Amidst an ever-increasing tally of industrial accidents in Gujarat, SHUBHAM KAUSHAL examines the flexibiIity with which conditions on workplace safety and occupational health are implemented in the state.
On March 16, 2021, the Labour and Employment Minister of Gujarat informed the State Assembly that within the last two years, 421 workers had lost their lives in 322 industrial accidents across the State. Out of this, 26 were reported from Ahmedabad.
This figure may easily be a gross underestimation since many minor accidents and injuries go unreported and are unrecorded. Nonetheless, the state has been incessantly witnessing gruesome industrial accidents and fires.
Recounting a recent few such incidents
On June 12, 2021, a massive fire broke out at an ink factory in Naroda, Ahmedabad, injuring three firemen as the fire spread to drums containing inflammable chemicals, causing a series of blasts.
On March 18, 2021, a boiler exploded in a plastic factory in the Vatva Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) area of Ahmedabad, for which 36 fire tenders had to be deployed.
On December 8, 2020 – another incident in Vatva GIDC – a fire outbreak in a dye manufacturing factory engulfed two adjacent chemical factories. The blaze raised panic in even far-off residential areas.
On November 4, 2020, a powerful explosion in a small chemical manufacturing unit in Narol, Ahmedabad, blew up the entire premises, collapsing the roof of its neighbouring units. 13 workers were buried alive.
On February 8, 2020, a fire broke out in Nandan Denim Limited’s factory in Narol, Ahmedabad. With only one exit serving the entire building, over 250 workers present at the time quickly found themselves trapped inside as flames engulfed the floor. At least seven deaths were reported, but locals claim the true fatalities to be far higher.
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Unsafe working conditions abound
These factory fires opened in the public imagination, a short window into the unsafe working conditions confronted by workers which are otherwise invisible. However, these hyper visible events only fleetingly expose the world within factories to public scrutiny. Purported actions of authorities address the visual and building aspects of compliance by bringing in, say, more fire exits and extinguishers, rarely focusing on the persistent lack of safe working conditions.
A study by the NGO Aajeevika Bureau titled “Looking Beyond Fire Extinguishers” from June 2021 shows how factory floor realities and unfair labour practices enable fire hazards and turn workplaces into sites for calamities. It was undertaken with the participation of a factory workers’ trade union, Karkhana Shramik Suraksha Sangh, and with workers employed in the large-sized textile factories of Narol, Ahmedabad.
It suggests shifting our gaze from exceptional circumstances to the daily unexceptional risks of labouring on the factory floor. Until this negligence is recognised and punished, such grisly incidents would continue unabated, it argues.
The textile industry in Narol relies on the cheap labour provided by migrant workers. Their socio-economic position makes them a malleable workforce and hence, desirable. The above-mentioned study finds that they are subjected to “flexibility” in employment (96% on casual or contractual, verbal terms), timings (reported erratic by 98%), social security enrolments (only 17% covered), payment of wages, working and living conditions.
The same flexibility, and even laxity, is also extended to occupational safety and health stipulations, which often result in enumerable injuries and fatalities. Workers are expected to acrobat on dangerous factory floors, the study found. 99% of them reported routine exposure to hazardous chemicals from spills found on the floor.
Irritation to the eyes and nose, burns on their hands and feet, and dyes buried deep into their finger and toe nails are common, where use of chemicals is involved. Workers also cited the unchecked generation of fabric dust in denim finishing work to be a major health concern. They cope by drinking chai to wash down these pollutants they regularly inhale.
Meeting unpredictable daily work targets set by their superiors demand that the workers have urgent access to inputs and materials. As a result, chemical drums, lorries loaded with thaans, tall stacks of packed ready garments are strewn across the floor, the corridors between machines and the doorways.
The insistence on finishing work orders and feeding machines 24×7 trumps the need for obstruction-free passages and emergency exits, the study found. 82% of the workers felt that due to these practices, escaping their workroom to the outside of the factory, in case of an exigency would take them anywhere between 30-60 minutes.
The study exemplifies how high prevalence of informal employment subjugates workers to the rigid demands of their factory owners. 64% of the workers stated that they were unwilling to voice safety concerns for fear of arbitrary termination and retaliation.
Moreover, casual, contractual and unwritten employment relationships interrupt accountability for workplace injuries and accidents from reaching factory owners and principal employers. Consequently, this enables the factory owner’s negligence towards workplace safety.
Dismantling inspection-based enforcement
This study also raises a pertinent question about the lax enforcement of the Factories Act, 1948 (the Factories Act), the current primary law on the subject of occupational safety and health.
It has been observed that the authorities are on the back foot, almost always responding to accidents in the aftermath rather than deterring them. The reactive mode of state authorities is particularly surprising given that a perusal of the provisions of the Factories Act bears out that it is designed to be a preventive mechanism rather than a reactive one, thereby ensuring safe working conditions. Prevention is sought to be ensured through mandatory, periodic and detailed checks by factories inspectors.
However, the factories inspection mechanism has undergone an intrinsic change in Gujarat since the enactment of the Labour Laws (Gujarat Amendment) Act, 2015. Self-certification and an online inspection portal were introduced in the state for facilitating the elusive ease-of-doing-business. Compliance under the Factories Act, the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 and the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, among other legislation, was moved under this policy.
However, self-certification assumes accuracy of data, compliance, and effectively transfers enforcement of laws onto the factory owners. Further, inspections are dictated by computer-generated random allotments that are based on a risk-assessment criterion alien to the Factories Act, or triggered with the prior-approval of higher authorities in case of complaints about the factories. These reforms have translated into fewer and superficial or no inspections, altogether, rendering the preventive mechanism of the Factories Act illusory.
This web-based self-certification inspection system has also been replicated in the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 (OSHWC Code), and will be sanctioned once the Rules thereunder are notified.
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Enforcement mechanisms need sharpening
The frequency of accidents in Gujarat – 989 between October 1, 2013 and September 30, 2018 – bears testimony to the effects of approaching occupational safety and health with “flexibility”, even in state supervision. It is reasonable to draw a causal link between these factors.
“Looking Beyond Fire Extinguishers” provides evidence for connecting normalised minor accidents and exploitative rhythms in factories with the dismantling of the peremptory oversight system in the name of labour law reforms.
The objective of the Factories Act is to ensure and uphold the right to safe working conditions for workers. The sustained infringement of this right by the industry can only be arrested if the enforcement mechanisms under the Factories Act are sharpened rather than blunted.
The wide powers and functions of the factories inspectors must not be interpreted as discretionary in nature, but as the State’s obligation to guarantee provision of decent working conditions. The ongoing rules formulation exercise under the OSHWC Code still offers this chance.
(Shubham Kaushal is a lawyer and researcher, who engages with urban issues and currently works with Aajeevika Bureau. The views expressed are personal.)