A recent workshop on occupational health hazards and workers’ safety issues organized by the People’s Training and Research Centre (PTRC) in Ahmedabad fond high inertia in Gujarat officialdom towards the victims of occupational diseases and accidents. A report based on minutes of the workshop prepared by PTRC’s Jagdish Patel:
The International Labour Organization has estimated that as many as 23.4 lakh workers die ever year as a result of occupational diseases and accidents in the world. Of these, 3.21 lakh deaths occur as a result of accidents while the rest of the workers – 20.2 lakh – die after suffering from one occupational disease or another. This suggests that the number of those who die as a result of occupational diseases is seven times higher than those who die because of accidents while on work. Despite such a grievous situation, a report on a workshop held in Ahmedabad on occupational health and safety has regretted that in India the state of affairs of occupation health hazards is particularly bad, as there is no record of workers who become victims of an occupational disease or an accident while on work at places other than factories, mines, railways, ports and construction sites. Nor is there any legal provision to safeguard the occupational health of the category of workers who do not fall in these sectors.
Based on a workshop by People’s Training and Research Centre (PTRC), Vadodara, the report, “Occupational Health and Safety: New Initiative by Workers’ Organizations”, regrets that the situation is particularly pitiable with regard to factories and mines where less than 10 workers work. Here, even the legal provisions related to occupational health and safety do not apply. Then, there is the case of more than of 50 per cent of the total workforce in India which works in primary sector occupations like agriculture and animal husbandry. “There is no legal provision to safeguard the occupational health of these workers”, said Jagdish Patel of the PTRC, which organized the workshop and prepared the report, adding, “Nor do legal provisions on occupational health and safety apply on those who work in such fields like education, health, communication, transport and financial service.” The result is, “there are no authentic data available in India on those who become victims of occupational health hazard. Nor is there any effort to provide healthcare facilities to those who suffer. The workers who become victims find themselves cornered, and are pushed out of the labour market.”
Held with the participation of representatives of voluntary organizations, workers’ trade unions and government officials, a few shop floor workers, too, took part in the workshop in order to relate the ground level realities. Representatives from Vadodara, Rajkot, Ahmedabad, Surat, Halol and Suprapad (Junagadh district) especially narrated their experiences. The workshop was told that in Gujarat there have been several people’s movements in the past to fight against the system that has refused to recognize occupational health hazard. These include protests by workers of the Ahmedabad Electricity Company, by textile mill workers’ for healthcare and compensation to those who suffered from byssinosis, by Alembic workers for those who suffered from silicosis, by Hema Chemicals workers for those who suffered from the poisonous chromium gas, and by Khambhat workers for those who work in the agate industry. There have also been workers’ movements for the safety of the workers doing work in hazardous jobs in Alang Shipbreaking Yard, or in ginning factories in Kadi. Sharp demands for compensation to the victims of accidents have been raised.
“There have been cases when those who suffered from accidents in the construction sector went in for violent agitations. Instances of this were reported from the construction sites of Adanis and Larsen & Toubro. The situation is particularly serious in Gujarat here. The places where benzene is produced have not reported any instances of cancer. Yet there have been reports of seven workers having become victims of cancer in the diamond industry in Surat, where benzene is used in small bottles”, the report, prepared by Jagdish Patel, stated, adding, “The owners of the closed asbestos units of Mumbai have had to pay Rs 3 crore in compensation to those who suffered from the occupational disease asbestosis. The stone quarry workers in Rajasthan, who suffered from silicosis, were provided with compensation of Rs 3 lakh each following an intervention from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Yet, the Gujarat government has stiffly refused to implement any such NHRC ruling.”
The report said that during the workshop, Bandhkam Majur Sangathan’s Vipul Pandya particularly stressed on the pitiable condition of tribal migrants of Gujarat. Nearly 70 per cent of those who work at the construction sites in Gujarat – whether they are roads, bridges, or dwelling units – are adivasis. He said, “In our estimate, there are around 15 lakh such tribal workers in Gujarat. These workers face major issues with regard to the safety. The state government has no authentic information of how many of these workers die as a result of accidents. We obtained figures from the state’s police stations, and the police records have registered 100 to 125 tribal workers dying each year due to accidents while on work at construction sites.”
Pandya added, “There are huge problems in compensating these workers, as they are all migrants from far off places. In Vadodara, a 15-year-old teenager’s hand had to be amputated after he was electrocuted, and the case of his compensation remains pending till date. In 1996, construction workers were brought under legal provisions of occupational health and safety. It is the job of the officials of the Gujarat industrial safety and health department to ensure that such cases are properly compensated. But whenever we approach the department, officials complain of lack of staff. Indeed, there is total inertia in the officialdom to implement legal provisions for the safety of the workers. Even court orders are not implemented. Workers’ claims for compensation continue for many years, and when the court orders compensation, the contractor disappears. It is necessary that there should be a provision of interim relief to the victims till court cases are settled.”
The report points towards how effectively have safety committees in big industries like Reliance Industries Ltd’s IPCL plant in Vadodara and General Motors plant in Halol worked. In these factories, workers are even asked whether such safety committees work in other industrial units. There was a general view at the workshop that often accidents are sought to be suppressed by factory owners. Company representatives investigate and seek to blame accidents on workers. A member of workers’ union should be part of such investigation committees, it was suggested, as without this no investigation report can be declared as concluded. “There have been cases when union representatives alone have helped conclude investigations in an objective manner”, the report states.
Referring to a protest action in a chemical factory in Sutrapada, Junagadh district, in which 750 workers were on strike for more than 40 days, participating in the workshop, Bharat Pathak, said, “When the workers return from work, they become simply unrecognizable, thanks to the type of chemicals used in the factory. In this factory, the workers are not even paid minimum wages. They are all at contractors’ mercy. The contractors collect workers’ pay from the factory management, and hand over just a part of it as wages. In case workers protest, they are refused entry into the factory.” A workers’ representative from Sutrapada, Chandubhai Pathak, related how workers are not paid any wages in case they remain absent on account of illness. And if there is accident, the company simples does not even take note of it. “Even 25 years after the company’s existence, the workers tare paid a daily wage of Rs 125 per day”, he added.
Giving a gist of demands put forward up workers’ organizations in Gujarat to the Government of India to overcome issues related with occupational health safety, the report states, these are: (1) All workers in every sector should be covered under health security, (2) The government must accept the ILO Convention 155 by coming up with a law to safeguard all those who suffer from occupational health hazard, (3) The list of occupations mentioned in factories Act’s Schedule-II should be reviewed and necessary changes should be included in it, and (4) The list of the Schedule-III of the Employees Insurance Scheme (ESI) should be reviewed and necessary changes should be brought about in the ESI Act to help workers.