Anil Ambedkar, a sanitation worker from the outskirts of Mumbai, is part of a group of 2,700 contract workers who were recently made permanent employees of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), a city agency, after a 10-year legal battle. A serious man with deep-set eyes and a thick mustache from a lower-caste Dalit group, Ambedkar credits the haq ki ladai, the fight for their rights, as playing a key role in helping the workers win their case.

Ambedkar is part of a new trade-union movement in India that is using confrontational methods and mobilization alongside legal strategies to organize invisible and mistreated Dalit migrant workers. There are around 35,000 sanitation workers in Mumbai; of these, some 28,000 are permanent and 7,000 are on contract. It is not uncommon for the work of permanent employees to also be subdivided among contract workers. After years of persistent ground-level organizing, the movement has come closer to the abolition of the system of subcontracting, which has made sanitation work one of the most dangerous, precarious, and dehumanizing in India today.

Organizing of Mumbai’s sanitation workers began in 1996. Milind Ranade, a leftist organizer, spent 10 months riding in garbage trucks and trying to convince the employees that if they formed a union, they could win better working conditions and better pay. The Garbage Transport Workers Union (Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh, or KVSS) was formed in 1997.

One way the union won the confidence of workers was by involving them in a hunger strike for water that year. The dumping ground in the Mumbai suburb of Deonar had separate entrances for permanent and contract workers, and the contract-worker entrance had no water for drinking or washing, while the permanent workers did. The contract workers had to pay up to 10 rupees to vendors for a gallon of water. The media picked up on the strike and publicized it. After 24 hours, the workers won the right to water. As Ranade said, “Workers got the confidence that yes, we can win something. And that water was a platform on which we built.”

At that time, the system of subcontracting was rampant. While the BMC used to employ sanitation workers directly as permanent employees, during the 1990s it began to reduce costs by subcontracting out sanitation work to private contractors. Each was given a contract to supply 20 to 30 trucks, making three trips a day. They were paid 1,200 rupees (about $17) per truck for a trip that began in South Mumbai, collected garbage from different parts of the city, and deposited it in the dumping ground, before returning. The contractor would keep 600 rupees and give 600 rupees to a truck owner for the trip. The truck owner would keep 250 rupees for himself, pay 200 rupees for diesel, 20 rupees for a BMC supervisor known as a mukadam, and then give 40 rupees to the driver and 30 rupees each to three workers. So for 20 trucks, the contractors were making 36,000 rupees a day and each truck owner was making about 750 rupees a day for doing nothing, while the workers earned only 90 rupees a day for 12-hour shifts. The contractors had to pay up to half of their profits to BMC officers in bribes, thus creating a tight circle of exploitation and extraction of profits at the expense of workers.

The strategy of the union was to bombard the BMC with batches of legal cases. The first case was filed in 1997 for 2,000 contract workers. The KVSS pointed to the illegalities implicit in the contract system. By law, the corporation cannot contract out work that is statutory and perennial such as “lifting garbage,” so it redefined the work as “lifting debris.” In order to give out contract work, the BMC was required to register as a principal employer under the 1970 Contract Labor Act. If a worker was injured or died, the principal employer was responsible for compensation. But the BMC did not register. The union went to the courts and made its arguments, backed up with evidence and photographs. In 2003, the KVSS won a settlement, which included permanent status for 1,200 workers.

In response to that legal victory, the BMC reorganized sanitation work to embrace a new contract system. Originating in the southeastern city of Hyderabad, the system was known as the Hyderabad pattern, and it has dominated employment relations in India for the past 15 years. This pattern consists in evading existing labor laws. The Contract Labor Act applies to businesses that employ more than 20 workers, so contracts are issued for only 18 workers. The BMC began to outsource sanitation work to over 200 small contractors employing fewer than 20 workers each. Under the Hyderabad pattern, the workers are referred to not as workers but as volunteers. The contractor is referred to as a nongovernmental organization. A salary is called an honorarium. Contracts cannot exceed eight months because, according to the 1947 Industrial Disputes Act, if you have worked continuously for 240 days you are entitled to claim permanency. In court, the BMC used this nomenclature to claim that since workers are volunteers, the labor laws should not apply to them.

Ranade sees the Hyderabad pattern as a modern replay of the traditional Hindu law of Manusmriti, which excluded Dalits from social life. He said, “The Dalits who were kept outside the boundary of the village are now kept outside the purview of the act.”

The case that was recently won had been filed in the government labor court known as the Industrial Tribunal in 2007. This time the union’s case consisted in exposing the Hyderabad pattern by demonstrating that the workers were not volunteers and the contractors were not NGOs. They used photographs, video, and worker testimony. In 2014, all 2,700 workers were given permanency in the Industrial Tribunal. After passing through appeals in the Bombay High Court and finally passing to the Supreme Court, on April 7, 2017, the workers were granted permanency and two years’ payment as arrears. But even after winning, the BMC rejected 2,400 of the workers, citing differences in the spelling of their names between electoral rolls and government-issued biometric IDs known as Aadhar cards, as well as bank passbooks and so on. It was only in December 2018, after sustained pressure from the union, that the BMC finally verified 1,600 of the rejected workers, with 800 remaining.

All of the contract workers employed by the BMC are Dalits and migrants. There have been changes in the caste system since the last century, as Dalits have fought for their rights and dignity. But they are still often consigned to the lowest ranks of the labor market, especially in areas such as sanitation, because of the ongoing caste-based stigma attached to dirty work, which is seen as polluting for higher castes. Non-Dalits would prefer to remain unemployed rather than do this work.

Rane Rajudevendra is a sanitation worker from Tamil Nadu who has been living in Mumbai for 40 years. She wears a pink-and-green cotton sari, and has bright gold ornaments in her nose and on her left ear. Her expression is somber, and she has graying, wiry hair along her temples. Rajudevendra moves from contract to contract. Before she leaves for her job, she must complete her household chores of cooking and cleaning. She is struggling with her children, who don’t want to study. Her son-in-law has a drinking problem. Due to her association with garbage work, she will not be able to look for a job as a domestic worker. “We are not educated,” she says. “We have language issues. This is why we are dependent on this work. Many people say that you have to work in garbage. You can’t do good, clean work.”

The workers are forced to leave their homes in rural areas in search of work because of drought conditions, which are becoming worse each year. The two main areas they come from are Marathwada in Maharashtra, and Salem and Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. They are often landless, or unable to make a living from the small plots of land they own. Namdev Dnyovar Gote is a migrant worker from the drought-prone district of Parvani in Marathwada. His family owns three acres of land in Wangri village, but he can’t live on it because there is no water. His co-worker Sanjay Pandharina Gote says, “I don’t even own land. I can’t produce anything. I have to come to Mumbai for work.”

Permanent sanitation workers have their basic working conditions protected by law. They are provided with uniforms, payment slips, medical insurance, and paid leave. Contract workers have none of these benefits. As migrants, they don’t have ration cards or permanent housing. Most of them live in unauthorized shanties known as jhopdis that are frequently demolished, which forces them to search for a new place and build their homes again.

The wages for contract workers are barely enough to survive on, and many of them are malnourished. They collect garbage with their bare hands, without gloves, face masks, shoes, or a uniform. There are no facilities at the work stations for employees to wash their bodies. Dnyovar Gote says, “On the trains and buses, our clothes stink. People try to move away from us, saying, where is this bad smell coming from?” Another worker, Ravi Kannan Udayar, said they often have to try to catch the garbage trucks for their daily commute because no other transport will take them. Since they aren’t allowed into restaurants because of their smell, the workers eat their lunch on top of the garbage truck.

Employees suffer various illnesses because of the poor working conditions and often die at a young age. Tuberculosis and other lung diseases are common because of the kinds of gases they are exposed to. There are frequent accidents; Pandharina Gote lost his thumb in the hydraulic cylinder of a garbage truck. One of the biggest concerns of the union was that, given the length of legal proceedings, workers would not live to see the victory. Between the Supreme Court victory of April 2017 and December 2018, at least 28 workers have died.

When I first met Ranade in January 2018, the union was busy organizing agitations at Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus and other key locations to press the BMC into honoring the Supreme Court decision. Ranade was under no illusion that the legal victory would translate into actual changes on the ground for workers without the union continuing to exert pressure. He points to their approach of sustained and ongoing agitation as the reason for their success.

When they first began organizing in 1996, the KVSS faced a hostile political climate with the right-wing fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming into power amid broader anti-Dalit, anti-migrant sentiment. So, in the early days, the organizers presented their activism as humanitarian work rather than rights or union work. They said that they were working for the welfare of workers. But over time, as the movement grew, they began pursuing more radical and confrontational tactics.

One of the signature tactics of the group is known as “body processions.” The union first employed this tactic in 1998, and it has used it ever since. At that time, after a worker had an accident and died, the union took the body to BMC headquarters, along with the relatives and co-workers of the victim. The police tried to prevent them from taking the body. The worker had died in the hospital, and when co-workers initially tried to retrieve the body, the police placed the body in an ambulance and guarded the back door of the vehicle with a police car. The union managed to take the body out through the window of the ambulance and marched with it to the BMC offices, facing police barricades, officers, senior officers, and, finally, the deputy commissioner of police along the way. When they reached the headquarters, the media appeared with photographers, and the union was able to publicize the point that no one was taking responsibility for the death.

“In Indian society,” says Ranade, “if you are alive and if you are starving, nobody is bothered. But if you are dead, then everyone is scared because the emotional tempers can go high and anything can happen.” The union strategically tapped into this institutional fear of scandal associated with dead bodies. Since the BMC was not willing to register itself as a principal employer, it would not claim responsibility for any accidents or deaths on the job or pay compensation to the family. The contractor and subcontractor would also claim that this was not their worker; they would say that the driver is the one who brought the body. But the driver is not the employer. So by bringing the bodies to the BMC, the union drew attention to this evasion of responsibility at all levels.

The union mobilized a large base of workers, and combined direct actions and demonstrations with legal work. As Ranade put it, “We went to the court. We kept up our agitations. So it was a double attack. In the field, tremendous agitations, demonstrations. For each and every thing.” They used their knowledge of the contract labor laws to make demands on local officials. When workers were paid less than minimum wage, they would barge into the local political ward office, singing songs and chanting slogans and demanding to be paid the amount guaranteed by law.

The union trained the workers in how to deal with the police. They said that if the contractors threatened to call the police, this was a good thing, because the police could make a written statement that they were being paid less than minimum wage, and that would be evidence that could be used in court. When the workers were arrested, they demanded water, tea, and meals, chanting, “Police, give us dinner, give us dinner.” The police would release the workers because it was such a headache for them. So while the contractors and BMC tried to use the police to control the workers, the workers turned this tactic against them.

Undergirding the agitations, demonstrations, and legal work is a slow and steady long-term strategy of ground-level organization. There are regular, large meetings of workers in the KVSS union headquarters in Lokamanya Tilak Colony in the residential Mumbai suburb of Dadar East. Men and women workers sit cross-legged on the floor, line the walls, and spill out into the hallway. On the back wall is a series of frames with portraits of Nehru, Lenin, Marx, Mao, and Stalin—icons common in the communist movement in India. Despite the intense nature of their work schedule and domestic responsibilities, workers make every effort to attend meetings. Rajudevendra says, “Whenever there are meetings, I always participate. Even if I don’t cook food that day, I make sure to attend the meeting.”

Organizing sanitation workers has not been easy, given their limited power in labor markets and vulnerability as Dalits and migrants, in the face of the combined force of the BMC, private contractors, and political representatives. The Indian Constitution gives workers the right to organize themselves, but it doesn’t protect workers from being fired for exercising their rights. Ambedkar said that when he began organizing, the BMC tried to find fault with his work so that they could have a reason to fire him. Another challenge is the different languages spoken by workers, including Tamil and Marati. Organizers like Ranade from the Marati-speaking region of Maharashtra had to learn some Tamil in order to communicate with the workers from Tamil Nadu.

But the latest victory has demonstrated how even the most powerful actors can be called to account. The BMC has been ordered to pay arrears of half a million rupees to each of the workers, plus pension and salary. “Now they have become very careful when dealing with us,” says Ranade. “They never thought that such an unknown entity, without the backing of politicians, without affiliations to any political party, would succeed.”

The union survives mostly on small donations and volunteer labor. The organizations that sometimes fund advocacy work in India, such as the Coca-Cola India Foundation or the UK-based Paul Hamlyn Foundation, would see the KVSS’s tactics—processions with dead bodies, barging into offices—as too radical to fund. The focus on rights rather than charity means that they are unlikely to find grants, but it has also allowed them to define their own independent path, which is driven by workers themselves rather than grant bodies.

Every day, Ranade receives so many “Good morning” and “Good evening” messages from workers on WhatsApp, often with images of suns, flowers, and birds, that he is no longer able to use the messaging app. Although these WhatsApp greetings have become a national obsession in a newly online nation, they also indicate the affection that many of the workers hold for this leader dedicated to their struggle.

Ranade is in his 50s, a jovial and articulate leader with a graying mustache and hair. In his office at union headquarters, he takes one phone call after another. He puts one call on speaker and meanwhile another call beeps through. While he takes the calls, numerous people enter the office with paperwork for him to sign. As he speaks to workers, to callers, and to me, he switches easily between Marati, Hindi, and English.

Before becoming involved with the cause of sanitation workers, Ranade was a textile engineer. He left his job in 1991 and was working with the Communist Party of India, to which he still belongs. One day he saw workers eating their lunch on top of a garbage truck and discovered that because they were contract workers they were not given access to a lunchroom. At this time, there were no unions for contract workers in Mumbai. When Ranade began his volunteer work with KVSS he was supported financially by his wife, who is a college lecturer. Although the union is not affiliated with any political party, Ranade credits his experience in the communist movement with teaching him how to fight and how to sustain a long, drawn-out struggle.

Under the current right-wing fundamentalist BJP government led by Narendra Modi, contract workers across the country face a number of challenges. Like the earlier government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who appointed major industrialists to reform the pro-worker aspects of labor laws, Modi has also attacked these laws. In 2014, the BJP state government in the northern state of Rajasthan initiated several changes in labor laws, including amending the Contract Labor Act to apply to businesses that employ over 50 workers, rather than 20 and increasing the number of employees who could be laid off without government permission under the Industrial Disputes Act from 100 to 300. But activist organizations are also emerging across the country to organize sanitation and sewer workers, and those who engage in manual scavenging. These workers are overwhelmingly contract workers, migrants, and from lower castes. On July 12, 2017, 2,000 sanitation workers in Bangalore went on strike to protest wage theft and lack of toilets and safety gear. In response, the municipal corporation promised to make the workers permanent.

Ambedkar says that when he did contract work he had to deal with up to seven contractors, who would hire fewer workers and keep the extra money for themselves. When workers’ wages were withheld, the contractors would tell them that the BMC had not paid them. These days Ambedkar doesn’t have to deal with contractors; he works directly for the BMC. “The government says we have many laws,” he says. “But every law is only on paper. Nothing reaches us. Unless we fight for our rights, they won’t give us our rights.”