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Survival over safety, livelihood over health

By Shalini Sharma

The issue of occupational safety and health is not high on the priorities of trade unions in India, say four senior representatives of India's leading trade unions. How can it be otherwise, they ask, in a country where 133 million of the employed labour force continue to be below the poverty line? Occupational safety must come second to the struggle for fair wages and the battle against exploitation and unemployment

 H Mahadevan, Deputy General Secretary, All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC)

How many people are covered by AITUC via its affiliate members?

According to our records, the total membership is 40 lakhs. According to the government notification it is 35 lakhs.

What kinds of industries or occupations are covered by AITUC?

We are present in almost every industry -- steel, coal, textiles, manufacturing industries, chemical industries, power, forests, agricultural industries, oil, PWDs (public works departments), municipal workers, even the unorganised sector.

Do you have a person dedicated to working on issues of occupational health?

Yes, I am assigned this task at AITUC. Besides, I have been vice-chairman of the National Safety Council of India and am presently a board member of the same.

What, if any, is your organisation's stated policy on occupational safety and health?

We consider occupational safety and health a matter of grave concern. This is evident from the fact that I have been dedicated to taking up this subject at various fora, be it as vice-chairman of the National Safety Council or as a member of AITUC. I have presented several papers on the subject and have also drafted a paper on national policy.

As an organisation we believe that three key postulates serve as fundamentals to OSH (occupational safety and health):

  • A worker should return home in exactly the same condition in which he left for work.
  • Industrial development should be pollution-free and occupational hazard- and disease-free.
  • Safety and health are the fundamental rights of workers.

How important do you think occupational safety and health is in the overall scheme of things for a worker? Please rate, on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being 'most important' and 10 being 'least important'), the priority that ought to be accorded to occupational safety and health by a labour organisation. Please explain the reasons for your assessment.

It is certainly very important. But considering the present practical challenges, it doesn't get the attention it deserves.

What, on a scale of 1 to 10, is the priority accorded by your trade union to OSH, and why?

It is an important issue but not the most important. This is mainly because of practical considerations. Survival and ensuring one's daily bread-and-butter are more important concerns for us. And it becomes all the more important in light of the ongoing recession, closure of industries, and job losses.

What are some of the notable actions taken by your organisation to improve occupational safety and health of workers?

  • We conduct classes on the subject. Safety and health is a specific subject in our curriculum.
  • We publish literature on the matter.
  • We conduct industry surveys to assess safety and health standards.
  • We organise agitations to highlight our concerns and demands regarding the issue.

What are the key stumbling blocks unions face in addressing OSH issues?

The key challenges are:

  • Indifferent attitude of employers. They are not bothered about safety and health issues. Profit is their topmost concern.
  • Status of staff/officials at the labour department, etc. They are neither adequate nor competent to handle the state of affairs. Corruption is very evident.
  • Poor response from workers. Their most important concern is survival; OSH takes a back seat most of the time.

How would you rate the state of occupational safety and health in India, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being 'very good' and 10 being 'very poor'?

I would say it is highly unsatisfactory. The government is not doing its job, and workers are not conscious enough.

Do you think there is adequate focus on OSH issues?

In my view, there isn't enough focus. OSH is not a priority issue for anyone -- government, employers, industries, workers -- and hence doesn't receive the attention it deserves. For some of us individually, it certainly is a matter of priority, but not for everyone.

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R A Mittal, Secretary, Hind Mazdoor Sabha

How many people are covered by your trade union via its affiliate members?

According to the government notification our membership is over 33 lakhs. According to our own records we number nearly 55 lakhs.

What kinds of industries or occupations are covered by the trade union?

We are present in all industries, except for the financial sector, and including the unorganised sector. We are in the leading position in railways, air transport, ports and docks, coal and cement industries. Orissa, Karnataka and Chandigarh are states where we lead in membership.

Do you have a person dedicated to working on issues of occupational health?

Not exclusively. We are short on manpower so we can't really afford to have one dedicated person, despite our best intentions.

What, if any, is your organisation's stated policy on occupational safety and health?

We have no declared policy as such, though we do focus on the Factories Act and are also members of the National Safety Council of India.

How important do you think occupational safety and health is in the overall scheme of things for a worker? Please rate on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being 'most important' and 10 being 'least important'), the priority that ought to be accorded to occupational safety and health by a labour organisation. Please explain the reasons for your assessment.

I would put it at 5. In a country facing unemployment, underemployment and poverty, where the government agrees that 26% of our people live below the poverty line, and 133 million out of the total employed population continue to live below the poverty line, how much importance can a worker actually give to OSH? Survival and livelihood issues are the priority, and will remain so.

What, on a scale of 1 to 10, is the priority accorded by your trade union to OSH, and why?

I will again put it at 5. According to a joint memorandum submitted by trade unions, OSH has lowest priority. Of course, we acknowledge the difference between the organised and unorganised sectors. The organised sector can afford to focus on OSH because of a secure livelihood and protected healthcare and childcare concerns.

What are some of the notable actions taken by your organisation to improve occupational safety and health?

We can't claim to have taken much action except that we emphasise universal health standards, social security and adherence to the Factories Act.

What are the key stumbling blocks faced by unions in addressing OSH issues?

Underemployment, unemployment, poverty and the attitude of industry are some of the key challenges.

How would you rate the state of occupational safety and health in India on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being 'very good' and 10 being 'very poor'?

I would say 'very poor' and rate it at 8.

Do you think there is adequate focus on OSH issues?

Again, there is not enough focus because of poverty, unemployment, the current economic recession and a primary focus on survival and livelihood issues.

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Sanjay Singhvi, General Secretary, Trade Union Centre of India

How many people are covered by your trade union via its affiliate members?

Over 100,000.

What kinds of industries or occupations are covered by the Trade Union Centre?

We cover a wide range of industries but concentrate on the unorganised sector. We are trying to organise widely in the construction sector. Otherwise, we work in almost all sectors.

Do you have a person dedicated to working on issues of occupational health?

Not yet. But Ravindra Mohite from our union is concentrating on asbestos-related health problems and also looks at other issues of occupational health and safety.

What, if any, is your organisation's stated policy on occupational safety and health?

We do not have a stated policy on occupational health and safety. Our policy is reflected in our programmes.

How important do you think occupational safety and health is in the overall scheme of things for a worker? Please rate on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being 'most important' and 10 being 'least important'), the priority that ought to be accorded to occupational safety and health by a labour organisation. Please explain the reasons for your assessment.

It is difficult to rate the importance. The question is one of relative importance. For example, is OSH more important than getting a minimum wage? Is it more important than abolishing contract labour? Are these questions not connected? What can definitely be said is that, in these times when imperialist globalisation is exploiting human and natural resources with scant regard for environmental degradation, OSH takes on greater importance.

What, on a scale of 1 to 10, is the priority accorded by your trade union to OSH, and why?

We try to attach importance commensurate with the current situation, and in accordance with our resources.

What are some of the notable actions taken by your organisation to improve occupational safety and health?

We have undertaken to fight for the workers of Hindustan Composites Limited, in Mumbai, who are affected by asbestosis, a disease caused by asbestos fibres. We have filed cases for them in the labour court and want to try other forums as well. We have also helped organise meetings on asbestosis and related issues.

We have fought for the right of construction workers to protective equipment in Karnataka and in Madhya Pradesh. We have fought against the pollution problems of fish workers as well.

What are the key stumbling blocks faced by unions in addressing OSH issues?

The biggest stumbling block is resources. The scant resources of unions, in terms of manpower, money, etc, are spent on protecting workers' jobs and their minimum wages. To spare resources for other work is very difficult.

How would you rate the state of occupational safety and health in India on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being 'very good' and 10 being 'very poor'?

It is obviously somewhere near 10 by any objective reckoning.

Do you think there is adequate focus on OSH issues?

Obviously there isn't, for the reasons mentioned above.

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 Ardhendu Dakshi, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Member, National Safety Council

How many people are covered by the trade union via its affiliate members?

Around 4.5 million.

What kinds of industries or occupations are covered by the trade union?

We are in every industrial field excluding agriculture. CITU is different from other trade unions in this regard. We have a separate All-India Agricultural Workers Union. Similarly, organisations dealing with banking, insurance and other financial issues are friendly but not directly affiliated to us.

Do you have a person dedicated to working on issues of occupational health?

Yes. I have been nominated by CITU to work on this subject. I am a member of the governing body of the National Safety Council, Mumbai.

What, if any, is your organisation's stated policy on occupational safety and health?

We have highlighted the following concerns repeatedly:

  • Need for separate legislation on OSH. In the absence of separate legislation, the matter gets covered by other existing laws like the Factories Act. We have been demanding implementation of this legislation and have also been stressing the need to compile all the separate guidelines and stipulations, for better awareness.
  • Right to information. Complete and easy access to information for workers dealing with chemicals, radioactive and other hazardous material, etc.
  • Need for comprehensive legislation regarding hazardous materials, for instance shipbreaking, toxic waste, nuclear material. In fact, it needs to cover all aspects of safety, the environment, and OSH matters.
  • Being a member of the prime minister's working group, I suggested forming a national advisory/supervisory group on safety matters, with considerable executive and punitive powers as regards implementation of the group's recommendations.
  • Need for a comprehensive system of data collection. Though there are the National Safety Council and others, the relationship between work environment and illness is often ignored. No institute investigates this adequately.

How important do you think occupational safety and health is in the overall scheme of things for a worker? Please rate on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being 'most important' and 10 being 'least important'), the priority that ought to be accorded to occupational safety and health by a labour organisation. Please explain the reasons for your assessment.

Safety and health are certainly important. This is evident from the fact that when you enter any public sector industry, the first thing you see is the safety sign. In meetings at the NSC and labour ministry, I always emphasise the need to look at safety matters in a more comprehensive manner, taking a holistic approach. Since family and work structures are changing, it is important that safety is ensured at all levels.

Today, 95% of workers do not have any safety gear. Even BBC showed people working in hazardous industries with no footwear on. If you take the case of big industries, the most inefficient officers are made responsible for safety matters. This reflects the government's policies and legislations as well. So, while there is a lot of talk of OSH, the action part remains to be seen.

What, on a scale of 1 to 10, is the priority accorded by your trade union to OSH, and why?

The top priorities are always livelihood, survival and matters dealing with wages. Although OSH does occasionally make it to top priority, in general giving it priority would be difficult.

What are some of the notable actions taken by your organisation to improve occupational safety and health?

I was working with the steel industry in particular. We have a Joint Committee on Safety in the steel industry which has been working for nearly 30 years now. M K Pandhey is vice-chairman of the committee. The focus is to get more inclusive participation on safety matters. We have members on the Coal Mines Safety Board, though I must admit its record is far from satisfactory. We are organising different international and national seminars/workshops on safety issues and hazardous material. For instance, Dr T K Joshi has been working actively with us on the asbestos issue, in Delhi. We also organise/participate in specific classes and lectures to propagate safety matters. I have been nominated by CITU and have a role here.

What are the key stumbling blocks faced by unions in addressing OSH issues?

There are many roadblocks. To name a few:

  • OSH is not a priority for companies/industries.
  • OSH is an important and specialised matter. It can't be dealt with casually; it needs intense research. The approach so far has been very casual both in research as well as in implementation. Also, there is no dedicated institute to work on this issue.
  • Funding remains another challenge to us.
  • Lack of a policy framework and legislation (and punitive action). Out of several thousand companies registered under the Companies Act many do not even send their annual returns to the government. Also, it is noticeable that in the National Safety Council most industries belong to the public sector. Private players are mostly missing. Only visible accidents are acknowledged and reported. Life would appear to be very cheap in India.

How would you rate the state of occupational safety and health in India on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being 'very good' and 10 being 'very poor'?

I would say 'very poor'; in fact non-existent. Giving lectures is easy, but implementation, via institutes, is very difficult.

Do you think there is adequate focus on OSH issues?

The focus on OSH is far from adequate, as you must have already gathered through my responses and observations. I think we lack a culture of appreciating health and safety the way they are appreciated and acknowledged in the West. For instance, in many developed nations, smoking in public is not allowed while in India we still do not take this kind of action. How we care for our own health and how we care about others' health and safety demands specific attention and training. The training should take place right from childhood to adulthood. I would say safety and health training must be incorporated and cultivated as a matter of culture.

(Shalini Sharma has been actively engaged in student activism and is currently working as a student coordinator for International Campaign for Bhopal)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009