Labour

The Life of Labour: 32 Workers Killed in NTPC Accident, India Falls 10 Places On The Gender Gap Index

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Illustration by Aliza Bakht

Illustration by Aliza Bakht

Major accident in NTPC plant in Unchahar kills 30 workers

32 workers have been killed and over 100 injured when a high-pressure steam boiler in an NTPC-operated thermal power plant in Uttar Pradesh exploded on Wednesday. Early reports said that the explosion occurred on a newly commissioned 500 MW unit which was malfunctioning. The workers had been sent in to repair the unit. Lalmani Verma, an engineer posted at NTPC Unchahar, told Hindustan Times that at the time of the explosion the temperature of the steam was 140 degrees and pressure in the boiler was 765 kg per mm square. “The heat is enough to melt a person. Around 40 labourers working very close to the boiler bore the brunt of the blast,” he said. Apart from engineers, the power plant employed hundreds of migrant contract workers on daily wage. They get paid about Rs. 200 a day. The labourers know the dangers of working in power plants but often have little option. “It was a risky affair to work on that plant as it was made operational a month ago, and things were not safe,” claimed a labourer who had refused to work on Plant No 6 when the contractor had asked him to take the job. Most of the victims were day labourers but there were also engineers and officers who were caught in the fire.

The government, represented by the Union Minister R.K. Singh, has categorically dismissed ‘human error’. NTPC has begun an investigation to find out the cause of this accident. Congress and Samajwadi party have called for a judicial probe into the accident. In the meantime, the government has announced a compensation of Rs. 20 lakhs (with the state government paying another Rs. 5 lakh) for the family of the deceased and Rs. 10 lakhs for those injured. While the compensation might help alleviate the financial cost of losing breadwinners, it does not decrease the hazard for the workers who are callously exposed to such accidents. There have been numerous other instances of boiler explosions in thermal plants in UP but they didn’t catch the attention of the media because there were no deaths or major injuries.

Informal sector women workers have no protection against sexual harassment

The film and academic communities are shuddering with a number of women coming out with their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of powerful and celebrated men. While this has initiated a wider debate, an article in Economic Times reveals the plight of the marginalized contract women workers who have little recourse to any process and are often gravely exposed to this crime. The recent incidents in BBMP that led to a massive protest by pourakarmikas and the case of Zohra Bibi from Noida are rare instances where this issue has gained widespread attention.  “If you look at the form of employment, there is absolutely no job security. If they raise any question, they stand to lose their employment, something they are extremely scared of. The labour department is ineffectual, the owners wash their hands off it — so these workers are extremely vulnerable,” says lawyer Clifton D’Rozario. Referring to an Oxfam study on sexual harassment in the informal sector, the article documents the complete lack of institutional framework to complain and take action against harassment. Internal committees in workplaces, as mandated by the Supreme Court (Vishaka guidelines), are non-existent and even the local complaints committee that need to be setup within the district collectorates have not been set up in most cases. This blows a big hole in any possible ‘due process’ to bring justice to victims and prevent future crimes. The article further documents the plight of domestic workers, who are even more vulnerable as they work in isolation and are often helpless in the event of rape or other forms of sexual harassment at the hands of the employers. The central government has been mulling laws to protect domestic workers but in the absence of a robust institutional mechanism to combat harassment and security of job and wage, the women workers can achieve some protection only by organising themselves in unions.

India falls 10 places to 108 on the Gender Gap Index of the World Economic Forum

India’s two biggest metropolitan cities (Mumbai and New Delhi) might have become easier venues to start a business but India as a whole has become a more difficult space for women. We dropped 10 places on the World Economic Forum index on Gender Gap, settling at the 108th place. China is at 144 (last on the list). The index compares opportunities for men and women from every country on four counts – political empowerment, economic participation, health and education. The world as a whole has also slipped overall. “It was a disappointing year,” said Saadia Zahidi, head of education, gender and work at the WEF. The global backsliding reflects a general slowing of progress in the world’s larger economies. At this rate, the report estimates it will take 100 years for the world to achieve parity.

Assam tea garden workers protest for decent minimum wage

The tea garden workers of Assam protested to pressure the state government to increase their daily wage to Rs. 350. In an earlier edition of Life of Labour, we had covered the constitution of a committee by the Assam government to fix their wage, which has remained well below the mandate minimum wage in the state. The tea workers fear that their wages will be suppressed by the committee in order to gain favours from the tea plantation owners and corporations. Their protest is to press their demands in this regard and they are being supported by students and the civil society in Assam.

Just across the state border, Darjeeling tea garden owners are facing acute shortage of workers who migrated out during the 100 day shut down during the Gorkha land agitations. According to the plantations owners, only a mere 40% workers remain and it is grossly inadequate to even do basic maintenance work such a de-weeding and pruning the tea bush.

Death brings home reality of Indian workers’ life in Gulf

Roli Srivastava writes about Chittam, a 45-year-old labourer from Kalleda in Telangana, one of the “nearly 450 Indian migrant workers shipped home in body bags since 2014”. Such articles are a much-needed antidote to the unilaterally positive press about the economic opportunities available in the Gulf countries. Chandrasekhar Boragalla, another resident of Kalleda village, also shared his story: “I paid 70,000 rupees to the agent for this job. When I reached there, they made me sign a two-year bond for a salary much lower than what was promised. I wasn’t even paid for three months. I was asked to pay 85,000 rupees for leave to go home.”

Other news

CMR Toyutsu workers left in the lurch even after a year of legal struggle

18 retrenched workers of CMR Toyutsu, an aluminium sheet manufacturer, went on a one day protest near the factory to mark a year out of work. They had gone on a strike last year demanding improvements in wage and conditions of work. As the contract workers far outnumbered the permanent workers, the strike failed even though the local community supported them. But the company refused to re-employ them forcing them to go to the labour court. With the court sitting on the case of over a year, they have been forced into unemployment.

Forcing a ‘voluntary separation’: Wipro employee on unfair HR practices

IT major Wipro had announced a series of layoffs early this year. Some software engineers had challenged these measures in the labour conciliation office. They had raised industrial disputes under the Industrial Dispute Act. This had prevented the management from retrenching the workers. In order to force their exit, the company has been using various strategies. In this article, a Wipro Employee details these measures while evaluating the need and role of unions in the IT sector.

International

Death by Work: Workers pay homage to colleague who killed himself

Jacoby Marquis Hennings, a 22-year-old temporary part-time employee at both Ford and Fiat Chrysler in Detroit, shot himself in the office of the United Auto Workers. According to a WSWS report, Hennings had come to the office to complain about a supervisor who had sent him home for being late. “Whether this young man was driven to suicide or his death was the result of still unexplained circumstances, the tragedy is an indictment of the UAW, which long ago abandoned any elemental shop floor representation and protection, and functions as a partner in the exploitation of auto workers,” writes Jerry White.

Japan released white paper on death by overwork

We’ve written before about the idea of ‘karoshi’, or death by overwork, that seems to have become an epidemic in Japan. The second annual karoshi White Paper which came out this week revealed some terrifying numbers. “There were 191 work-related deaths and attempted suicides in the fiscal year ending March 2017. This was two more than the previous year. In the same fiscal year, 498 cases of mental illness, such as depression, were deemed work-related. And from January 2010 to March 2015, 368 suicides – 352 men and 16 women – were deemed as karoshi.”

Los Angeles Times workers push to form union to save the paper from profiteers

The Los Angeles Times has been seen at the forefront of anti-union propaganda for much of its life. It remains the only major newspaper without a unionized workforce. But that might soon change as the journalists at LA Times are earnestly trying to form a union much to the chagrin of the owners. With increased competition from other media forms, the change in management and editorship and the motivation to make more profits rather than deliver credible news, the newspaper is facing troubling times. Increasing contractualisation of the workforce is also threatening employees who have served a lifetime with the newspaper. The recent attempt to unionise the workforce is also an attempt to stake a more direct control over the management and editorial policy of the paper. The journalists feel that the profit motivation of the present ownership has greatly deteriorated the quality and credibility of the paper. They believe that only organised workers can take back and restore its legacy. Thus, union formation is not merely to save their jobs but to save the historic paper itself.