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“Bonded Labour”: sanitation workers in Chandigarh protest against being forced to wear GPS tracking devices

Pictures of the GPS-enabled smartwatches used by sanitation workers in Chandigarh
Pictures of the GPS-enabled smartwatches that sanitation workers in Chandigarh are directed to wear. (Source: By arrangement)

Sanitation workers in Chandigarh are being treated like “cattle”, they claim. With the help of GPS-enabled smartwatches adorned on the safai karamcharis’ wrists, faceless supervisors track their every move from a centralised command. When a worker strays from their assigned location, the system flags them; if they take a long break and are at the same place for too long, the system flags them. The Chandigarh Safai Karamchari Union calls this system “bonded labour“. Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, calls it “modern day slavery”, and considers it an extension of the oppressive caste system.

Women workers are especially wary of using these devices, the union has claimed. They are afraid that the built-in cameras in these smartwatches can be switched on remotely by supervisors when they are in the the bathroom.

The sanitation workers — around 4,000 of them — are currently waging a battle with the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation, which is forcing them to wear these devices in an attempt to improve their efficiency. They recently went on a three-day long strike, demanding that the devices be taken back. Surprisingly, more than the loss of privacy, the workers are worried about inaccurate location details that these devices reportedly show, which directly leads to wage loss.

Watches show inaccurate location, claims union

Krishan Kumar Chadha, leader of the workers’ union, said that the distribution of these smartwatches began around three months ago, right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of making things better, as the corporation had promised the workers, the watches complicated everything. Chadha called it a total waste of money:

“The watches a total waste of money. They rarely work as intended. A worker might be working in Sector 17, but his location will show as Mohali. One time, the location was shown as Kedarnath [around 450 km away]! When this happens, a day’s salary gets docked automatically. This is especially problematic during the pandemic.” — Krishan Kumar Chadha, president, Chandigarh Safai Karamchari Union

Pictures of the GPS-enabled smartwatches used by sanitation workers in Chandigarh

Pictures of the GPS-enabled smartwatches that sanitation workers in Chandigarh are directed to wear. Notice the camera module fixed atop; the device also has a speaker and microphone for communication. (Image source: Chandigarh Safai Karamchari Union)

Women workers wary of snooping while in bathroom: The watches, as pictured above, have cameras that can reportedly be enabled remotely to monitor a worker’s immediate location or even authenticate their identity. Chadha said women workers are especially wary of this feature, since they fear these cameras might be switched on when they are in the washroom. “The workers are prohibited from taking these watches off, since they can flagged for doing go. No one wants to take that risk,” he said

Despite multiple rounds of discussion between the corporation and the workers’ union, including with the municipal commissioner, the matter of smartwatches is yet to be resolved. The Council has agreed to decide on the matter during a meeting on October 29, which prompted the workers to return to work on Tuesday.

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Smartwatches meant to track ‘human efficiency’

Around two years ago, the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation decided there was a need to improve efficiency in garbage collection. In a House meeting in September 2018, it was decided that the best way to do this is was to acquire smartwatches for all garbage collectors, which would allow people sitting at a centralised command centre to track their movements. This system is named the “Human Efficiency Tracking System” or “HETS“.

Around 4,000 watches were ordered from the chosen supplier — IMTRAC India Pvt Ltd, an Oman-based company with an office in Bengaluru  — which were finally delivered in February this year. The corporation pays around ₹438 as rent per watch per month, which amounts a monthly cost of ₹17.5 lakh per month.

According to a video circulating on YouTube, purportedly made for IMTRAC to present as a demo of the system, HETS is the answer to problems such as excessive idle time and long breaks.

  • The watches are linked directly to the worker’s payroll. Attendance gets marked when a worker reaches the location, and an automated check-in and check-out system measures duty hours.
  • Workers can also be asked to take and submit pictures of themselves using the in-built camera to confirm their identity. Supervisors can apparently switch on the built-in camera and built-in microphone remotely to see what the workers are doing and hear what they are talking about.  
  • Supervisors can track the locations of each worker in real-time from a dashboard. When a worker moves out of the sector assigned to them, or if they take the smartwatch off, the system can flag them immediately.

Does the system work? No, say corporation employees

MediaNama reached out to several supervisor field-level staff who actually supervise the army of safai karamcharis in the city. These employees, who directly oversee all garbage collection and cleaning activity on the field, are also supposed to wear the smartwatches due to their classification as “field-staff”. Most of them were wary of speaking to the members of the press. One sanitary inspector said he couldn’t comment on the subject since he wasn’t authorised for it. However, he reluctantly conceded that the system has many flaws, including an error-ridden location-tracking system.

One senior supervisory-level employee told MediaNama, on the condition of anonymity, that the system is effectively penalising workers who perform well, instead of bringing in line those who skip work. The justification behind the introduction of the system was that it would help address the problem of “ghost workers” — when a person is on the pay rolls, but never actually shows up for work. The in-built cameras were meant to solve this problem.  “This didn’t happen at all. Some ghost workers are still giving the devices assigned to them to someone else, and the supervisors who are tracking the movements are none the wiser. These ghost workers continue to get away with no trouble.” He added: “Yeh India hai, yahan sab kar sakte hain (This is India, anything can be done here).”

At the same time, this employee said, this system has caused unnecessary inconvenience to workers who do legitimate and sincere work, by introducing ridiculous conditions.

“The system has basically snatched all freedom and discretion from good workers. Workers can’t take breaks when they feel tired. Workers can’t even finish work quick to log off a little early, since that will lead to a pay cut. Some workers used to finish their assignment an hour or two earlier than their deadline so they could go do another job. Now they can’t do that” — Senior employee in Chandigarh Municipal Corporation’s sanitation department

This employee said that he couldn’t think of a single benefit of HETS. “What we really need is more sanitation staff, and supervisors who can spend more time on the field. The corporation could have spent ₹18 lakh [that it spends on renting the watches] on hiring around 100 ground-level workers. The city would have been marginally cleaner that way,” he said.

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Losing a smartwatch can attract fine of ₹8,000: The smartwatches remain in the workers’ possession as long as they are in the employ of the corporation. The workers are supposed to charge it every night, and ensure that it stays on through their duty period. In case they lose it, they can be fined ₹8,000 for a replacement. This is a massive sum for workers who rarely make more than ₹13,000 a month, according to the senior employee.

Not much is known about data usage, collection and storage

There is almost no publicly available information on how the workers’ data is stored, collected and processed. Multiple corporation officials told us that only Kamal Kishor Yadav, Commissioner of the municipal corporation, could comment on the subject. But multiple attempts to contact him were unsuccessful. We will update this post once we are able to talk to him.

However, a HuffPost article about the use of smartwatches in nearby Panchkula in the state of Punjab, gives an idea of how things might be in Chandigarh. Both corporations use the same smartwatches (from IMTRAC); the tracking system is implemented by the same organisation as well  —  state-owned Indian Telephone Industries Ltd (ITIL).

Apart from the aforementioned information such as location details, the publication reported that supervisors with access to the monitoring dashboard also have access to a worker’s Aadhaar number. It also found that there is no clarity on how the data is secured and who exactly has access to it. The contract with ITIL reportedly only requires the setting up of a cloud-based data storage system, with no procedural safeguards on data security and didn’t include penalties on data breaches.

Chandigarh and Panchkula are not the only urban local bodies to use these intrusive tracking systems on their sanitation workers. Several cities have adopted them, including Mumbai, Mysore, Lucknow, Indore, Thane, Navi Mumbai and Nagpur.

Meanwhile, readers should note that India still doesn’t have a data protection law, which would likely specify procedural safeguards to ensure data privacy. The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 is currently being considered by a Joint Parliamentary Committee, which is expected to submit a report in the upcoming Winter Session of the Parliament.

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Some strange objections to smartwatches: ‘Drop in libido, BP problems’

While the watches clearly raise important questions about privacy and labour rights, these are not the only issues on the Safai Karamchari Union’s mind. The union has made several strange claims, most of them based on mistaken understanding of the technology at hand.

The union has complained that these smartwatches are causing blood pressure problems among workers; posing danger to the foetuses of pregnant ladies; leading to loss of libido and so on.

SR Chauhan, legal advisor of the union, who listed out these supposed problems, pointed MediaNama to a publications by Electrosensitivity UK (ES-UK), a UK-based NGO for people suffering from “electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS)”. (The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that EHS is not a medical diagnosis; it has suggested medical evaluation to identify specific conditions that may be responsible for symptoms associated with EHS.)

From the looks of it, the union seems to be using the electrosensitivity argument largely to make their case against smartwatches to the corporation. But officials seem unconvinced. Supervisory field-level staff said all of them wore the smartwatches and faced no health issues because of them. Even the municipal commissioner Kamal Kishor Yadav was reportedly wearing the watch during his discussion with the union on Monday, Chadha told MediaNama.

Dr Amrit Pal Singh, medical officer of health for the corporation, too, told MediaNama he had not come across any such medical problems because of the use of the smartwatches. He, however, refused to comment on the efficacy of HETS although his department is technically responsible for all sanitation in the Chandigarh.

It also seems clear from the use of the union’s argument, and from conversations with multiple field-level stakeholders on the use of smartwatches, that the data privacy and storage are not the workers’ immediate priority. It is unlikely that these sanitation workers truly understood the implications of giving up access to their sensitive data before agreeing to wear the watches.

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‘Will examine all concerns, including supposed health issues’

Rajesh Kalia, a councillor and chair of the corporation’s sanitation committee, dismissed the claims of health concerns. But he assured workers that the corporation would examine all issues with the smartwatch system, and even provide workers with medical attention if needed. The former mayor and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader told MediaNama: “There are thousands of these smartwatches in circulation and I have not come across reports of health problems resulting from their use. But, if there are indeed such issues, we will provide medical help to those afflicted.”

Meanwhile, Kalia admitted that location data from the smartwatches can be quite inaccurate. He said he had come across this problem multiple times during his field visits.

“I have personally visited the field, where I found the location tracking feature to be very inaccurate. In our upcoming House meeting, we will discuss if we are really getting our money’s worth for these smartwatches. After all, we are spending a princely sum on them” — Rajesh Kalia, councillor  and chair of Chandigarh Municipal Corporation’s sanitation committee

‘Modern day slavery’

The smartwatches not only raise questions around privacy and labour rights, but also about caste dynamics — a large number of sanitations workers in the country belong to oppressed classes of the society. That these devices are being used to surveil people from the most vulnerable sections of society raises multiple questions about propriety.

Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, compared the use of smartwatches to “modern day slavery”. The Ramon Magasasay Award recipient noted how sanitation workers continue to be treated like untouchables, now with the help of technology. “The upper castes thinks of safai karamcharis as untouchables.This attitude is showing in new ways now, that’s all. What was earlier only in the mind is now coming out into the open with these instruments,” he said.

“This is how we domesticate animals. We tie them up. Now they are tying up humans and watching where they are going, tracking their every move. This is unacceptable and is anti-labour. This is an extension of the practice of modern untouchability.” — Bezwada Wilson, National Convenor, Safai Karamchari Andolan

Wilson said this kind of surveillance was deeply “problematic” in a democratic country like India. “The workers are labour, they have certain rights. They are coming to work for you for eight hours, and it is your responsibility to get their services. But just because of this, you can’t track them throughout. They shouldn’t be deprived of their dignity and respect.”

Wilson said many of the workers are unaware of their rights, and the dangers of letting their privacy being invaded. “When these workers don’t clearly know the implications of using these devices, they cannot give consent. They have every right to refuse these devices,” he said.

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***Update (1:19 PM, October 28): Added part about women workers being wary of using the smartwatches to the introduction of the story. Also added a Hindi quote by the senior corporation employee: “Yeh India hai, yahan sab kar sakte hain”. 

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