Janitorial services in Govt. medical facilities: Questions raised over exploiting workers

by Suresh Perera

With a staggering Rs. 6 billion allocated annually for janitorial services in 60 state-run medical facilities, critical questions have surfaced whether some private sector companies entrusted with the task pay a decent daily wage to their workers and also honor statutory EPF/ETF commitments.

The multi-million rupee bids, which complied with the stipulated criteria, were cleared by the Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) and the Tender Board and awarded for 2015 recently. This followed the formal go-ahead by the Health Secretary in adherence with accepted procedure, medical officials said last week.

With billions of rupees involved, the contracts for manpower companies in the cleaning service business, translate into big bucks, more so because many of them don’t pay the quoted daily wage and neither do they honor other statutory commitments to their labor force, the officials asserted.

The deals are so enormous that the National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL) alone spends more than Rs. 50 million per annum on janitorial services from these private sector suppliers, they said. "As the contractors are considered a cartel, they maintain a tight grip on the system and maximize profits".

In terms of their agreements, the manpower suppliers are under obligation to pay a stipulated daily wage of Rs. 600 per worker plus all other dues in keeping with the country’s labor laws, they explained. "But, more often than not, it doesn’t happen that way".

Deliberately trimming the figures, the companies make a big kill from the manpower they provide by paying a daily wage of Rs. 400 (instead of Rs. 600 in terms of the contractual agreement), while also denying statutory benefits to the workers. Overall, this works out to an enormous saving for the contractors, the officials claimed.

This is outright exploitation as even an estate worker is paid a Rs. 550 daily wage, they pointed out. "Hospital laborers do a far more difficult menial job".

Prospective bidders generally take into account three key factors – labor, chemicals and utensils/equipment required for janitorial services. While undertaking to honor all labor-related commitments such as the stipulated wage and EPF/ETF dues, they should also be certified as VAT, NBT and income tax payers, they elaborated.

As it is customary to award tenders to the "lowest bidder", it has become the general pattern for players in the business to quote ridiculously unrealistic rates for chemicals and utensils/equipment, the officials pointed out. "For example, they quote fifty rupees per bottle of disinfectant and thirty rupees for a broomstick with the objective of qualifying by keeping the value of the tenders low".

Health officials cited the example of the Angoda Mental Hospital, where a company which has been providing janitorial services for the past nine years was ousted by a supplier offering around-the-clock services, as is the practice, for a mere Rs. 125,000 per month. The difference between the two tenders was Rs. 600,000.

This company had failed in its bid for a major hospital in a Colombo suburb, but had secured the Angoda contract through a ridiculously low tender, they asserted. "With such impractical pricing, how can they honor workers’ commitments?"

The edging out of the longstanding company saw an infuriated senior hospital administrator firing across a letter protesting against the intervention of low costing to sideline a contractor who had done a solid job over the years.

Rehabilitation measures for the inmates had also suffered a blow as the former company had been trained in patient-care strategies – a vital component when dealing with persons with mental illnesses, they stressed.

At the end of the day, when bids are awarded on the basis of the "lowest" factor the tendency is more towards using heavily diluted disinfectants in hospitals thereby posing the threat of infections and substandard utensils failing to ensure proper cleanliness, medical officials noted.

In a salutary move, NHSL Director, Dr. Anil Jasingha had said a firm ‘no’ to an underperforming contractor selected by TEC as the "lowest bidder". He made use of the provision where the head of the medical institution could make recommendations, to oppose awarding the bid to a company with a poor reputation, they said.

Two particular manpower companies – one closely linked to a relative of a provincial political bigwig – continue to bounce back despite complaints of low wages and dishonoring statutory payments due to what officials described as the "right connections".

It is common knowledge that certain politicians and health sector panjandrums are backing some suppliers, who surprisingly continue to be awarded the bids year after year despite the ongoing exploitation of workers, they charged.

A particular contractor against whom action had been filed for non-payment of EPF/ETF continues to be awarded the bid for janitorial services in a major hospital in the electorate of a key politician, they asserted.

"We are aware that many bidders don’t honor these statutory requirements", acknowledged a Health Ministry official. ‘There may be some companies making these mandatory payments, but one can be definite there is no 100% compliance".

It is left to the Labor Ministry to deal with this situation by bringing to book such errant employers who openly flout the law, she said. "This is an aspect which has made our job formidable".

As many of these contractors supply manpower to private sector companies as well, they submit documentation to show they pay all workers’ dues, the official explained. "We have become the whipping boy in the absence of labor department supervision to prevent exploitation".

"We do supervise these manpower companies, but there exists practical problems in keeping a close tab as these are casual workers", a senior Labor Department official interjected.

"At times, the names we come across today are missing the following month as these people keep on moving in and out", he said. "We are doing our part and companies which default on statutory dues will be prosecuted".

"Without passing the buck, there should a joint strategy to rope in violators as they are exploiting poor workers", medical officials suggested. "It is not a big deal to keep constant tab on the few companies – a virtual cartel — in this business".

There are six Health Ministry evaluation committees headed by DDGs and senior assistant secretaries, but there seems to be no proper technicality in the process, they said. "It’s a matter of looking at the guidelines and awarding a tender if a prospective bidder fits in and is the lowest down the line".

What is called for at this juncture is quality service and not a shoddy job by bidders who wittingly keep tender values low to fit into the system, they stressed. "Otherwise, service standards will continue to suffer while contractors cut corners to rake in hefty profits".

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