The Hidden Story of Mess Workers

Behind every meal prepared in each hostel mess, there is a story; the story of the mess workers. When we began enquiring about the nature of employment of workers in the hostel messes, certain government mess managers claimed that most of the workers are employed here on a temporary basis. These workers are paid much less than workers who were permanent employees in the mess, and are also denied benefits of housing, schooling and medical facilities given by the government to its permanent employees. At first, we found this difference startling, and set out to find the reason for this difference.

We spoke to Prof Anindya Dutta, the current Chairman of HCU and Prof Prakash Gopalan, who was the HCU chairman when significant changes were made in the institute’s policy regarding mess workers.

Mess workers were never directly employed by the institute. They are employees of the respective hostels in which they work. This type of employ­ment had its roots in the 1970’s, and back then, there was no documented record of these mess workers. No one knew how long a mess worker had been working for. Sometime in the late 1970’s, mess workers were made permanent and given the benefits of a government employee.

In 1999, when Prof. Prakash Gopalan became the HCU Chairman, he found that there was a dispropor­tionately large number of mess employees in every hostel. The institute previously followed a policy of stipulating the number of mess workers in each hostel. They had agreed that for every 20 students, there would be 1 attendant employed as well as 5 cooks for a typical hostel strength of 250 students.

Due to the non-stop hiring by hostel councils, there were eventually 75 mess workers in addition to the number stipulated by the institute policy. It was decided at that time, that the institute would not recognize any more mess workers than those who were already present, including these 75. This decision adhered to the directive of the MHRD which stipulated that no new hirings of employ­ees in the Category ‘D’ be taken. Further, it was decided that these 75 workers, who were above the threshold set by the institute, would be retained on a temporary basis, and a list based on their senior­ity was made. These workers were then made

permanent when another permanent worker retired, based on their seniority.It is noteworthy that no worker was asked by the institute to leave his employment during this period. Only much later, some workers in H10 were asked to transfer to private contractors when the mess was privatized.

In 2009, 28 workers from this list remained tempo­rary. At that time, after some struggle, the institute managed to get these workers under the umbrella of the HCU (as opposed to being employees of a hostel) and all these mess workers were made permanent. This move aided the privatization of some messes, by transferring the mess workers to other hostels.

Subsequently, after 1999, all mess workers hired at the hostel level were not recognized by the institute. Such mess workers work on a daily wage basis, where they are paid the minimum stipulated wage of the Government. As of today, there around 30 mess workers in all hostels with government run messes, with 18 of them in H11, working on a daily wage.

The institute is moving towards a day when all messes are run by private contractors, and all the labour in these messes are handled by the contrac­tors themselves. The temporary workers currently working in hostels work with the hope that they may in time be made permanent employees. On humani­tarian grounds, it seems unfair, not to mention unethical, to deny some mess workers job security and subject them to the harsh reality of daily wage earning. To elaborate, theses workers are constantly under threat of being laid off or put on leave. In addition to that they are not entitled to the same employment benefits as the permanent employees. One wonders whether you or I, as contributors to 70% of these mess workers’ salaries and as prag­matic individuals, would have framed a different

policy had we been the policymakers?