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Despite fatal silicosis, Gujarat ceramic hub 'evades' health insurance, minimum wage

By Rajiv Shah 

Situated in Surendranagar district of Gujarat, Thangadh, known as the ceramic hub of India, also characterises by its industrial units refusing to pay minimum wages or providing necessary health facilities eligible under the law. In all, about 20,000 workers are employed in Thangarh and nearby towns in in about 225 ceramic units manufacturing sanitary ware and other ceramic items.
Glazing is a process in which workers are exposed to fine silica droplets, leading to many of them unknowingly suffering from one of the deadliest occupational diseases, silicosis, says a new study carried out by the Vadodara-based non-profit People’s Training and Research Centre (PTRC).
Based on interviews with 1,000 workers from 41 units out of 1,453 workers who were approached, the study, which took five months to complete starting February 2021, says that while their average salary comes to Rs 9101.5, as many as 570 of respondents receive wages below this average. Thus, three (two male and one female) said they earn Rs 3,500 per month, 17 earn Rs 4,000 each, three earn Rs 4,500 and 50 earn Rs 5000.
“By any standards this is much less than the minimum wages”, the study states, even as pointing towards gender discrimination. “Disparity between the wages drawn by male and female workers is stark. Though we have law for paying equal wages for equal work, it is not implemented. In wage group 3,500‐5,000, female workers outnumber male workers but, in all categories above that male worker dominate the group”, the study says adding, “There is legal provision to issue pay slip but no respondent is getting salary or wage slip issued.”
Thus, “Most male workers end up earning Rs. 15,000 per month, though only 2.5% female workers earn wages in the bracket of 10,000 and 15,000. Among male workers, 27% male workers are in this category. Those 430 who earn wages above average, 415 (96.5%) are male workers and only 15 (3.48%) female workers. While those 570 who earn wages below average, 385 (67.5%) are male workers and 185 (32.45%) are female workers.”
Working for the last over two decades in Khambhat in Central Gujarat for among the colour gem stone polishers, who suffer from deadly silicosis, PTRC started working in Surendranagar, Morbi and Rajkot districts to locate silicosis patients in 2019. During its work, it found that most workers are not covered under the Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) Act, a legal requirement for the units employing 10 or more workers drawing wages up to Rs 21,000.
Under the ESI law, while workers and employers must contribute 1% and 3% of the wage bill respectively so that they become eligible for free medical aid, the study found that only 1.6% respondents said they are covered under ESI. Finding this particularly objectionable, the study says, “For more than one hundred years it has been well documented that ceramic workers experience higher rates for silicosis, tuberculosis (TB) and lead poisoning.”
The study says, “Taiwan reported airborne respirable silica levels ranging up to 1763.3 µg/m3 in ceramic factory workers with glazers, molding and granulation workers experiencing the highest exposures. Another study from the US found geometric mean respirable silica exposures ranging from 130 to 220 µg/m3 in ceramic factory workers with glaze sprayers experiencing the highest exposures The current US Permissible Exposure Limit is 50 µg/m3.”
During its work, says the study, PTRC came across “workers who contracted silicosis and are pushed out of the gainful employment due to sickness. Breathlessness and other complaints do not allow them to work anymore and they are forced to take premature retirement. In such situation there is no one to support their treatment cost or compensate them for the damage to their lungs.”
The study notes, “Most workers in Thangarh are paid piece rate and not per day and many employers do not consider the workers to be their employees as they are employed through some contractor, who may not have been issued license under the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970." 
It adds, "Workers are not on monthly wages but on piece rate so, no overtime is to be paid. Workers can enjoy as many leaves as they want at their expense. Officially no weekly off is given. Some workers informed the researcher that they employ a helper and helper is paid by them and not by the owner. So, this is a complex situation.”
Noting that ESI Act is applicable to the employee from the day one, the study, providing details of deprivation of the ceramic workers in Thangarh, says, “44 respondents said they are working since last more than 20 years and still they have not been covered by the law. Little more than 50% respondents said they are working since last three years or less. Among rest around 27% respondents are working since last 3 to 10 years in the present employment.”
Pointing out that “one of the respondents, aged 60, is working since 1980 is earning only Rs 7,000 month”, which is “much less than the minimum wages”, the study says, a male worker, aged 48, started working at the age of eight, while another respondent, a 56 year male, started working at the age of 16.”
During the interaction with workers, PTRC researchers found that since workers in ceramic are exposed to silica, they are vulnerable to get silicosis and TB, pointing out, “A 42‐year‐old male worker has been diagnosed having silicosis. His ESI contribution is not deducted. He is working since 2017 in the present employment.”
Further, “Among the two cases of silicosis, one is 42 year old male and another is 55 yr old male. Both are not covered under either ESI Act. Both are earning Rs 7,000 per month which is much less than the minimum wages decided by the State government. Both are working at present.”
It adds, “One of them aged 42 started working from the year 2000. He has complaints of breathlessness since last two years. He also has complaint of anorexia, chest pain, cough with sputum and lack of sleep. He has two school going children to be supported. He was diagnosed having silicosis by Rajkot Civil Hospital in December 2019.”

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