Families of six workers who worked in a shoe factory in Delhi’s Udyog Vihar, had to wait two days in front of the factory for the charred remains of victims of an industrial fire in the factory on June 23rd this year to be found. The fire broke out in a three-story building trapping 12 workers inside. It took 140 firefighters over six hours to control the fire, rescuing six while the other six died inside the building. On November 13, another fire broke out in a jacket manufacturing factory in Seelampur, Delhi. Five workers were rescued from inside the building. These are just two incidents from the many industrial accidents that have occurred in Delhi in the past year.
The Delhi Labour Commissioner’s last updated data on industrial accidents available in the public domain says that a total of 40 accidents took place in 2009. No new data has been published since then by the Delhi government.
Unofficial data, however, gives a more realistic picture on industrial accidents in Delhi. According to reports by IndustriALL Global Union, between 2014 and 2017, Delhi recorded 1,529 industrial accidents, the highest in the country. Delhi, being the capital, may have a higher number of accidents reported than other states.
Also, according to Indian Labour Statistics, there has been a rising trend in the number of fatal injuries from industrial accidents across the country every year from 1990 to 2014. In 2014, there were a total of 4499 industrial accidents according to official records. Out of these, 515 were fatal.
The Factories Act, 1948 defines industrial accidents as accidents occurring in factories that cause death or bodily injury that prevents the worker from working for 48 hours or more following the accident. According to various trade union leaders, most industrial accidents in Delhi involve fires from inflammable substances and injuries from power press machines. Small-scale manufacturing units such as shoe and bag factories, automobile factories and chemical factories are some of the most common accident sites.
Challenges with the new OSH Code
In 2020, trade unions across the country had come out in protest against the Occupational Safety, Health And Working Conditions Code (OSH Code), which parliament had passed while the country was reeling under the effects of the pandemic. The new Code replaced 13 existing labour laws with four new labour codes.
The OSH code applies only to establishments that have more than 10 workers if they have an official power connection, and more than 20 workers if they don’t. According to the Economic Census of 2016, industrial units employing 10 or more workers account for only 1.66% of the total such units in the non-agricultural sector, which in effect excludes a majority of establishments from the code’s coverage.
Curiously, while workers in these establishments are not covered by workplace safety laws, the labour department under the NDA government counts them in its employment data so that it can be recognized as job creation.
The Ministry of Labour and Employment claims that limiting the number of establishments under the ambit of the law would ensure ‘efficiency’ of inspection. However, even though the law applies only to a minuscule number of establishments, labour inspection remains inadequate.
According to Gopal Mishra from the Inquilabi Mazdoor Sangathan, a workers union that operates in Delhi’s Okhla industrial area, corruption is common among labour inspectors. Additionally, the total number of posts for labour inspectors is grossly inadequate, and recruitment for even these are not fully met.
“Currently, for 37,000 registered factories, the total number of posts for labour inspectors is less than 100, and only about 54 positions are currently filled,” says Mishra. “So the labour inspectors can’t work efficiently even if they want to”.
According to data from the British Safety Council, an organization dedicated to workplace safety, India has only one inspector for every 500 factories.
Workers in small establishments most vulnerable
Workers in unregistered small-scale factories are most vulnerable to industrial accidents since there is almost no administrative interference in their working conditions and owners are free to cut costs however they wish. Since the OSH code does not apply to small establishments, Mishra points out that many owners split their business into multiple small units to escape regulation.
“If 20 workers are working in a tiny room, eating there, cooking there, sleeping there, and dealing with inflammable substances within that space, it is not surprising when a fire breaks out”, Mishra says. “Such establishments are especially common in the Seelampur and Gandhinagar areas in Delhi. In many cases, the owner would probably have locked the establishment from outside so that no one finds out that people are working inside. Then when there is a fire, workers find themselves trapped inside”.
Delhi’s 2019 accident of a deadly fire that took the lives of 43 workers occurred in a building with only one entrance that got blocked by the factory’s materials and the workers were unable to get out.
“There are many factories which may be covered under the OSH code but the owners don’t get them registered,” said Animesh Das, the Delhi President of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions. “There is no punitive action against unregistered factory owners, so they simply avoid registration to cut costs”.
Umesh Kumar, who represents workers in labour law disputes as a part of the Delhi Dalit Mazdoor Vikas Sangathan, explains how large companies can escape accountability from the OSH code. “When a buyer comes to a factory, the owner ensures that the establishment appears to comply with the labour codes in order to secure the order,” said Umesh.
Workers are often given fake identity cards, Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) cards and are taught false statements that they are expected to say in front of the buyer. However, when it comes to the manufacturing process, the work is contracted and subcontracted to many smaller units, none of which comply with labour safety codes.
“The contractor may be there today and vanish tomorrow,” says Umesh. “The worker doesn’t even know who he is working for”. A report by Safe in India (SII) revealed a comment by the owner of a tier-2 manufacturing unit, on condition of anonymity: “We all prefer to hire contractual workers and not permanent employees at the shop floor level. This is done to bypass the various labour laws that are onerous and bureaucratic.”
What is clear is that labourers’ rights and safety are seen as inconveniences that factory owners constantly try to bypass. In fact, profit is the main driving force behind industrial accidents. Even though use of current technology can ensure prevention of industrial accidents in most cases.
“There are safety stoppers that automatically turn off the machine when a body-part comes in contact with it,” explains Mishra “This would eliminate machine-related accidents in so many industries. But owners simply don’t install these safety mechanisms by arguing that it will reduce the speed of production”.
Also, workers are often asked to work on power press machines despite them being under “maintenance”. Many workers reported to SII that fencing was not provided around the machines exposing them to danger.
To resolve the issues of unskilled labourers who work in pitiful conditions, factories were ordered to ensure registration and documentation of industrial workers. “Because workers are not registered, their disappearance or death makes no change,” says Mishra “Lack of documentation leads to no compensation. Most construction workers’ deaths are not even reported”.
“A large part of the workforce in Delhi consists of unregistered workers who are especially vulnerable and don’t have access to any methods of redressal,” adds Das “Most of them are migrants from poorer states like Bihar and belong to OBC and SC communities”.
According to the 2011 Census Data, nearly 40% of Delhi’s working population are migrants.
The self-registration process for workers is complex, and complicated further by the workers’ migrant status. Moreover, migrant workers who are employed through contractors often have little communication with other workers like themselves and find it difficult to put any collective pressure on employers.
Mishra further explained that compensation to workers of fixed base salary with performance-based incentives usually breaks down workers’ unity, since competition forces workers to push themselves and ignore their collective wellbeing. Being pushed to increase their speed and efficiency not only makes workers more vulnerable to accidents but they are also left without support when one occurs. According to the 2021 report by SII, 95% of the injured workers represented by them reported that they were not members of any union.
Lack of accountability
Earlier, labour inspectors were empowered to freely enter enterprises at any time for inspection without prior notice. This was hugely opposed by employers considering it a breach of their right to ownership. Subsequently, in the name of ease of doing business, the government dissolved these powers of a labour inspector by introducing a system of self-certification to gauge the factory’s compliance with labour laws.
Various state governments have experimented with the removal of labour inspectors entirely and introduced self-certification schemes to do away with the ‘inspector raj’, a misleading term that portrays labour inspectors as having much more enforcement power than they do. In 2014, Narendra Modi floated a similar scheme called the Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay Shramev Jayate Karyakram.
However, self-certification schemes have largely failed because companies do not want to certify on paper that they are abiding by all the labour laws.
The new OSH code further introduces ‘web-based inspections’. labour inspectors do not have the right to inspect an establishment without prior notice or as frequently as needed. This provides multiple avenues for non-compliance establishments to escape scrutiny. This comes at a time when inspection rates have steadily been declining across the country.
Also, even if an owner is found in violation of labour safety laws during an inspection, only a fine is levied and no criminal proceedings are initiated against the owner. Moreover, most industries do not reveal their OSH policies in the public domain to avoid accountability.
“Most cases of industrial accidents don’t come to us for representation,” says Kumar. “In the first stage itself workers are intimidated, threatened and manipulated by the police”. All the sources contacted by us agree that the police play a role of denial in cases of industrial accidents.
According to Kumar, when an accident occurs, the police start intimidating the worker about the complex procedure of seeking redressal and push them towards settling with the owner. In case of a severe accident, the employer sends local gundas and gets the worker’s signature in settlement agreements. The combined cost of bribing the police and paying a settlement to the worker is far less than the legal compensation due to them.
Mishra added that after such accidents, the employer simply satisfies the workers by paying part of the hospital bills to avoid paying the due compensation. The employers also resolve to treat victims in private hospitals to avoid documentation of the cause of injury/death.
“In my entire service with this workers union I have never seen an employer or manager punished for their crimes,” said Mishra. In a report by Safe in India (SII), one doctor at ESI hospital, Gurgaon says: “We attend to at least 1-2 workplace accident patients every day. Many of these patients suffer from accidents during night shifts and we, at times, do not have enough doctors to attend to patients during that time.”
Compensation and prevention
The legal procedure for obtaining compensation for industrial accidents is long and expensive, especially after a disabling injury when the worker is already out of work.
Kumar gives the example of a 19-year-old worker who migrated to Delhi to work and save for his higher education. Employed as a helper, he was asked to operate a machine when the machine operator did not show up for work. Working without any safety equipment or training, he lost fingers in both his hands while operating the machine.
“He was given a compensation of 16.5 lakh rupees,” said Kumar “But the injury had happened in 2016 and the relief order came only in 2021. This is because it takes a year for the challan hearing to take place, after the labour inspector submits the final report”.
Even in the cases when an order for compensation comes, the implementation of the order takes at least 1-2 years as the SDM office sends a notice to the management and waits for the management to pay. “Relief orders of crores of rupees are pending in the SDM office”, says Kumar.
In many cases, after the order for compensation comes, the management of the company may appeal to a higher court. While union leaders like Kumar represent workers free of cost or at very low cost in the labour court, only advocates can represent the worker at the High Court. “How can a worker who has suffered a disabling injury and is already out of work, afford an advocate to represent him?”, asks Kumar.
In exceptional cases of death resulting from an industrial accident reaching conviction, the owner is booked under Section 304(A), or culpable homicide, a bailable offence. “One of our main demands is that employers responsible for industrial deaths be booked under a non-bailable offence as there is no meaningful deterrent for industrial accidents at present”, says Das.
IFTU’s second main demand is that workers should be represented by the labour department in cases of industrial accidents.
According to the SII team, accidents can be prevented through initiatives that improve safety consciousness among workers as well as manufacturers. Better immediate post-accident treatment, a more effective ESI process, and a systemic process to identify appropriate roles for injured workers might help in improving the condition of workers.
Especially needed are necessary changes in labour codes and their implementation through advocacy and/or activism.