Almost exactly a year after it released a report, titled ‘What Can Safeguard Workers?’, to highlight the plight of the nearly 80,000 strong workforce in Gurgaon-Manesar, the auto industry hub near New Delhi, Safe-In-India (SII) – a civic initiative launched by three IIM graduates – has now joined forces with Aaajeevika, India’s leading public service organisation which is dedicated to ensuring the security and dignity of migrant workers and their families. The joint initiative aims to reach out to more workers in need.
Just as Safe-in-India’s first report documented various individual cases of employer negligence which had forced workers into a life of penury and misery, this time too the organisation’s chief executive officer (CEO) Sandeep Sachdeva has pointed out that things have not really changed much for the workforce in the region almost a year after the release of the first report.
“The hundreds of injured workers in Gurgaon-Manesar we have interacted with have confirmed that there are no organisations providing them the much-needed support in obtaining employee state’s insurance (ESI0 health care and compensation. In the short term, we hope to fill this gap and have been lucky to get support from Gurgaon-Manesar ESI executives. [A] lot more needs to be done and our ultimate aim is to reduce such accidents first in Gurgaon-Manesar and then in the whole of the country and be able to provide a better security network to workers who experience such tragedies in their lives, which often have disastrous consequences for them and their families,” said Sachdeva.
He also pointed out the importance of SII’s partnership with Aajeevika as it would help SII to “scale up quickly to help more and more workers”.
It is not a coincidence that the tie-up is being formalised on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. Sachdeva told The Wire, “In September 1931, Mahatma Gandhi visited Lancashire textile mills in the United Kingdom, where the local workers wanted him to see for himself the hardship being suffered by them, due to his movement’s boycott of British goods. When Gandhi was told about how bad things were due to him, he simply replied, “My dear, you have no idea what poverty is”.”
85 years later, India has made very little progress in terms of giving due respect to human capital, so Sachdeva said the day was chosen, as “Gandhi would have still shed tears at the plight of the Indian contract worker”.
Employers not issuing accident forms
Sachdeva also told The Wire that one of the problems which has persisted since last year is that factory owners have not been issuing accident forms to their injured workers. Though having ESI has been helpful in resolving many cases, much more needs to be done to ameliorate the suffering of a large number of victims.
He said almost all injured workers struggle to get the benefits that are due to them as more than 75% of employers do not issue the critical accident form – which describes the incident – even months after its occurrence. He explained, “The employers shy away from completing the accident form, as issuing one may amount to an acknowledgement of their internal shortcomings and it can result in a government audit of their factories!”
This apart, he said, the ESI scheme needs several other documents to provide health and compensation services to injured workers. “But most injured workers are unaware of the paperwork they need to do. Lacking in confidence and local support, they are very often unable to obtain the benefits from ESI that they could if only there was someone holding their hand through the complicated process and pushing on their behalf to get the right documents from their employers.”
In the short term, SII is focusing on helping such workers with ESI processes. In the operation’s pilot stage, SII has been able to help 3 workers obtain compensation of around Rs 50,000 and is now pursuing several lakhs worth of compensation. The early success of the pilot proves that with right focus and investment, many more workers can benefit from the project.
Power presses are the culprit
The SII CEO cited the case of Dharamveer, a 26-year-old migrant contract worker from Uttar Pradesh, who lost two fingers from his left hand to a press machine while working in an auto-part factory on May 16. “After struggling with the employers for months and having lost his job after the accident, he finally lost all hope and returned to his village and has not come back to Manesar again.”
SII said that after contacting nearly 200 workers who had lost their hands or fingers in factory accidents, it realised that over 70% of these accidents had taken place because of power presses. “Lack of experience, training and safety measures are the key causes of these injuries. Over 70% of injured workers are below the age of 30 years,” Sachdeva added.
In fact, SII’s 2015 report, which it produced in association with Agrasar, included 20 case studies that depicted companies’ (owners, managers and contractors) apathy towards injured workers, most of whom were left with permanent disabilities and a consequent loss of employment and income. “This happens despite a slew of safety laws and monitoring agencies… Such incidents are only increasing by the day,” the report claimed.
Referring to a similar case resulting from institutional apathy, Sachdeva cited the case of Ram Babu, a 27-year-old migrant contract worker from Bihar who worked in Manesar. Babu got injured in an auto accident while returning from work. He was left with a disabled left hand, but SII assisted him in securing a reimbursement of Rs 20,000 for his medical expenditure. Now Babu is hoping to receive a Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 monthly pension from ESI soon. “Encouraged by his experience, Ram Babu is now a full time paid volunteer with Safe-in-India and helps in reaching out to the other injured workers with empathy and understanding.” But while there are thousands of Dharamveers in just Gurgaon-Manesar, the Ram Babus are far fewer in number.
Coming together to expand the support system
To institutionalise and expand the support system for injured workers, Safe-in-India has partnered with Aajeevika Bureau in order to access its “incubation support” that will include operational and technical guidance based on Aajeevika’s unique and widespread experience in multiple states. For its part, SII will assist Aajeevika in developing its response to accidents and injuries suffered by workers, ESI care and compensation, accident research and area specific migration issues related to Gurgaon-Manesar.
Hopefully, this should help in improving the lot of the workers, for whom physical injuries come with great mental, emotional and financial trauma. As Rajiv Khandelwal, CEO of Aajeevika Bureau, summed it up, the partnership is aimed at helping “workers who have not just lost fingers or hands, but have lost their jobs in most cases and their confidence to live a fulfilling life.”