Labour ministry tells NLU Delhi to reinstate dismissed workers or cancel new contract

On 10 February, several members of the housekeeping staff of the National Law University, Delhi, along with students, staged a sit-in outside the campus. They were protesting the workers’ dismissals by the university over a month ago when a new contractor was hired for housekeeping services. On 13 March, the labour minister, Gopal Rai’s office directed the NLU to reinstate all 55 workers or cancel the new contract. Nabeela Paniyath for The Caravan
14 March, 2020

An ongoing tussle between the National Law University, Delhi and its housekeeping staff entered its seventy-first day on 14 March. The staff, along with the students of NLUD who have consistently supported their cause, have been protesting the summary dismissals of the workers by the university in December last year. NLUD terminated the workers’ employment after a new contractor, a company called Rajendra Management Group, was brought on board. The RMG chose to bring in its own workforce and refused to employ a majority of the original workers.  However, the students and workers are now hopeful of a resolution after a meeting with the office of the Delhi labour minister, Gopal Rai, on 13 March.

That day, two student representatives and three workers met Anil Ghildiyal, an officer on special duty attached to Rai’s office. The university sent Siddharth Dahiya, the assistant registrar and SC Lather, the deputy registrar, to the meeting. After the meeting, Ghildiyal asked the university to renegotiate its contract with RMG so as to accommodate all the previous employees. According to a statement released by the National Law University Delhi Workers Students Solidarity—a loose coalition formed between the students and workers—Ghildiyal also said that if the original workers are not reinstated, the contract with RMG “would be cancelled and a new tender would be floated.”

Ghildiyal based his directions on a factual report submitted by NLU and the representations on the issue made by the students. The university’s report reiterated its original stand, that it has no legal obligation to the workers since they are employed by a third-party contractor. It also sidestepped allegations of irregularities in the new contract given to the RMG. The student’s rejoinder highlighted how the tender for housekeeping staff issued by the university was legally faulty as was the contract signed with RMG. When I reached out to Dahiya and Lather, right after the meeting, outside Rai’s office, both of them initially denied that any such meeting had even taken place. But when I pointed out to the students and workers there, they told me, “no comments” and walked off.

After the meeting, students and workers were visibly relieved. “I hope that the university can sort it out within themselves and that we get our jobs,” Geeta Devi, a 43-year-old housekeeping staff, told me. “We are very grateful that we have been heard and that our protest was not in vain,” she said.

“They closed the gate on us and refused to let us in,” Geeta recounted to me as she narrated the sequence of events beginning 27 December. “After we waited there for some time, the police came, and threatened to forcibly remove us.” That day, 55 contractual workers of the NLU were informed that their services had been terminated. The university administration and the contractor, a company called White Fox and Golden, gave them no prior notice. Instead, the university had hired RMG which brought in its own workers to the campus the very next day. By 31 December, the university started refusing entry to the old workers, who then began a protest outside the campus which went on till 11 February. According to the students, at present, 13 of the original workers have been reinstated. The students told me that they had to intervene to ensure these reinstatements were conducted as per procedure, while the rest of the workers still do not know if they have jobs.

The day the workers discovered that they had been terminated, they approached the students of NLU who immediately mobilised and met Ranbir Singh, the vice-chancellor. Singh agreed to hold a meeting on 30 December—three representatives of the workers and concerned students were allowed to attend the meeting. The next day, with RMG bringing in its own workers, the students approached Singh again, who agreed to let the old workers continue work for the time being. However, on the day of the meeting—which was attended by Dahiya, Lather, Vijay Pandey, a section officer, Jaipal, a consultant on the university’s purchase committee, Rajendra Vats, a representative of RMG, Amar, Rajendra Vats’s son and a field officer of RMG, one member of the Legal Service Committee and two student representatives—none of the workers were allowed to attend. The very next day, the university refused entry to the workers, who then started a protest outside the campus.

Over the next 37 days, the students supported the workers’ protests and examined the contract handed to the RMG. According to a report on the workers’ plight which was released by the students, the dismissal of the workers without prior notice is legally untenable. In addition, a 2018 cabinet resolution by the Delhi state government “mandates retention of a minimum of 80 percent and a maximum of 100 percent of the old workforce under any new contractor.” However, a press note released by the students stated that “The administration has been firm on its stance that it owes no responsibility towards the struggling workers.”

Moreover, there are irregularities in the contract given to RMG. As per the report, the university had advertised for a requirement for 71 workers, but RMG still won the contract with a bid of just 30 workers. And none of these 30 workers are from the original workforce, in direct contravention of the state government’s rules. A press note that the student’ released on behalf of the workers states that in a meeting held on 8 January, NLU admitted to the students that the arguments against the contract given to RMG are “logical. However, it was reluctant in reviewing the contract.” Over the course of several rounds of negotiations, the administration offered to take back ten workers and place some others in different projects by the RMG, which provided written assurances on the offers. But the offers were rejected by all the workers. The university also threatened disciplinary action against the students and attempted to intimidate the old workers with the threat of police action and court cases.

Finally, on 10 February, the workers organised a sit-in protest outside the campus. Many of the workers have been at the university since the campus opened 12 years ago. “I’ve been working here since I was 16,” Raman, who is now 25, told me. “We’ve moved everything to be here and can’t afford to leave our homes like this. Our lives revolve around this university.” According to the press note, “About 76% of the workforce consists of sole breadwinners for their families. On average, the sole breadwinners have 4 dependants. About 61% of the workforce lives in rented accommodation. Females constitute 40% of the workforce.”

Many of the students I spoke to said that this was the first time their campus had been so “political,” and that mobilisation on such a scale had never happened before. While I interviewed the workers, some of the protesters and students started singing protest songs. Those who did not know the lyrics were reading them out from papers that were being passed around. “It is really nice to see everyone here today,” Monika Roy, a worker, told me. “It has been a tough road, but thanks to the students I am feeling hopeful. I don’t think I will ever forget what I am seeing here today.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the RMG did not provide any written assurances; and that all the workers have been at the university since the campus opened 12 years ago.

The RMG did provide written assurances on the offers, but the offers were rejected by all the workers; and many of the workers have been at the university since the campus opened 12 years ago.  The Caravan regrets the errors.