The Revised FC Structure: How Did We Get Here?
by Riddhi Verma and Kalyani Garud On 15th January 2021, in response to an email from
by Anushree Pratap (UG’23) and Sana Bashir (UG’24)
(TW: SH, SA, casteism, victim-shaming)
Since September 2021, Quess, Ashoka University’s contractual company for the housekeeping department, has allegedly been coercing the transfer of workers. Around 35 members of the housekeeping staff have been informed by Quess of transfers to places like Gurgaon and Jaipur with short notice periods and no option to refuse. One of these workers has already been transferred. Furthermore, Chandra, the new manager from Quess, threatened a member of the housekeeping staff – a survivor of sexual assault – to resign from the university. In light of these incidents, among the many demands being made for workers’ welfare, students continue to urge the administration to do away with third-party contractual hiring through Quess.
Quess allegedly informed and interviewed 35 workers from the housekeeping department of transfers in the name of “promotions” due to marginally higher salaries. The salary increase is not enough to meet the costs of the transfers and may force workers to resign. During a conversation with a member of the Democracy Collective and Employee Welfare Committee, they said that the worker who was transferred received an official notice to report to another location in a week. “He has 2 children, and it’s really difficult for him to travel to Delhi every day and come back and the salary increase is not that much that he can sustain that lifestyle or shift to Delhi.” They went on to say that the worker voiced his concerns but 4 days prior to his transfer he was put in the basement, where the housekeeping office is. He was forced to do paperwork and couldn’t even leave for the washroom without supervision. “Then he made it clear that he did not want to be transferred, he was put on 3 days of mandatory leave.” Vikas, the manager at the time, allegedly told the worker to leave with a good reputation. To aid this image of voluntary transfers, sweets were distributed against the worker’s will. The remaining 34 workers have not received formal transfer letters as of now.
The failure of Ashoka to prioritize its workers’ welfare doesn’t stop here. A member of the housekeeping staff was sexually assaulted by somebody outside the University. At the time, the worker had reported the case to the police authorities and was dealt with in court. The accused is currently under arrest. Chandra, the new manager of the housekeeping staff from Quess, called a meeting with her. Vikas, the manager at the time of the court case who was informed of the incident, had briefed Chandra about the incident without the survivor’s consent. The meeting had two more supervisors present and Chandra stated that the worker’s izzat (respect) had been violated and threatened her to resign from the institution. This took a toll on her, both mentally and physically; she repeatedly threw up and this eventually led to a heart attack on campus. As a result, she was hospitalised for multiple days. Aside from providing an ambulance for the worker to reach the hospital during her heart attack, the university provided no compensation for the medical bills and cut her salary for the days of work she missed when in the hospital.
The worker has made it clear that she is too scared to come to work and face Chandra; however, no action has been taken against the management. Incidents of victim-shaming in the workplace are further making it difficult for her to come back to work. Due to the managers in this incident being from Quess, Ashoka University has faced no repercussions for not taking accountability for the worker’s welfare. An email petition signed by 255 members of the Ashokan community (as of October 19, 2021) sent on October 4, 2021 demands action against Chandra and Vikas who have been stated to sexually harass and victim-shame several workers at Ashoka. The housekeeping department is being forced to sign letters to vouch for Vikas’s integrity in response to which female workers have come forward with their experiences of sexual harassment by members within the management. The Vice-Chancellor (VC) has declared that she is enquiring into the matter.
In a meeting with the VC on Friday, September 24, 2021, she assured the student representatives of the Employee Welfare Committee and the Democracy Collective that she will do what she can to ensure that the transfers are carried out on a voluntary basis. She expressed her limitation in enforcing this and clarified that she could only give recommendations considering the fact that Ashoka is the secondary employer of the workers.
On Sunday, October 10th, a concerned group of members of the student body approached the founders on the university campus regarding the workers’ transfers with the aim of addressing and resolving the issue. Their aim was “to stop coerced transfers and for the existing contracts to be revised in regular consultation of workers to prevent such arbitrary decisions from taking place in the future” and have the university directly hire the workers rather than through a third party. The students were able to speak to Ashish Dhawan and Sanjeev Bikhchandani who listened to their concerns and promised a future conversation with them after stating they valued their relationship with Quess.
Workers have been previously mistreated at Ashoka University in similar ways. In 2020, workers faced numerous issues with respect to forced resignations, overdue salaries, injuries and so on. When workers resigned, many of their records were cleared, removing any experience that would have qualified them for promotions over hiring new management. Currently, when they ask for promotions or salary increments, they are told to accept the transfers.
The management has informed them that they will not receive university support or salaries in times of medical emergencies. The Democracy Collective and the Employee Welfare Committee recommend that the university improve working conditions for the safety of workers and take responsibility for their medical treatments and finances with help extending to their families in a documented manner. Although the university does have a Workers’ Welfare Committee, it comprises admin members, faculty, and a single member of the student body who was appointed by the 6th House of Representatives in December 2020. The committee does not have members elected by the workers and thus is not representative of their interests. The WWC claims to solely be a “consultative and deliberative body” to provide recommendations without a redressal mechanism, and the only way a worker can register their grievances at the moment is via a toll-free number and an email address.
Note: A member of the Democracy Collective and the Employee Welfare Committee pointed out how student involvement is necessary to effectively address workers’ issues and mentioned a WhatsApp group for students to join and initiate action for concerns they may have noticed regarding workers’ issues.