Whose responsibility is workers’ health and safety in ‘aatmnirbhar’ India?

1 July 2020, New Delhi: 6 workers have been killed, 2 are fighting for their life and 17 are grievously injured and undergoing treatment due to an explosion in the second phase of the boiler at the thermal power plant of Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC), Neyveli, Tamil Nadu. The explosion which took place at around 10 am today morning killed – Selamarasan (25), Arun Kumar (25), Padmanabhan (30), Ramanathan (42), Nagaraj (30) and Venkatesa Perumal (37) all 6 were contract workers at the ‘navratna’ company of the Government of India. New Trade Union Initiative strongly condemns the criminal negligence on the part of NLC which has resulted in the death of 6 contract workers and left several others injured.

Accidents – a recurring nightmare for contract workers at NLC

This is second such accident at NLC in less than 2 months. On 7 May 2020, 4 contract workers were killed and several others suffered serious injuries when a boiler exploded at the same unit of the thermal power plant. Lax management and negligence in maintenance claimed the life of 1 contract worker and left 2 other workers seriously injured in June, 2019 when a safety valve exploded in another unit of the thermal power plant. Contract workers have been facing the brunt of accidents as they are forced to undertake hazardous work by the management which has been absolving itself by  blaming the contracting agency for the health and safety of contract workers.

In the fight between workers’ safety and profit Modi sarkar has chosen to side with profit

Industrial accidents have risen exponentially since factories are restarting after a long break due to the countrywide lockdown imposed on 24 March 2020. In the wake of rising industrial accidents National Disaster Management Authority had issued guidelines for restarting factories on 10 May 2020 to ensure health and safety of workers. However, there is no obligation on employers to follow these guidelines nor any penalty from the NDMA in case of a mishap. This impunity has been normalised for the last 6 years since the government at the Centre pushed for ‘minimum government’ interference, scraping inspection by labour officers and allowing companies to self-certify on matters related to health and safety.

It is being further pushed by the state governments in BJP ruled states like Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh which have sought President’s assent on ordinances scrapping all labour laws for 1000 to 1200 days for new enterprises saving a few pertaining to payment of wages and working conditions of women and children.  Government at the Centre has chosen to remain silent on the issue and covertly pushed the states to use the ordinance route to achieve such anti-worker changes in labour laws which fall in line with the so called ‘reforms’ presented by it in the parliament in the guise of simplification of existing labour legislation into 4 Labour Codes.

Doing away with the existing legislation will prove to be a death trap for the workers. It will absolve the employers of whatever accountability there exists to ensure health and safety at the workplace, leading to accident prone workplaces.

NTUI stands in solidarity with the injured workers and the families of the deceased and demands that:

  • Management of Neyveli Lignite Corporation be charged with criminal negligence resulting in death of workers
  • NLC provide jobs to next of kin of deceased workers
  • NLC bear the cost of medical treatment of injured workers and pay them full wages for the period they would not be able to return to work due to health reasons
  • Tamil Nadu government launch a probe regarding recurring accidents at the plant
  • Ministry of Labour initiate a health and safety audit of all manufacturing units across the country

In the light of the rising cases of accidents New Trade Union Initiative also calls upon:

  1. The President of India to deny assent to all ordinances concerning labour rights placed before him by various state governments.
  2. The Government of India to withdraw the labour codes including the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019 and to reintroduce the system of statutory randon inspections by government health and safety officers and filing of returns by employers on all matters concerning the health and safety of workers.

Gautam Mody

General Secretary