Ashoka’s Hypocrisy In Dealing With Its Workers
Sriramya Ghanta, UG 21
After the lockdown, 26 lakh migrants were stranded across the country and 24.6% Indians were left unemployed. The COVID crisis raised important questions regarding health care and the structures and institutions that support the economy. Ashoka University too had issued an email titled, “Ashoka’s comprehensive response to COVID-19.” The Ashoka Bulletin stated that the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP) partnered with GiveIndia to support their India COVID response fund. It goes on to add that “the fund will focus on preventing the spread of COVID-19, providing humanitarian aid, supporting health workers, and enabling the COVID-hit families to rebuild their livelihoods.” However, the email, as well as the bulletin failed to address the very backbone of Ashoka- our workers who have been fired without any valid reason according to The Sixth House of Representatives, Ministry of Community Well-Being and Democracy Collective. In the mail that they have sent out, addressing the Vice-chancellor, they have raised concerns about the “housekeeping staff receiving negligible compensation solely for the month of May, and nothing thereafter despite repeated reassurance by senior admin members” and the construction workers being paid very little while working without their safety gear, among other things. While the Vice-Chancellor and the administration have been hesitant in considering the issue, the Student Government (SG) alongside the Democracy collective seems determined to be heard. The Vice-Chancellor has responded with a call for a meeting with the Student Government, the Democracy Collective and the Worker’s Welfare Department.
Biplob Kumar Das, who is both a member of the House of Representatives as well as the Democracy collective, says that students who are still residing on campus have contacted the Student Government with concerns regarding how the staff are being treated. Shweta Siddhu, a member of the Student Government had been in touch with women who have been fired. She attests that in most of these cases, it was women that were mistreated and humiliated. Referring to her interaction with a didi, Shweta recalls, “I managed to find the contact details of two didis who were fired from work and then I tried contacting them for two days, but their phones were unreachable. I was very worried that their phones were snatched away and it was not unnatural for me to think that after hearing the derogatory and disturbing manner in which they were made to quit their job and leave campus”. Biplob also mentioned that although the workers did reach their homes safely, they did not receive any remuneration to cover their travel expenses when most of them were laid off. He went on to say, “Project Safar has been a huge success and many Ashokans have taken the initiative to start or help with projects that are catered to the workers. It would be hypocritical and ironical of us to have done so much for migrant labour but remain ineffective in helping those that take care of us and are an enormous part of the Ashokan community.”
The department that deals with Staff Welfare and Health is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Community Well-being. Bhavya Dixit, a UG 21 student currently serving as the Minister of Community Well-being has been in touch with some of the workers that have been laid off. She says that “all of them were very dejected and felt let down by the institution that they were extremely loyal to.” Workers that have been laid off seem to raise concerns about the fact that they were the sole earning members of their families and had nothing else to fall back on. Moreover, a few of them are worried that they might never return as they did not receive any communication even after the restrictions were lifted. Bhavya, while addressing the administration’s role in the issue, says “Strengthening redressal protocol is absolutely necessary. The workers should be involved in certain reforms and as stakeholders, their demands should be heard and factored in.”
On many occasions, the administration seemed reluctant to acknowledge the solicitudes that students raised regarding the mistreatment of support staff on campus. Biplob alludes to the fact that these workers are said to have been hired through contractors such as the G4S security company. Often, with the concerns around workers, the administration places the onus on the said contractor to hire and fire them, and in the process, conveniently washes its hands off any trouble they may be facing at their very place of employment. By hiding behind the ‘third party’ card, the university administration has historically managed to deflect accountability. A person (anonymous) that has been working closely with the issue said that while over 6 workers have been fired, most of them were women. They also mentioned that they have been involved with the administration long before the pandemic hit in addressing how some of the wardens have been mistreating the housekeeping staff and were using casteist and classist slurs against them: an unchecked display of abhorrent authority. They said that “ there have been a lot of discrepancies with what is said about the contractors. But I do think that since nobody is forcing Ashoka to go into business with contractors that mistreat their workers, they do have to ensure that their promises are being delivered.” They expressed that there is a need for the Ministry of Community Well-being to have a database of all the workers so that the Ministry could advocate for them. There seems to be a disconnect between the narrative that the administration presents and the actuality. Bhavya adds, “I think it’s extremely misleading when we receive elaborate reports about Ashoka’s response which is incongruent, to say the least, and makes us question the hollow structures even more. It’s appalling when the discrepancies surface.”
The Workers Welfare Committee at Ashoka has also been up for debate. Biplob asserts that it has been a part of their charter of demands, right after the elections. He expresses his concern with the fact that the committee consists of the Registrar, the Chair, and a couple of other members and does not have anyone representing the workers themselves. There is a need for the committee to be more inclusive and perceptive to the needs of the workers. Biplob goes on to say that the committee had been ineffective in catering to the concerns of the workers despite repeated indication from the Student Government. The House of Representatives, Ministry of Community Well-being and the Democracy Collective seek to fulfil a list of demands including, reinstating those that have been fired, ensuring that there are no more salary cuts, a change in the manner in which the workers are treated and that those who have faced salary cuts be fully compensated.
The pandemic caused chaos and the worst of it had to be endured by those that are most vulnerable. This issue has brought to light the cultural and institutional classism faced by workers on a daily basis. The Ashokan community needs to reflect on the manner in which those who are a fundamental part of our community are being treated by the university administration, in yet another worrying display of high-handedness.