How Many Workplace Disasters Will We See Before Workers Have Security and Dignity
Date : 19-May-2022
New Delhi: The recent fire at a commercial building in Mundka, West Delhi District, is a tragedy and a crime. The bodies of 27 people have been identified, with many more still missing. These were workers in a CCTV manufacturing and packaging unit. ActionAid Association mourns the deaths and is shocked by the insecure working conditions forced on workers. However, Mundka is the latest incident in a series of workplace disasters that our working people have endured and the risk they continue to face.
In the year 2022 also, India has witnessed multiple cases of workplace deaths. The year started with the death of 4 workers in a fire-cracker factory in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, on 1st January. In the same month, six workers died due to a gas leak at a chemical plant in Surat, Gujarat. Then, in March, 11 migrant workers from Bihar were killed after a fire broke out at a godown in Secunderabad, Telangana. As per information provided by the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment to the Parliament last year, from 2014 to 2018, more than 5,600 people died in factory settings. However, many trade unions and workers’ organisations have called this highly under-reported. In addition, many deaths due to workplace accidents are reported differently due to various legal provisions.
For a country known to have had the world’s worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984, we do not seem to have learnt any lessons and have not become sensitive to the need to protect the right of workers, especially informal workers.
The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (OSH) Code, 2020, like all other new Labour Codes, are still to be implemented as none of the states of India, even several months after enactment, have implemented the required rules. While there are gaps in the current labour laws, additional delays in finalising rules have led to severe denials of workers’ rights, including deaths of workers. However, it is to be noted that although the new OSH Code is yet to be implemented, similar regulations have been in place for a long time. Therefore, India needs better implementation and compliance with existing and new regulations.
Another cause of concern related to India’s patchy record of workplace safety is the race to the bottom among India’s states to attract private investments – both foreign and domestic. In 2015, the Government of Maharashtra introduced an official order that stated that specific factories and establishments could self-certify their compliance related to labour and other workplace regulatory standards. This was done to simplify the conduct of business, and various other state governments have now followed this model. Even the 2020 OSH Code gives the appropriate government the power to exempt any establishment for a certain period. Further, it enables the state government to exempt any new factory from its provision to create more economic activity and employment.
In India, we need to focus on ensuring compliance with regulatory standards and not just providing exemptions for short-term economic gains. We need more proactive checks and inspections. It is high time that India ratifies the ILO Convention 155 – Occupational Safety and Health, 1981.
We need to ensure decent work standards for every worker in India, or else the number of workplace accidents will continue to rise. Workers need to be able to assert their rights and ensure the implementation of employers’ obligations. We need to strengthen mechanisms that allow workers to register their workplace safety complaints to the regulators directly. If the government cannot carry out regular inspections of workplace standards, trade unions have to be made equal partners in compliance and audit self-certification processes.
Sandeep Chachra, Executive Director of ActionAid Association (India), says, “Incidents like the tragic Mundka fire again underscore the “wage slavery” conditions that most workers, especially informal workers, live in our country. The continuing re-occurrence of such incidents shows the shamelessness of employers are violating crucial legal, social and moral expectations of providing all their employees with a safe working environment. This also indicates the blind eye and the deaf ear that not just employers but administrations, governments, and society display toward workers’ precarity. While our criminal justice system should deal with these tragic incidents, we need to take concrete steps to transform workers’ lives in India. Three basic steps need to be taken to change social and government mindsets on workers. Firstly we should enact a National Law Guaranteeing Dignified Employment to All. Secondly, recognising that the large mass of informal labour who are reduced to being “wage hunters and gatherers” are caused by the crisis in agriculture and rural areas, we need to revive the stalled agenda of land reform and rebuild rural economies with a focus on serving small farmers and landless labour. Finally, we need to revitalise the spirit of cooperation and the solidarity economy to give more workers and farmers the option of being owners of their own collective industrial and agricultural enterprise. How many more industrial and workplace disasters must India see and workers face before they can access security, dignity and decent work and be celebrated as the makers of India’s future.”
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