Of Dirty Clothes and Lost Incomes

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Last year, the Board for Student Publications had launched a series titled Humans of IITD, wherein we talked to people whose work on campus makes our lives easier. This included guards, shop-owners, support staff and many more.

An important aspect though, we missed. They were the Dhobis of IIT. These washermen and their families have been catering to IIT’s cloth cleaning needs for as many as two decades. Business was good and they made enough money to ensure their sustenance, but all that is now changing thanks to the opening of the X-Press Laundromat.  

The laundromat was started this year at IIT Delhi, to provide a quick and cheap way for students to get their laundry done. The BHM had conducted a survey of 1150 students across hostels to understand how students get their clothes cleaned. The results are shown in the pie chart. The data clearly indicates that a large chunk of students (~80%) used washing machines within the hostels or made arrangements for themselves to get their clothes cleaned. More than 80% of the respondents also welcomed the idea of a laundromat service that would pick up, wash, dry, iron and return their clothes within a day. It was this data that encouraged the then BHM committee to explore the possibility of the setting up of an industrial laundromat to cater to students’ laundry needs. While the BHM was aware of the impact on the livelihoods of the washermen that this could lead to, the student’s convenience and demands were of their paramount concern. Difficulty in the maintenance of washing machines in hostels also contributed to this step.

X-Press Laundromat was started by an alumni of IIT Indore, and currently operates in 3 colleges. In IIT Delhi, they have 3 fully functional machines for the purposes of washing and drying clothes. The facility employs 2 managers and 14 workers. They are responsible for picking and dropping off clothes, washing them and ironing them. These employees work in shifts. The laundromat business policy guarantees that clothes have to be returned in a 24 hour period. Per day, around 60-70 slots are received, ranging from individual clothes to bulk loads. The average cost for a batch of clothes is about Rs 100.   

The operators of the laundromat also said that most of their business comes from Karakoram, Aravalli, Kumaon, Nilgiri, Vindhyachal and the A1 Block apartments. However, they now wish to attract more customers from other hostels through setting up registration desks.  

In contrast, there are 6 washermen on campus, operating from different locations and catering to different hostels. It is important to note that they are not staffed by IIT, but are permitted to operate within the campus. A few of them and their families have been operating within campus for decades. We talked to a few washermen to understand how business has been hit after the opening of the laundromat.  

Mr. Sunil Kumar operates in Jwalamukhi and Girnar, visiting each hostel on alternate days in the evening to collect and return clothes of the residents. Before the laundromat was opened, his business reached around a hundred clothes per visit, which has now dwindled to around 25-30 clothes. He also stated that Jwalamukhi gave more business to him than Girnar, perhaps due to the greater number of undergraduate students there. He used to employ one boy to help him out, but had to remove him recently due to loss of business. His earnings from each hostel stood at around 12000 rupees per month, which has seen a sharp fall to about 2500. Mr. Kumar also stated that he does not get any business from faculty. He is now considering leaving IIT after working here for the past 20 years, and hopes that the administration will provide him an experience certificate so that he may get a higher paying job somewhere else.

The washerman family operating from behind Nilgiri caters to the laundry needs of Karakoram and Zanskar. There is no employee outside their family. They used to earn around 1200 to 1300 rupees per day previously, but this has fallen to around 300 rupees after the laundromat opened. The volume of clothes has fallen drastically. Previously, it took them two days to clean an entire lot, but now two hours are sufficient. The family has been operating in IIT for the past 5 decades, but says they had no one to go to for help.

The BSP recently conducted a survey to bring your attention to this issue and gauge your opinions. Here are a few key takeaways:

  1. Currently, a major fraction (~43%) of the poll takers turn to the X-Press Laundromat, in order to get their clothes washed and ironed, while a small percent (~13%) still take aid from the washermen that visit the hostels; the rest (~38%) use washing machines that are present in their hostels.  
  2. A majority(~53%) of the responses feel that laundromat provides significantly better quality of service in contrast to the services provided by washermen, while a third(~33%) of the poll takers feel the services provided by the Laundromat are at par with the services provided by washermen.
  3. The laundromats’ success can primarily be attributed to its better delivery period compared to the frequency of washer men. The option of bulk wash that Laundromat provides makes it significantly cheaper, as the washer men give no such choice and have similar rates for both large and small clothes. This cost gap is even wider for the winter clothes. Mr. Mayank Gupta, the incumbent General Secretary of the BHM stated that on an average, a student can end up paying almost twice as much to the washermen for a lot of clothes than to the laundromat.
  4. There are complaints regarding the quality of washing and ironing of clothes that have been given to the washermen.
  5. Students do seem to be willing to pay marginally higher costs to the washermen than the laundromat to help sustain their livelihoods. This is contingent upon an improvement in quality and reduction in service time. However, this may unintendedly push students further away from the services of the washermen due to the higher prices.
  6. A large chunk of our respondents felt that the only significant advantage of the laundromat was the bulk wash policy and the 24 hour guarantee, which ensured quick delivery. If the washermen can provide this, students would be happy to use their services.

Our respondents felt that in order compete with the laundromat, the washermen need to stress on punctuality and frequency, along with providing lower rates than currently asked for by the washermen. There has been an emphasis on the need to reduce the time taken by washermen to return the washed clothes and delivery system, where the Laundromat takes the lead with 24 hour policy and the doorstep delivery system.   

We also contacted Mr. Apoorv Mittal, the founder of the X-Press Laundromat. He was empathetic to this endeavour. His company has set up a washerman cooperation system in previous setups in other colleges. X-Press is willing to provide employment to these washermen, which would bring them into the organised sector and provide them with an increased income. Mr. Devesh Jain, Ex-General Secretary of the BHM said that the board would be happy to consider this solution to alleviate the financial woes of the washermen.

Over the course of our research on this issue, we have come across a few possible ways in which the economic interests of the washermen can be preserved. They are as follows:

  1. The washermen can be employed by IIT on a contractual basis, which will ensure a steady income stipulated by said contract. Their job would be to cater to the laundry needs of faculty and staff that resides in campus. Additionally, students who wish to use their services may do so as well. Any additional money earned by these washermen from their customers will be theirs to keep. This can be accompanied by their formal induction under the ambit of the BHM, which will ensure good and timely service.
  2. As mentioned previously, X-Press Laundromat has shown willingness to provide employment to the washermen and their families. Increase in the laundromat’s business would mean that they would need greater resources and employees. This is where the washermen could  Of course, this is only feasible if this employment can provide the washermen more than what they already earn.
  3. A co-operative business arrangement may be brokered between the laundromat and the washermen which sees them distributing IIT’s laundry needs equitably. For example, delicate clothes can be hand-washed by the washermen, while bulk loads can be catered to by the laundromat.

The administration’s primary concern, rightly so, is the convenience of the students. A lot of our respondents called our attention to how it is not IIT’s responsibility to attend to this issue. The aim of this article is two-pronged. To bring the situation of the washermen to the notice of IIT’s community and administration, and to attempt to search for a socially optimal solution. If any step can help alleviate the financial woes of the washermen without compromising the convenience of the students or imposing any unfair restrictions on the laundromat, we would have done our job. We thus request our readers to send in any ideas or comments they may have pertaining to this situation and we will forward the same to the concerned authorities.

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