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Voices from the ground

The testimonies of people affected by conditions in the workplace that have altered their lives forever

Name: Saraswathy
Age: 19 years
Injury: Mechanical

Consequence: Lost three fingers on her right hand and is unable to work anymore

 "I live with my grandmother and younger sister at Senneer Kuppam, in Poovirudhavalli, Chennai. I worked in a small plastic bag manufacturing unit in Poovirudhavalli for a year, earning Rs 2,000 a month. My job was to dry the plastic. On two occasions before the accident, I was asked to work on a cutting machine with sharp blades which keep rolling as the operator holds the plastic tight to stop it getting entangled.

"Though there is a person assigned for that job, I was asked to do it. The second time I operated the machine, my scarf got caught in the blades. I refused to work on the machine after that because I was scared.

"The day the accident happened, I was unwell and decided to stay home. But my colleagues wanted me to come to work as I keep the workplace alive. Six of us work in that place, and I am the youngest of all. That day I was asked to operate the machine. When I refused, I was screamed at. So I decided to work on the machine even though I was scared. While I was holding the plastic tight to stop it from getting entangled, the blades cut three fingers on my right hand. I screamed in pain. The owner (Selvaraj) was standing right outside the work area, but he did not bother to switch off the machine. I had to pull my hand out and turn the machine off.

"I was taken to Stanley government hospital immediately. I filed a complaint at the local police station. Selvaraj was arrested and kept at the police station for five minutes. His brother, who is a public prosecutor, bailed him out. I approached the police commissioner, S R Jangid, to look into the issue. After that Selvaraj offered to pay me Rs 30,000 as compensation. However, he didn't turn up with the money.

"My sister Bharathy is doing the same work in another small company, while I await justice."

- Jeny Dolly Antony

Name: Gethsie Florence
Age: 35 years

 "I am secretary of the Tamil Nadu Subhiksham All Unorganised Workers Welfare Union, a registered union with 25,000 members across the state. I have seven years of experience in unionising unorganised sector workers. I was part of the Unorganised Construction Workers Union. My motivation to start a union for unorganised workers was driven by personal experience. My younger brother Isaac is a victim of a workplace-related accident.

"In 2001, Voltas International was constructing a building for the National Institute of Ocean Technology in Pallikaranai, Chennai. Because it was Christmas season, Isaac decided to work at the site for a month so that he could earn some extra money for the festival.

"The ceiling of the building was supposed to look like waves. For this, the workers had to lift 16 slabs to the top of the building. Lifting one slab to the top took seven hours. A task that had to be done using a winch was instead done by 12 workers, six on either side. While they were lifting the seventh slab, the chain got locked. One of the workers was asked to release the chain. When the chain was released suddenly, the slab fell down pulling the 12 workers with it. All of them were severely injured. Five have died, one is in a coma, and my brother has recovered. If the construction company had given them belts to wear, they would have hung in the air. No safety gear was given to the workers. This incident, which changed our lives forever, motivated me to start a union for unorganised sector workers, in 2002.

"Safety is very important for a worker. I acknowledge the fact that not many unions work on occupational safety and health among workers. Workers consider safety gear an additional burden. They feel that it hampers their effectiveness. While safety gear has to be convenient for workers to use, it is important to let workers know that they have the right to a safe workplace. I strongly feel unions should take up the occupational safety and health issue. Subhiksham will definitely concentrate on occupational safety and health."

- Jeny Dolly Antony

Name: Amalu
Age: 34 years
Occupation: Stone quarry worker

 "I have been working in a quarry since I was really young. My husband Sankar works in the same quarry. I have three children who are studying now. I have been working in this quarry for three years.

"I leave home every day at 7 in the morning and get back at 7 in the evening. The maximum that I can earn in a day is Rs 250. For every load of stone we get Rs 60, which has to be shared between four people. We can't take a single day off. So I end up working even if I am unwell. It is very difficult, especially when I have my periods. But I am used to it now, after so many years.

"One has to be very careful in a quarry. People can fall off the cliff and die. You must watch every step. There is a lot of dust; sometimes you can't even see the person standing right in front of you.

"When I leave home every morning, there is no certainty of my coming back. Only when I get out of the quarry in the evening do I even think about what to cook for my children. I get back home, cook, wash the clothes, and sleep at around 11 pm. I wake up at 5 in the morning. That is my routine."

- Jeny Dolly Antony

(Jeny Dolly Antony works on occupational health and safety and is part of a voluntary collective called Vettiver, based in Chennai)

Name: Sadayan Gounder
Age: 68 years
Occupation: Works in a mercury cell house that manufactures caustic soda chlorine

 "I joined work at Chemplast's (Sanmar) Plant III in Mettur, Tamil Nadu, in 1965. I was placed in the mercury cell house. My work involved collecting mercury and caustic lye, and filling steel containers with mercury. When it is full, you can't even move the container: mercury is that heavy.

"There is a lot of lye around. Even if a drop falls on your skin, it will make a hole. A lot of mercury falls on the floor from the cells. We were given plastic cups to scoop the mercury up and fill it into jars. We were given gloves, but we never wore them because they were a hindrance. We would bend and scoop the mercury up with our bare hands. The atmosphere inside the cell house was oppressive -- there were a lot of fumes.

"Between the mercury and the lye, it is difficult for new people not to get affected by it. The chlorine was such that if it hit you, you couldn't talk for a while. Your nose and throat would just go dry and you couldn't do anything. We were given onions and buttermilk to eat and drink as an antidote to the toxic gases.

"Around 1975, I started noticing problems. My skin became dry. It looked like the skin a snake sheds, with scales and white patches all over. Gradually, other complications began. My face and body swelled up. I was being seen by a skin doctor referred by the company.

"When I first fell ill, I couldn't return to work for 10 months because the government hospital doctor would not give me a fitness certificate. He said I was too sick to work, and that my health was not good because of working with lye.

"In 1976, the general manager, who was a good man, took me back with the assurance that he would change my section. But I was appointed to the same section. Slowly, my condition got worse. I couldn't work any more because the skin problem was persistent. My hands would shiver; I had absolutely no appetite. I couldn't even walk.

"In 1988, I was forced to sign up for voluntary retirement as the manager of the plant felt that I was no longer fit to work. I received no compensation for the injuries.

"In 2003, the skin doctor finally referred me to a neurologist at Gokulam hospital in Salem. Since then I have been on medication for a neurological disorder."

-- Lakshmi Premkumar

(Lakshmi Premkumar works on environmental justice issues and supports community struggles against industrial pollution. She is also part of the Chennai-based voluntary collective Vettiver)

Name: Gauri (name changed)
Age: 19 years
Occupation: Worker in the Nokia SEZ

Gauri (name changed), a 19-year-old worker at Salcomp, inside the Nokia Special Economic Zone (SEZ), is one among thousands of young women and men being recruited to work at various electronics industries in Sriperumbadur. The small town, 50 km south of Chennai, is being aggressively promoted by the Tamil Nadu government as a manufacturing hub, and is home to big players like Dell, Foxconn, Motorola and Flextronics, among others.

Salcomp, the Finland-based mobile charger manufacturer, set up the 9 million euro production facility at the Nokia SEZ Park in early-2007. It currently employs around 1,000 women workers, both on contract and permanent employment. Salcomp targeted a production of 100 million chargers by mid-2008.

To meet these targets, like most factories in the SEZ, production is round-the-clock. The Nokia SEZ Park houses Nokia's own mobile phone assembling unit along with seven of its vendors who manufacture components for Nokia mobile phones.

With their characteristic high levels of security and surveillance, SEZs overwhelm workers into submission, even as companies use corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives to camouflage the persistent health and safety issues in the workplace, and create an atmosphere of fear to intimidate workers and ensure they do not talk about their problems.

Gauri says:

"I was excited when I first heard about the job at the Nokia SEZ. My friend and I applied together after we saw an advertisement at our local school. I opted to take the job instead of doing a degree, because it is a reputed foreign company that manufactures chargers for Nokia mobiles.

"I travel two hours every day from my home near Ambattur to the factory, along with 30 others from the area, in the company bus. Most workers come from villages in nearby districts and stay at hostels and rented accommodation near the factory.

"Our line supervisors constantly increase our hourly targets and we are under a lot of stress because of this. Our shifts change every month and since we work night shift too, my sleep is affected. When I first started it was very difficult. I came home with a severe backache because we were never given any breaks and had to stand for hours together. But slowly I am getting used to it.

"In most departments, workers involved in assembling are expected to stand without any back support. We were told that there was a possibility of earning up to Rs 5,000, and that we would receive confirmations in a year. But it has been over a year now and I earn only Rs 3,300. My family does not depend on my salary. But many of my co-workers discontinued their degrees because they needed this job to support their families.

"Recently, one of the buses was involved in an accident. Several workers who were injured were not taken to hospital and had to bear their own medical expenses."

-- Meghna Sukumar

(Meghna Sukumar is a labour organiser and researcher with the Chennai-based Penn Thozhilalar Sangam (Women Workers Association))

Name: Kaliappan
Age: 55 years
Occupation: Saltpan worker, Marakkanam, Villupuram district

 "I am 55 years old and have been a saltpan worker for the past 35 years. I am a member of the Marakkanam Adi Dravidar Salt Producers Society, a cooperative formed in 1937. I perform various tasks in the saltpans, including scraping salt from the bed in hot brine, transferring salt from the bed to the drying platform, loading and unloading salt bags.

"About 15 years ago, I started having this skin condition with white marks on my legs. I went to the general hospital in Pondicherry where they gave me some medication. It was cured for around six months; then it came back. I went to a private hospital and spent about Rs 1,000, but to no avail. So I just live with the condition.

"The problem intensifies in the salt production season, between January and September, and subsides at other times. It itches quite a bit and during those times I am unable to get into the brine. I am then forced to do other work such as loading/unloading. I don't know the name of this condition; I have observed it, in less severe form, in other saltpan workers too.

"There are protective boots available to prevent this condition. But it's impossible to work with the boots on, so we don't wear them. They are heavy and with them on we are unable to carry salt for long distances. Also, the boots get stuck in the mud on the beds, so they are of no use. Instead, we wear rubber-soled sandals, which are easier to handle. But they do not stop such problems from occurring.

"Also, my eyesight and those of everyone who works with me, has worsened because of the reflection of sunlight on the salt. I cannot see the numbers on a wall clock or the words in a magazine. Young or old, we all face the same problems.

"We don't have any medical insurance as we are all daily wage labourers. As Society members we get provident fund, but no medical insurance. There was an eye camp organised in our region, but we didn't get any glasses!"

-- Chandrika Ramanujam

(Chandrika Ramanujam is a labour organiser working amongst saltpan workers. She is associated with the Unorganised Workers Federation)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009