Cremation workers continue their struggle
Meenakshi never chose the life of a cremation worker. Her husband was born into the job due to his caste and when he died 25 years ago, the responsibility for cremation work in her village and surrounding area fell to Meenakshi and her brother.
“When we are doing cremation work we are facing so much trouble. We are ill-treated, during the cremation work sometimes people used to hit my brother. Also, it is not easy to burn the body, we always have to supervise it, have to keep getting logs again and again just to keep it going. So we wish we could do some other occupation, but we do this cremation work and we don’t have any other options.”
Hopeful for a better life and more respect from people living in her community, Meenakshi joined the Mayana Vettiyangal Sangam (Cremation Workers Union) when it was established by UnionAID’s partner, the Tamil Nadu Labour Union (TNLU), ten years ago. Since then she has learnt about her rights as a worker and been elected as one of the union’s leaders, responsible for taking their demands to the highest levels of government in Tamil Nadu.
“I felt so happy and so proud that I could represent the cremation workers. After we went and gave our requests to the government, we were registered as a union and issued ID cards as cremation workers, this was the first step. The next thing was that we got these basic facilities, a water tank, shelter over the cremation site and a pathway through the grass so we are safe from snakes.”
While the union has helped Meenakshi and thousands of other cremation workers gain better facilities, have their legal rights as workers recognised and, in some cases, increase their income through bargaining, there remains much more to do.
The pay for many cremation workers, particularly those in rural areas, remains extremely low, in some cases as little as NZ$1.50 for the 24 hours it takes to perform the cremation. Furthermore, few of the rural cremation workers have access to adequate social benefits such as free healthcare, subsidised housing or grants to help with their children’s education.
Over the next three years UnionAID and the TNLU will be supporting the Mayana Vettiyangal Sangam to strengthen its advocacy on behalf of cremation workers. This will include training on labour rights, leadership and gender equality for members as well as a campaign for the government to establish a welfare board to provide social benefits to cremation workers, particularly in rural areas. As Meenakshi and others know it is not easy to tackle deeply rooted caste based discrimination. But by working in union they have already achieved some important changes and, with the renewed support of UnionAID and the TNLU they hope to achieve the decent work and dignity they deserve.