In NCR Industrial Heartland, Workers Continue to Lose Limbs, Livelihood in Auto Sector Mishaps

A report points to poor adherence to training and safety norms, prosecution and punishment as factory accidents continue to hit the poorest of the workers the hardest.

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New Delhi: With in-factory conditions for workers not showing any marked improvement, a large number of those employed in the auto sector supply chain in the Gurugram belt of Haryana in North India continue to suffer life-changing injuries – by losing their hands, fingers or suffering nerve damage – in preventable mishaps, the latest report by Safe in India Foundation (SII) has revealed.

The SII, which has been working for the betterment of industry workers, many of who are poor migrants hired on contractual employment, which makes them ineligible for many benefits provided under Indian labour laws, has in its latest report ‘CRUSHED 2020′ stated that 504 injured workers were assisted by it in 2019-20. In its first report, the Foundation had covered the plight of 1,369 workers who sustained injuries between November 2016 and March 2019.

The report on workers’ safety, as part of the #JoinHandsToSaveHands initiative, has noted with concern that despite the fact that India’s auto sector now contributes 7.1% to India’s GDP with the major auto clusters in India Gurgaon/NCR, Chennai-Bangalore, Maharashtra-Gujarat, and West Bengal, accounting for almost 50% of the production, precious little is being done to improve the safety of the workers.

In Gurugram, it said, every year thousands of workers meet with serious accidents. “They lose their fingers, break their wrists, suffer nerve damage in their hands, and sometimes even lose the use of their hands. This happens despite the presence of safety laws and monitoring agencies in the country.”

The injuries often forces their “return to their villages with little hope to restart their careers”, the report said, adding that “they often settle for lesser paying jobs, severely impacting their families and violently disrupting their lives.”

Injured workers continue in jobs to support their families

In this regard, it provided the testimony of 40-year-old Sushma Pandey, who hailed from Bihar but took up a job in Manesar, Haryana to support her family. Sushma twice sustained injuries while working in factories, losing the thumb and index fingers of her right hand and the small toe of her left foot. Since March 2020 she has been working with a mask-making unit. “Sir, I must educate my children, so I have to work. I wouldn’t have to work so hard if my husband’s family offered any support,” said the woman, who was also insulted by her in-laws for bringing “insufficient dowry”.

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The report also cited the case of Alamgir Ansari, a 32 year old hailing from Gazipur who moved to Manesar in 2019 looking for a job. He lost the middle finger of his right hand while working on a circular saw machine in March 2020. He told SII that though he was hired as a helper, he was being used as a machine operator. He returned to working on the same machine a couple of months later to support his family. The injury, however, made it difficult for him to cut vegetables or even operate his mobile phone.

Accidents also impact the industry

The SII said such accidents also adversely affect the industry as there is loss of skilled labour, disruption due to accidents, and drop in worker morale which result in lower productivity.

It said 95% of the 504 injured workers covered in the latest report were employed in factories supplying to the three largest original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the region – namely Maruti, Hero and Honda. Likewise, 93% of the workers covered in the earlier report also worked for these three auto majors.

Of these companies, it said, “Maruti continues to have the largest share of accidents; Hero shows the worst trend; and Honda has a large number of accidents, too.” It added that one-third of the injured workers reported that their factories supplied to all these three OEMs while about a quarter reported that their factories supplied to two of the three OEMs.

In addition, almost all of the 19% of the accidents in other OEMs’ supply chain came from almost the same factories as being used by one or more of the same three large OEMs. As such, the report said, other OEMs such as Ashok Leyland, Eicher, Escorts, JCB, Mahindra, Tata, TVS and Yamaha too need to join hands to save hands.

Workers lost hands and fingers, suffered severe fractures, nerve damage

As per the report, 355 workers (70%) lost their fingers and/or hands permanently between April 2019 and March 2020. During the same period, 41 (8%) sustained severe fractures, 12 (2%) sustained nerve damage and 95 (19%) had other injuries.

The report said in 2019-20, power presses not only continued to cause the highest number of injuries but did worse: this machine was the reason for 59% of the injuries – up from the 52% reported in CRUSHED 2019. The moulding machine turned out to be the second most dangerous, causing 8% of all accidents.

On the reasons for power presses being responsible for so many accidents, the report said it was so because in 88% of them the safety sensors or related mechanisms do not work; in 83% cases there was lack of formal operating or safety training; there was lack of safety gear in 70% of the machines; there was production pressure from supervisors in 70% of cases and in 59% cases, the machines malfunctioned due to other reasons.

Training, safety are in name only

The report quoted a worker, Ram, as saying that he worked on the machine despite any formal training. “I learnt while working as a helper and watching the machine run. I never received any training.” Another worker, Mohit, said: “The supervisory showed me how to run the machine only once on my first day. He then told me to operate it and produce.”

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Another worker told SII how attempts are made by companies to hoodwink the auditors. “When there is a safety audit, the company provides us with shoes, gloves, helmet, ear safety and everything else, but as soon as the auditors leave, these are taken back and everything is back to where it was,” the report quoted a worker, Nand Raj, as saying.

Worse still, it provided a testimony to how the workers are often made to work on hazardous and faulty machines. It quoted a worker Vijay as saying: “Power press machine already had some problem. A worker had already lost his hand in the morning shift. Then I lost my finger in the evening shift. The machine continued giving double stroke.”

Investigation, prosecution remain slow

Despite there being so many industrial accidents, the report said the process of their investigation and prosecution remained painstakingly slow.

The number of pending cases continued to increase, and the proportion of verdicts continued to be low (around 31%) until 2017, indicating tardy corrective action. Of the verdicts, a very large proportion (around 71%) were convictions which indicated a high incidence of violations.

However, the average fine imposed per conviction was only Rs 3,668, which, the report said, was “too small an amount to serve as an effective deterrent to comply with industrial safety laws”.

Underreporting of accidents in Haryana, other states

The report also pointed to under-reporting of accident cases. It said the publicly available accident data for India and Haryana was available only until 2017.

As for Haryana, it said the state does not publish its accident data on its own domain. However, its data, available through Directorate General Factory Advice Service and Labour Institutes, which comes under the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment, shows an unrealistically small and inaccurate number of accidents.

During 2009-2017, Haryana reported generally reducing accidents. In 2017, it reported only 38 non-fatal injuries, which was less than 10% of injured workers that only the Worker Assistance Centre managed by SII in Manesar, Gurugram, had supported since then.

In view of all these findings, the report has recommended the need to “join hands to save hands” and called for pushing for worker safety in the auto sector specifically and improvement in working conditions generally.

It has also urged the need for key stakeholders to work constructively to bring about synergised safety improvements in the supply chain factories, especially the ones in the lower tiers of the chain. Simultaneously, it demanded that the workers be empowered through education, by letting them know about the functioning of the Employees State Insurance Corporation and safety best practices, particularly on machine safety.