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Labour comes cheap

According to International Labour Organisation, over 48,000 workers die in occupational accidents in India every year

Labour comes cheap

When was the last time you noticed a labourer at work? Well, I do that a lot. I am impressed by their physical stamina, their ability to trudge on for hours doing the same mundane work every single day. It seldom pays well but labourers do a serious job. They build or fix things so that we may enjoy the amenities that infrastructure proffers. But I don't notice labourers at work just because they are building things; mostly I am impressed by their dexterity: how quickly they climb ladders or roughly tied together bamboo sticks; how skilful they are when they climb to the rooftops of homes and fix antennas or cable connections; how nimble on the feet they are when they carry heavy loads of building material right to the top of an under-construction building. For me, they are like circus performers who undertake their duties paying little heed to safety or precautions.

After reading this, if you happen to watch a labourer, you will be shocked as I am. Whether they are putting together a pandal for a political function or a 'shamiana' for a wedding, maybe just window-cleaning or fixing some errant electrical wires, most of them, whether engaged in civil or industrial work, wear little or no safety gear. Obviously, the yellow construction helmet is now common, but safety equipment such as harness and ropes, boots, gloves, and other relevant safety wear are sorely missing. The industrial worker, unless he works for a top manufacturing company, does not have chemical splash goggles, or full face shields, or respiratory protection.

It is a gamble with death that Indian labourers play every day. The companies or agencies that hire them are not forced to adhere to any safety standards. And that is why over 48,000 workers die in occupational accidents every year. Mind you, these are figures from the International Labour Organisation and pertain only to the construction sector. If we consider, the large amounts of unorganised work that takes place all over the country daily, this number could be several times greater. Of our 465 million-strong workforce, only 20 per cent come under the health and safety legal umbrella.

Last year in May, two workers died on the spot when the metallic plank supporting them while they plastered the 17th floor of a building in Mumbai snapped. Just this week, a labourer in Kolkata, also plastering, slipped off the roof and fell on three TMT bars that went through his body. This made news because despite three metal rods piercing his abdomen, the labourer made a miraculous escape from death and is well on the road to recovery. His accident, however, did not make news for the appalling safety standards followed at construction sites that continue to be death traps.

On the same day, in the same city, Ian Thorpe, Vice President, Health and Safety, HPCL-Mittal Energy Ltd. speaking at the Safety Symposium and Exposition 2018, quoted some startling facts. The compensation paid to the kin of a worker that dies in an industrial accident is anywhere between Rs 8.84 crore and Rs 17.68 crore in the UK and between Rs 34.34 crore and Rs 68.68 crore in the US. In India, that worker's family would be compensated with anything between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 10 lakh! That is how cheap life is in India. Our labourers toil day in and day out (mainly because they have few other options), work tirelessly to build roads, metros, cities, and civilisations. Their safety, security, or adequate compensation are far from ensured. This Independence Day, let's think about those invisible hands that have no safety net supporting them.

(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal)

Shutapa Paul

Shutapa Paul

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