Food forms the basic necessity for all living beings. Food shapes our body and provides energy to do our daily chores. That is why it comes first in the list of our basic needs – food, cloth and shelter. Prolonged hunger destabilizes a person and turns him into a savage. Food is an antidote to such a cruel disease called hunger.
The art of cooking processes meats, vegetables and cereals that are the gifts of nature into tasty food acceptable to the stomach. Culinary art, which began when human beings started appreciating the difference between raw meat and the one roasted in fire, has now grown to gigantic proportion. The cooking workers form the prop roots of this massive growth.
Mothers bring up their children by initially suckling them and later feeding them with cooked food. It is only women who feed humans, right from the patriarchal slave societies to the modern capitalist era. Now, cooking workers represent the unrecognized slave labour of mothers and women.
Starting from the push cart stalls & street side food stalls, tea shops, snack shops, restaurants of all sizes to the dining halls in hotels, factories, plants, hospitals, colleges the labour of cooking workers is omnipresent in the community. Without the labour of these faceless workers cleaning vessels, cutting vegetables, rinsing grains and meat, cooking themselves along with food, serving food on the tables, washing plates, cleaning kitchens and dining rooms, the life and motion of today’s society is not possible.
Many of us live a life of ignorance about the importance of the labour of these lakhs of workers who cook food and serve our hunger. Each bite of food we eat outside contains their labour, whereas those who keep us fed lead a life of semi starvation without enough income.
Those who work in restaurants, or with private contractors or freelance cooking workers number around 10 lakh in Tamilnadu. As workers in unorganized sector they get no social or legal security. In particular, for those who work in hotels and restaurants, there is no defined working hours. In stead of 8 hours, for around 17 grueling hours (from 6 in the morning to 11 in the night) per day the work is extracted from them. They may rest their limbs and body a little bit during their quick meals in the morning, after-noon and night. In the absence of any minimum salary law for them, they are paid measly sums as wages. In particular, the servers, who need to face the anger of their hungry clients and do the tiring routine of serving the tables, are paid even less with the excuse of them getting some tips from their clients. Free shelter and free left-over food give another important reasons for the owners to pay them less.
These workers, under extreme exploitation of meager pay and timeless work, are not accorded any social security like job permanency, ESI, PF, pension, etc. With their meager income, it is extremely difficult for them to pay for the ever-increasing household expenses and other essentials like education to their children, health care, etc. Many hotel workers live a nomadic life, working in different cities and are thereby unable to have a normal life of marriage and family .
In this scenario, employing immigrant workers from northern states in these food establishments is on the raise. It is mostly young boys below 18 years who are engaged in cleaning work in tea shops, washing plates in hotels, wiping tables, washing vessels and cleaning the premises. Their life is maintained at the misery of working beyond any time limit without any objection and getting a miserly wage (Rs 150 per day). Parents subject their school going children to humiliating work of dish-washing mostly because they are in such a poverty that the whole family including the young ones have to work in order to be able to meet the expenses.
More than 90% of those who work in this sector are below-poverty village people running away from poverty. They don’t have a regular job. In a year, they get only around 100 to 120 days of work. Only with income from this limited work, they trudge the year in semi-starvation.
Similarly, all over Tamilnadu, there are around 68,000 noon-meal centers and 35,000 child care centers. Around 2.5 lakh employees work in these centers. The employees, working in these centers established by the government for giving children nutritious noon-meal, are paid a measly sum as salary. These workers are continuously fighting for their just demands like filling vacancies, making their jobs permanent, increasing their salary and giving them promotions.
There are also thousands of workers working in near bondage condition with no rights whatsoever in canteens of the universities and colleges under the grip of private educational robbers. These money sharks, who rob the parents in crores in the guise of educational fees, exploit their canteen workers fully by paying them miserly sums and denying them any legal employment benefits.
On continuous exposure to the smoke and working day and night without enough sleep, many workers fall prey to deadly diseases like Asthma. Due to hard physical labour like washing big vessels, their body soon becomes weak and thereby they soon reach a condition of no longer being able to do this job. As there are no benefits accorded to them like gratuity and pension they are directly pushed into the poverty, when they lose this job.
The life of those who cook us delicious food is full of bitterness. Foregoing sleep and getting themselves cooked in the kitchen, their lives are in constant simmer. The governments in center and state that are purported to be caretakers of the citizens deny the legal rights of the workers and serving the capitalists.
Now, the order to these workers is to wipe their lives clean of exploitation and cook a new world for the entire working class. The recipe is to organize themselves, ally with other exploited and working people and wage street battles in order to demolish the anti-people state structure that treats us with contempt.
Translated from Tamil – article published in Puthiya Thozhilali, December 2016
Translated by : Nesan
(Images – from the WWW)