Why were the VH staff fired?

A silent solidarity march was taken out at 5:30 PM on 24th August 2017 in campus to protest against the dismissal of 72 workers (out of strength of 74) of the Visitors’ Hostel (VH). We decided to explore the matter in more depth and conversed with the Deputy Director, Prof. Manindra Agrawal.

As is known to everybody by now, the change of contract of the VH is the reason behind the layoff. The primary bone of contention between the two sides is the rationale behind the change and subsequent layoff of workers. While the protesting students and faculty believe that the services rendered by the workers have been consistently good, Prof. Agrawal informed us that the administration has received several complaints regarding the low quality of services and moreover, many workers have been found indulging in activities that were unbecoming of them. On asking for further details into these ‘activities’, Prof. Agrawal preferred not to divulge those details on a public platform. Thus, the motivation behind the change in tender was primarily based on quality of services.

To improve the services of the VH following the complaints, a committee was formed which decided to float a tender for the VH. Like every tender floated by the institute, open bids were invited and anybody was eligible to apply. In addition to the process followed, a team visited the facilities of the bidders to ensure that the services were up to the mark. The contract was finally awarded to Sarovar Hotels.

The agitators believe that even if the contractor had to be changed, there were no valid grounds for laying off the workers. The contractor could have started operations while retaining the old workers and the institute should have taken measures to ensure this. Prof. Agrawal believes that since the process of restarting services in the VH had been delayed, the contractor brought experienced workers with him to get things up and running as soon as possible. This in turn meant that most of the current workers would be unemployed starting 1st September, when the contractor is supposed to take charge. In parallel the contractor planned to conduct interviews which would continue for a certain period and the decision to retain workers would be made subsequently. This uncertainty of employment raised concerns among the community and in turn the Director instructed Sarovar hotels to speed up the interview process so that the interim period of unemployment can be reduced. But, it was inevitable that certain workers would find themselves without a job even after the process was completed, either due to incompetence or due to requirements of the new contractor. There have been some concerns regarding the interviews conducted by the contractor too, wherein the concerned community members believe workers were asked irrelevant questions which in no way could be used to decide their future employment. Prof. Agrawal informed us that those were informal interactions that the contractor decided to hold because he was visiting the campus and had some time on his hands. The formal interviews have commenced and a decision would be take based on these interactions.

To mitigate this problem of unemployment, the institute decided to train the laid off workers, at its own expense, in skills that would help them find employment elsewhere. The administration has also highlighted a favourable situation for the workers in the establishment of new messes where they may be able to find employment. The advantage is that working in hostel messes is not as demanding as lending services to the VH, so it is likely that even if they are unable to meet the standards of the VH, they would be accepted in the new environment.

The reason why the institute authorities are not willing to force the hand of the contractor into retaining the workers is quality of service. According to Prof. Agrawal, the administration does not want to give the contractor a reason to not deliver good quality services, which he would get if forced to work with the old staff. Cancellation of the contract, he believes would not be a possibility as it was done via proper procedure and there are no grounds to cancel it. As for the transparency of the tendering process, the institute already has a well defined, public procedure, he says.

An additional concern that has been raised is with regard to the contracts of the hall messes which are to be renewed soon. Concerned members of the community believe that there might be a possibility of hundreds of mess workers losing their jobs since a precedence is being set by the VH incident. Also, the argument of quality of service may be applied in the messes too and new deluxe restaurants might be given contracts. This introduces the possibility of old workers being fired for not meeting the quality criteria. To confirm these concerns we contacted Pratyush Rai, CoSHA convener. He negates this fear of firing off mess workers, as a deluxe restaurant can’t get the contract for the hostel messes as it will have a direct impact on the BDMR. Secondly, small and medium size contractors will have to pay for the relocation of the workers, which is not a sound idea considering the fact that mess establishment charge is also administered. Hence they will prefer to retain the existing mess workers. Pratyush further added that the mess workers are aware of their rights and the administration ensures that they receive the minimum wages. So, the concern about the job security of the mess workers is unfounded.

With each passing day, more concerns are being raised and there are still many unanswered questions in this debate. We will keep the readers updated about the proceedings.

Written by Anmol Chaman, Harshit Bhalla, Shashank Gupta, Simrat Singh, Tanmay Rao

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