not possible”.

“We were also threatened with initiating a proctorial board action against the two of us for not maintaining discipline on the university,” alleged Tomar (which the university denies, see statement above).

Despite limited initial action from the student body, eventually that swelled when on 10 February a night protest attracted “more that 150 students [who] gathered and stayed in support of workers till 1am”, according to Tomar.

“Later when student body came out in our support then university took the excuse that they [threatened] us because we raised offensive slogans i.e. ‘NLUD sharm karo, sharm nahin toh doob maro’,” recounted Tomar.

A higher authority

But the students continued trying to take their protests to the next level.

“We approached labour minister Gopal Rai several times for this,” said Tomar. “However in the month of January we could not meet him because we were told that due to the code of conduct in Delhi labour minister can not intervene in this issue.”

“After when we finally [met] him on 14 February, a factual report was asked from the university in this regard. Dissatisfied with the factual report another meeting convened on 13th March at Delhi Secretariat, but due to Gopal Rai’s parliamentary session, he delegated his duty to his officer on special duty Anil Ghildiyal, who directed the university to reinstate all the workers or cancel the new contract,” said Tomar, but noted that the university “did not implement the directions because they were verbal in nature and after that lockdown was imposed”.

“The university took advantage of the lockdown where students could not approach the administration. Administration was not replying to any of our mails in this regard,” she alleged.

The human cost + Covid

For the workers, meanwhile, the lockdown worsened their situation, having been unemployed for five months, they had exhausted their savings, had no money for ration or to pay for medical emergencies, explained Tomar. “Instances of domestic violence increased, one worker lost his father but he had no money left for funeral. The poverty hit them to the extent that some of the workers considered going back to their villages because of the uncertainty of getting their employment back.

“Some of the workers had to skip their meals to survive this lockdown.”

However, the students tried their best to assist and started a crowdfunding campaign, raising around Rs 2 lakh.

Nevertheless, the economic situation for the workers remains precarious.

The Delhi government order

NLU Delhi students win victory against hostile administration to safeguard jobs of cleaning staff
NLU Delhi students win victory against hostile administration to safeguard jobs of cleaning staff

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