Union cards free cremation workers from police intimidation
Union identity cards have put a stop to police harassment of cremation workers, according to Allahasami, the Cremation Workers’ Union President. Since joining the Tamil Nadu Labour Union (TNLU) these illiterate workers asked for – and designed themselves – a union membership card.
The cremation workers carry these ID cards at all times as a safeguard against police intimidation and harassment.
At a field meeting with UnionAid Executive Chair Ross Wilson, a crowd of at least fifty workers sheltering from the rain under a spreading banyan tree flourished their ID cards with obvious pride. For them, the card is not only proof of union membership but a concrete symbol of their new status as human beings.
In a country where the majority of Dalit and Tribal workers suffer gross exploitation and discrimination, cremation workers are considered the “most oppressed” of all. Born into the job, these people languish at the bottom of a caste system which imposes a rigid occupational hierarchy on all Hindus. Because they deal with dead bodies, cremation workers are considered dirty and ‘untouchable’. Traditionally they had to beat drums to warn higher caste people of their approach because even their shadows were thought to contaminate anyone they touched.
In spite of their critical importance to the community, rural cremation workers have often not been paid for their labour or for the fuel to burn the bodies. Instead, they had to go from house to house to beg for food and materials.
Today, through the UnionAID project, union organising and collective action has changed the lives of these cremation workers. Those in authority now listen to their demands and treat them with dignity. They are no longer beaten or harassed. They are now paid a small monthly wage by the village council, and they can afford to send their children to school. Like parents everywhere their hopes are that education will give their children the choices and opportunities that they have never had.