State of OHS in India – MFC Discussion [2]

MFC Annual Meet, 2013, Hyderabad

MFC Annual Meet, 2013, Hyderabad

The meeting at MFC has been quite rewarding for my research interest in Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) in India. The conversations at the meeting yielded a laundry list of issues that affect a functioning and effective OHS system in the country. It starts with an instance of an industrial chemical polyacrylate which is categorized as a mild to moderate toxin. 5 workers reports an NGO from Vadodara, Gujarat, have died in the state due to polyacrylate exposure. Other instance cited was of nasal septum perforation from chromium exposure in Vadodara.

The range of issues in OHS are:

  • Data on deaths, injuries, disability and ODs.
  • Workplace environment monitoring, its data (dose- effect replationship)
  • Laws and their enforcement, use of legal provisions
  • Right to refuse – workers have a right to refuse work if they think that conditions are not safe. It doesn’t apply that way in India
  • Investigations and their reports
  • Information on hazards- to the workers
  • Information on OHS situation to the society
  • Unionization and TU situation – politics and priorities
  • Priorities for workers and other stake holders
  • Medical education, diagnosis, treatment. OHS education in other faculties – law, engineering, social work, sociology, medicine. For instance- doctors know so little about OHS. In case of IITs – how many of them include OHS in their curriculum?
  • Disability assessment and rights of disabled. Workers disabled because of OH are not included by disability law. Case- a disable person was assessed by ESI medical panel. Disability assessed as 20%. Within 2 months the person dies. When an RTI was raised by an NGO to know what standard was applied to assess the disability. The medical team replied that there was no standard.
  • Research on different aspects of OHS= medical, social, legal.
  • Use of PPE, availability, quality standardization and other issues.
  • Technology – age old techniques like dye manufacturing being done in open pans
  • Vulnerability of specific social groups like dalits, migrant workers etc.
  • Lack of BOHS (basic OHS) and lack of social security to majority – ESI & ESIC. Many places not covered by ESI and employers do not want ESI
  • Universalisation of BOHS/Integration of OHS with general health services
  • Role of central and state govts, national and international agencies, NGOs, TUs.
  • Campaigns, movements, networking
  • OHS literature
  • Myths and misconceptions
  • Relief and rehabilitation
  • Return to work – ‘light duty’
  • New technology and materials (no information on status of these in India)
  •  Occupational cancers, NIHL, Pneumoconiosis

On data – central government has no control over the state governments. And this affects data availability.

Work environment monitoring – vague and poorly implemented. Law does not mandate industrial hygienist. South Africa had a mandated a ‘dust monitor’ 100yrs back.

Madhya Pradesh – deaths due to silicosis among migrant workers were always reported as due to TB by the doctors. TB vs Silicosis sort of a movement began. 2005-06 424 persons were affected due to silicosis. In 2011, 1701 persons affected with silicosis in 3 districts in MP. This was a small study. A petition has been filed to knw the status of silicosis. NHRC has released a report on silicosis. MP govt has constituted a silicosis board to address the issue and also track migrant workers.
Rajasthan – mining is a huge revenue source to the state. Labourers are generally employed through agents. The mines are let out on lease to the owners. Now to the labourers Rajasthan govt is paying out of its own pocket. The govt is not able to make the mining lobby to address the situation. Workers do not know who they are working for. It is also difficult to determine who owns the mine. 21 victims have been compensated with Rs 3 lakhs. Now the state govt is concerned that it is spending its relief fund money.
Comment – appeal to look at the causes below the symptoms. Large scale denial of disease is for a reason. So understand the political economy of OH. There is a paradigm shift in the entire world of work in the last 2-3 decades. Whenever capital engages in surplus extraction there are two barriers- it has to give job secturty. Second, wages to labour. Regan and Thatcher bring in neoliberal capitalism and a paradigm shift in surplus extaction. Mid 1990s production is reorganized. It orients towards maximization. In that situation employer-employee relationship is fragmented so that it is no more required to take care of the worker. Labour extraction becomes absolute.

Construction, Mining and Factories sector have a schedule of diseases. A person/doctor who comes across a patient suffering from any of the listed diseases can report to the Factories Inspector. (Ref: Book “They go to die” on mining in South Africa).

Comment – Medical profession is getting away too easily. It can’t diagnose silicosis. “we can’t wait for a well wisher funded by Bill Gates to do find a diagnosis. May be he can help if he finds a vaccine for it.”

Work, Health & Rights – MFC Discussion [1]

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Medico Friends Circle completes 40 years with this annual conference in Hyderabad. Seeing the energy and quality of discussions this morning is admirable. The gathering is quite diverse – activists, NGOs, researchers, development professionals, engineers and doctors (although the name suggests that it is a group of medical professionals.

Theme of this MFC meet is Work, Health and Rights.

The concerns within this are about what is work, work conditions and gender, particularly in the unorganized sector. Now, the distinction between organized and unorganized sector is not straight forward or simple. The concern originates from the health care situation of 97% of the work force in India today. To address this, it would be required to structurally analyze the forms of legal, economic and social relationships in which the workers exist with their employers.

Organized/Unorganized categorization is based on sectors of production, whereas, workers can be employed under formal and informal modes. One view is that it is a convenient economic-legal categorization which grades people on the degree of benefits they receive as a part of work force. The other is that the categorization of organized sector began with the Factories Act.

Agriculture has been mostly informal but with MNCs coming in many aspects of agriculture has become organized yet the workers have remain unorganized. There are problems when an industry begins to get organized. And these problems are of concern to development and growth.  Two primary concerns in defining nature of sector and work are-

  • Legality
  • Social Security

The right to unionize should be of critical importance when a sector organizes. This according to one view, helps ensure social security which should be of primary concern from a gender perspective.

Unorganized-organized categorization would soon become irrelevant in the neoliberal world says one participant citing the  case of Rajasthan government where employees who were made permanent after 2004 do not have any pension benefits or security.. They only take a monthly salary.

Contrary to this, some perceive that the categorization is a fairly clear one at that and there are two markers of such a distinction-

  • Worker – direct hires, contract workers (under ESI Act).
  • Entitlements – employer provided, employee-employee contributory model, safety net (RG Yojana)

When in 2006 it was declared that “menial services” will be contracted out in the public sector why didn’t anyone object? The dalits were completely pushed out from the resultant opportunities. In the government sector dalits were turned away. And therefore, it is necessary that the meet discusses caste and class also.

The view that these categories are becoming redundant is held by quite a few. “Today we find that a permanent worker is an endangered species says a former trade union worker.” The sector is moving towards dissolving this employer-employee relation.

I find it interesting that the people here concern themselves with figuring out these overwhelmingly confusing categories of organized-unorganized and formal- informal work. It is interesting because here is a group comprising mostly of practitioners and fieldworkers and not academicians who find it problematic the way workers are seen and engaged with rests on such arbitrary system.