Monday, July 26, 2021

Safety laws

Despite years of robust economic growth in the past three decades, India’s record in promoting occupational safety remains weak and abysmally low on priority of the successive governments. It is also unfortunate that the governments have not paid serious attention to the safety of the workers in the industrial units, particular those sectors which witnessed a large number of accidents in the past. This has been happening despite the fact that the productivity benefits of such investments have always been clear and higher and favoured the interests of the working class in the industrial sector. The consequences seen in the form of a large number of fatalities and injuries, but in a market that has a steady supply of labour, the policymakers have ignored the wider impact of such losses. It will be no surprise, if the deaths of four people, including a senior officer, in a fire accident at the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) gas facility in Navi Mumbai, or the tragedy that killed nearly two dozen people at a firecracker factory in Batala, Punjab are quickly forgotten. Such accidents make it imperative that the central government abandon its reductionist approach to the challenge, and engage in serious reforms. There is not much expectation of progressive moves from the government. The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019, introduced in the Lok Sabha in July to combine 13 existing laws relating to mines, factories, dock workers, building and construction, transport workers, inter-state migrant labour and so on, pays little attention to the sector-specific requirements of workers. One of its major shortcomings is that formation of safety committees and appointment of safety officers, the latter in the case of establishments with 500 workers, is left to the discretion of governments of respective states. Evidently, the narrow stipulation on safety officers confines it to a small fraction of industries. On the other hand, the Factories Act currently mandates appointment of a bipartite committee in units that employ hazardous processes or substances, with exemptions being the exception. This provision clearly requires retention in the new code. Moreover, the supervisory for the workers is also left to the discretion of the factory owners instead of the government’s departments. A government that has not worked for the welfare and safety of the working class in the country has to bear witness to the anger from them with changes in the laws. It has to recognize that a safe work environment is a basic right, and India’s recent decades of high growth should have ushered in a framework of guarantees. It is unfortunate that the successive governments have not felt it necessary to ratify many fundamental conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) covering organised and unorganised sector workers’ safety, including the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981. Those ILO instruments cover several areas of activity that the NDA-government’s Occupational Safety Code now seeks to amalgamate, but without the systemic reform that is necessary to empower workers. It is also essential that the new code goes back to the drawing board for careful scrutiny by experienced parliamentarians, aided by fresh inputs from employees, employers and experts. Industries that use hazardous processes and chemicals deserve particular attention, and the code must have clear definitions, specifying limits of exposure for workers. This also becomes necessary in view of the anger among the workers, who have been demanding more safety measures in the recent past. Compromising on safety can lead to extreme consequences that go beyond factories, and leave something that is etched in the nation’s memory as in the case of the Bhopal gas disaster. The latter accident cannot be forgotten for the reason that many precious lives of citizens besides the workers were lost for no fault of theirs. Such accidents need to be prevented in future not only in the interest of the working class but also the common masses residing in those areas.