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Workers' safety, and health security remain unaddressed in South Gujarat factories, says Surat workshop

Inside a diamond unit
By Our Representative
A trade union workshop in Surat, in which tens of workers’ leaders and social activists participated, has expressed serious concern over lack of awareness about occupational health hazard not only among large sections of unorganized workers of South Gujarat, majority of whom are migrants, but also trade union leaders, who seek to organize them. A note, prepared on the workshop by Jagdish Patel, a senior social activist from Vadodara, who works on occupational health issues, has said that the situation becomes particularly piquant because about 85 to 90 per cent of the unorganized workers are migrants working in about 400-odd textile processing units and diamond polishing units.
“Work safety and health are serious issues bogging most of these workers”, the note, prepared on the basis of observations made at the workshop, said, even as narrating a large number of cases when those working in the small units heavily suffer because of lack of provision of any safety equipment. The note quotes Urmila Rana, a social activist, as saying that in Kadodara town in Surat district, a family was staying within the premises of a factory which produces lime-filled plastic bottles. The owners would pay just about Rs 50 per day to the workers.
“The eight-year-old child of the family was asked to fix lids on these bottles. He failed to fix on one of them, and the lime powder shot onto his face, straight into his eyes”, the note said, adding, “The kid lost his eyes forever. The family didn’t know which doctor to approach. When the matter reached Rana, it was already too late. However, with the social activist’s help, a police complaint was lodged, and the family got compensation.” The note wondered why there is no provision in the law to punish the owner of the factory in such cases of accident. “How can one leave the factory owner scot free like this? He needs to just to throw compensation to the worker, and the matter ends!”
The note points out, “The situation is not very different in the factories in which workers do embroidery with gold-coated copper wires. Workers have no clue where to go in case they suffer from a disease while doing the hazardous job. They refuse to be part of union, as they are terribly afraid of being chucked out by factory owners. Worse, the labour officers simply do not register them as regular workers.”
The note quotes another activist to say that 99 per cent of the workers do not know anything about their rights. “They even do not know anything about employees’ state insurance (ESI) scheme. Only nine per cent of the workers are organized, the rest are not. There are individual workers who know of the scheme, but this makes little difference”, it says.
Advocate Nimish Patel, participating in the workshop, has been quoted as saying that there was a time when the workers were offered nutritious food in Surat’s textile mills, but now things no more. “There are no formal relations between labour and the owners. Workers rarely have any proof of their job in the factories they work. We run life insurance scheme for the workers, but few join in”, he said.
Speaking on behalf of the state transport workers, Gangadhar Thakre, their representative, said that the transport workers have never agitated for greater health security. “They do not even discuss about it. They are not aware of the hazards of diesel. Even if the workers go sick, or even die, nobody cares. There is always a danger of being infected as buses are often loaded with passengers. Drivers and conductors have to sit in the bus for 12-14 hours, which leads to back pain, which is common. In fact, drivers often drive tying belt around their waist”, he said, adding, “Their eyes become weak when they reach 40 years of age.”
Referring to textile factories in the region, Hareshbhai Rana said, “It is necessary that workers’ security issues are taken up in these factories with utmost urgency. While it is the duty of the government and the factory owners to look after security and health issues of workers, they rarely do it. The jet dying machines’ safety valves must be regularly checked, lest there might be serious accident. The drums carry sodium nitrate, sulphuric acid and water, whose temperature should be at 120 degrees centigrade. If the drum explodes, workers may catch fire. There is no provision for regular checkup of workers working among hazardous chemicals. There are no medical officers in factories.”
The note points towards how the medical appeal tribunal functions. Union representatives are appointed in these tribunals, but they are never present during hearings. “A worker lost his eye. The medical board gave its ruling that it was only seven per cent injury. He went to the medical tribunal to appeal, but to no avail. Workers have no faith left in ESI. The doctors call the workers in their private clinics for treatment”, it says.

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