Despite Injuries To Thousands of Workers, the Auto Sector's Safety Standards Remain Poor

A report finds rising incidence of accidents in Gurugram and Faridabad, but the contractual workers do not have access to benefits available under India’s labour laws.

New Delhi: Neetu Devi hails from Etawah in Uttar Pradesh and works on a power press machine in an auto parts manufacturing factory in Gurugram. She met with three accidents – in 2013, 2017 and 2019 – while working on the machine. Each time she lost a finger. But she is the sole earner in the family and has three children to support, so she continued to operate the machine.

This is just one testimony that is recorded by the Safe In India (SII) Foundation, in the second edition of its accident prevention report, CRUSHED 2020. The report says in the 2019-20 fiscal year, 1,873 workers were injured in these factories.

While the auto industry continues to be an important driver of India’s GDP and employment, the report finds that the reluctance of major companies and their original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) has been resulting in serious injuries to workers, especially to their hands and fingers, in major manufacturing hubs.

The foundation assisted many of the injured workers in Gurugram and Faridabad, two of the major auto component manufacturing areas in the Delhi National Capital Region. The foundation focusses on providing free assistance to injured workers in their health-care and insurance claims and using this experience to convince the ESIC to improve their services. It also hopes to influence the auto-sector industry to prevent these accidents in their supply chain.

Also Read: India’s Labour Laws Are Being Amended for Companies, Not Workers

‘Avoidable mishaps’

The report noted that as India strives to achieve the goal of “Make in India Safely” or atmanirbhar India, every year, thousands of workers in Gurugram, which is India’s leading automobile hub, 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,” it points out.

Stating that most of these workers are poor migrants hired on contractual employment, which, unlike permanent jobs, makes them ineligible for many benefits available under India’s labour laws, the report laments that without adequate resources and support, the workers are unable to fend for themselves in Gurugram while following through the complex and bureaucratic post-accident process.

“They return to their villages with little hope to restart their careers. Financial burden is soon added to mental and physical trauma. They often settle for lesser-paying jobs, severely impacting their families and violently disrupting their lives. Such accidents also adversely affect the industry. Loss of skilled labour, disruption caused by accidents, and drop in worker morale all lead to lower worker productivity in the country and have significant financial impact,” it pointed out.

Despite accidents, victims keep working

The report also presents individual testimonies to argue these points.

Citing the case of Alamgir Ansari, who had migrated to Mumbai from his hometown Gazipur to work in a power loom, before he moved to Manesar in Gurugram in 2019 while looking for a permanent job, the report said on March 22, 2020, when he went to a company to work on the circular saw machine, a rod fell on his hand, severing the middle finger. Once fond of wearing a ring, he gave up on it so as not to draw the attention of people to his severed finger.

According to SII, though Alam was hired as a helper, he was being used as a machine operator by the supervisor. After his wound healed, he returned to work on May 18 on the same machine in the same company to support his family.

Proportion of injured workers increased in Gurugram, Faridabad

The accident analysis said a majority of the accidents happen in the auto sector supply chain. The auto sector now contributes 7.1% to India’s GDP and 22% to its manufacturing GDP. It employs nearly 35 million people or about 9% of India’s working population. The main auto clusters in India are in Gurugram/Faridabad in Delhi NCR, Chennai-Bangalore, Maharashtra-Gujarat and West Bengal. Haryana alone accounts for nearly 50% of the production of passenger cars, motorcycles and tractors.

The report states that the proportion of injured workers in Gurugram and Faridabad from the auto sector increased in 2019-20. It said between November 2016 and March 2019, SII assisted 76% of the 1,800 injured auto sector workers in the region. Commenting on the working conditions, it said, “It appears that the OEMs’ prime focus remains cost, quality, and timely delivery; working conditions for workers are not a factor in their negotiations.”

Though the accident data for Gurugram and Faridabad compiled by SII shows a marginal year-on-year decline in the number of accident victims assisted during the same year – dropping from 465 in 2017-18, to 451 in 2018-19 to 385 in 2019-20, the actual number of accidents per production unit in 2019-20 is likely to be higher than in 2018-19. It based this outcome on the ground that about 16% of the accidents are reported to the SII after the year of the accident and that there was about an 18% drop in industry production during that period.

Young, migrant and contractual workers worst impacted

The report revealed that the majority of workers were young (52%), migrants (88%) and contractual (65%). As for the nature of injuries, it said the number of those who lost their hands or fingers increased from 61% to 70%.

It also stated that OEMs supplying equipment to three major companies – Maruti Suzuki, Hero and Honda – accounted for around 95% of these accidents.

The report also noted that companies with a poor track record of safety continued to figure repeatedly in incidents of accidents, with one-third of them taking place in 31 factories alone.

It also said that most of the injuries took place on the power press – a machine which is involved in 59% of the accidents, ups from 52% in the past year.

The report said that in 88% of the cases, the injuries were attributed to absent or malfunctioning safety sensors or other mechanisms on the power press. This number is up from 82% in the previous report.

A worker who lost his fingers in an accident. Photo: Amit Kumar/SII Foundation

Under-reporting of accidents, inadequate regulations

The report also reveals how in Haryana – where Gurugram and Faribadab are located – the last publicly available accident information is from 2017. It shows less than 10% of the accidents known to SII. It also claims that between 2011-17, Haryana’s factory inspections dropped and fines for violations of the Factory Act totalled only Rs 3,000.

On the reasons why power press were not being made safer, the report said, “Indian standards are disparate and do not converge in a cogent set of safety requirements.”