Mumbai’s BEST Bus System: Fight for Equal Pay for Equal Work!

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Lata Parab | Clarion India

THE Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) system has been serving as the lifeline for the people of Mumbai, providing cheap and affordable public transport to lakhs of people. The BEST transport service has consistently been the best, for decades. It has proven its reliability, particularly during heavy rainfall and flooding. The BEST buses enabled working women to travel safely during late nights and early mornings. However, the Maharashtra government and the BEST administration seem to be conspiring to privatise this vital public transport system.

It all started with the government’s move to reduce the number of buses and the introduction of private workers, triggering concerns among the employees who raised apprehensions about their employment. They flagged concerns that private contractors will prioritise their own profits and exploit the workers. The contractors also reduced the expenditure on the training of the workers, putting the lives of the passengers and the workers at risk.  Further, the contract workers hired by the private contractors pay them low wages and often harass them. The labour law does not apply to the wet lease (rented buses) workers. The daily wagers were denied protections given to regular employees. Some of these workers are said to have even taken extreme steps due to their desperate financial situations.

It is to be noted that the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment emphasised the importance of equal pay for equal work, condemning any denial of this principle as exploitative and oppressive in a welfare state. Building upon this observation, the Sangharsha Karmkar Kamgar Union has been tirelessly advocating for the rights of these workers for the past few years.  

How the protest started

On 31st July, family members of wet-lease (rented buses) worker Raghunath Khajurkar started the agitation by starting a hunger strike, which soon got momentum with scores of people joining it.  Around 9,000 wet-lease workers from the BEST buses joined the strike. As the hunger strike gained momentum, the government announced that the agitators would meet the Chief Minister on August 2. However, attempts were made to mislead the workers, with the sympathiser withholding information about the Chief Minister’s response.

On August 3, the Sangharsh Samgar Karmkarya Union organised a protest under their banner. The workers marched from various depots to Wadala BEST Depot, presenting their demands to the parent owner of the BEST, the BEST Enterprises, as well as the Chief Minister and private bus companies. The protest garnered support from trade unions, public organizations, retired BEST workers, youth, students, women’s organizations, and political parties.

Two days later, a meeting of approximately 700 to 800 workers was conducted near the CITU office, close to Azad Maidan which was attended by several union leaders, including Uday Bhat from BEST Labour Organization, Ranganath Satwase from Sangharsh Union, Harish Gaikwad, Bashir Ahmed, Lata Parab, J.M. Kahar, and Manoj Yadav. Wet-Lease employees took part in the protest and decided to call for a bandh on August 6. As planned, on the following day, the Union visited all wet-lease depots and highlighted the importance of a march from Kotwal Garden to Wadala Depot as part of the “Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi Best” civic forum, on August 7th, BEST’s anniversary. However, the government denied permission for the march, and the police locked down Kotwal Garden. The rally was then moved to Dadar TT, from where the participants attempted to march to Wadala Depot. The police stopped this as well, leading to a gathering of around 4-5000 people outside the Wadala Depot.

On August 8, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde verbally agreed to the hunger striker Pragya Khajurkar’s general demands and asked him to call off the eight-day-long strike. He immediately called off her hunger strike, and nearly 85 percent of the buses started running smoothly the next day on August 9. Meanwhile, the electronic and print media created confusion among the workers, reporting that the complete strike had been called off. Confused workers, around 500 agitating workers contacted the union and gathered at the office of CITU Labour Union and unanimously decided to continue the agitation. The workers decided not to withdraw until the Chief Minister agreed to the demands in writing.

After verbal assurances from government authorities, 85 percent of the buses resumed operation on August 9. However, the struggle continued, with court notices issued to workers and some even arrested. The union stood by its members, ensuring legal support and securing their release.

On August 11, 2023, the Industrial Court witnessed the Sangharsh Workers Union presenting evidence to support workers’ claims of discriminatory hiring practices by the management. The Union stood up for the rights of workers in court. Following this, on August 12th, 123 members of the Union joined forces with an undertaking after the management counsel was enlightened about the matter. Several leaders of the movement, including Harish Gaikwad, Lata Parab, Bashir Ahmed, Ranganath Satwase, and Jagnarayan Kahar, played pivotal roles.  

In this ongoing fight against privatization and contracting of transport services, the Sangharsha Karmkar Kamgar Union remains resolute in its pursuit of equal pay for equal work and the preservation of a reliable and affordable public transport system for the huge chunk of the working class in Mumbai.

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