The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (OSH) Code is one of the four labour codes that the Indian state promulgated in September 2020. It replaced existing labour laws dealing with these issues. Over several decades of struggle and sacrifice, workers of our country have forced the state to pass laws which promised a degree of social security to some sections of workers. Workers are pointing out that the OSH Code is an attack on all these achievements. It greatly aggravates the already deplorable conditions that workers in all sectors face, in terms of their health, safety and working conditions at the workplace. It is a grave violation of the workers’ right to life and dignity. It is being resolutely opposed by trade unions cutting across party affiliation, and by workers and their organisations in all industries and services.
Addressing the meeting organised by Mazdoor Ekta Committee on the OSH code on December 24, 2022, speakers elaborated on the hazardous working conditions of workers in the railways, construction sites, textile and garment industry, nurses and health workers, domestic workers and workers in many other sectors and services.
The main speakers in the meeting were Shri Birju Nayak, Secretary, Mazdoor Ekta Committee; Shri Kanta Raju, National General Secretary, All India Railway Track Maintainers Union (AIRTU); Shri Sanjay Pandhi, Central Working President, Indian Railway Loco Runningmen Organization; Shri Subhash Bhatnagar, Secretary, Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam and Dr Swati Rane, Founder, Sevashakti Healthcare Consultancy. The meeting was conducted by Sucharita on behalf of Mazdoor Ekta Committee.
Shri Birju Nayak pointed out that the safety, health and working conditions of workers have always been a major concern of the working class of our country. Lakhs of workers lose their lives every year in the workplace. Lakhs more suffer injuries, many of them are disabled for life. Fires in factories, underground mines caving in and trapping workers, mines getting flooded drowning the workers, blasts in furnaces, workers falling to death at construction sites, trackmen killed during work, deaths while cleaning sewers, all these are a daily occurrence in our country — some reported, the majority going unreported. The majority of workers who lose their lives in this way, are workers on contract. They are forced to work in abysmal conditions, with all safety norms violated. There is no official count of the actual number of deaths at workplaces, since the government does not even bother to keep track of the conditions of workers in the lakhs of unregistered factories, offices, shops, sweatshops and construction sites all over our country.
The deaths and injuries suffered by workers at the workplace are falsely called accidents to hide the truth that they are the result of deliberate neglect of safety measures by the capitalist owners who are driven by greed to maximise profits.
Birju Nayak explained that deaths at the workplace are not the only or major cause of death of workers due to working conditions. The conditions of work in the factories and mines are so terrible, that workers contract numerous diseases such as cancer and lung diseases, which lead to ill health and early death. The government of India does not maintain any record of the number of workers who die as a result of diseases contracted at the workplace.
The OSH Code completely ignores the concerns of precisely those sections of workers who are most vulnerable, Birju Nayak pointed out. It is applicable only to enterprises that show more than 10 workers on their payroll, thereby excluding 90% of the workers of the country, including agricultural workers. The Code also excludes IT workers as well as those ranked as “managers”, “supervisors”, etc. By extending the hours of work per week in the name of ‘overtime’ and legalising night shift work for women, it constitutes a further attack on the rights and security of workers.
Birju Nayak said that the terrible conditions in which the vast masses of workers of our country are forced to earn their living, are an indictment of the man-eating capitalist system in our country and of the Indian state, which is dedicated to protect this system of exploitation. The capitalist class refuses to ensure safe working conditions for workers, because it will hurt its drive for maximum profits. All governments have worked to defend this drive of the capitalists and the present government is no exception. We must unitedly step up the struggle to demand legislation that will guarantee healthy and safe working conditions for every worker, he concluded.
Shri Kanta Raju spoke eloquently about the extremely hazardous conditions of work of the nearly 4 lakh track maintainers in the Indian Railways. There are no safety measures in place for the trackmen. As a result, every year, nearly 300-400 trackmen are killed, while on duty. The procedure for getting the due compensation is long and complicated, adding to the distress of the aggrieved families.
Trackmen are heavily overworked. They work on 12-hour shifts, without overtime compensation. Nearly one lakh posts of trackmen are lying vacant but the government and Railway Board are refusing to fill these posts, he said. Trackmen have been demanding that the Railway Board should deploy the safety devices to track the incoming and outgoing trains on the tracks, for the safety of the trackmen. The railways have shown no urgency to do so. Trackmen have to work in the dark, using their mobile torches, which is extremely hazardous. Trackmen working at the level crossing gates have no rest rooms, no drinking water or toilets. All this shows that the government of India has a completely callous attitude to health and safety of workers.
Elaborating on the four labour codes, Shri Kanta Raju explained that these are an outright attack on all the rights that workers have won through their struggle. The right to form the union of their choice is under attack. He gave the example of how the Railway Board has stalled the recognition of the track maintainers’ union, under the pretext that the rules of the labour codes have not yet been finalised! The capitalists want to crush all the rights of the workers, so that they can maximise their profits, and the government is completely working in their interests, he pointed out. On behalf of the trackmen of Indian Railways, he expressed their determination to step up the struggle to prevent implementation of the 4 labour codes.
Shri Sanjay Pandhi explained that the OSH labour code had been framed by subsuming 13 labour laws pertaining to safety in factories, mines, docks, construction sites, journalists, etc. as well as laws pertaining to contract workers and migrant workers. The specific nature of the accidents, injuries and hazards faced by railway workers are not included in these. Diseases such as insomnia, back pain, diabetes, loss of memory, etc. arising out the conditions of work in the Railways are not included. The right of workers to form their own trade union is under attack, he pointed out. The right to safe working conditions is being openly flouted by the OSH Code which stipulates that only enterprises employing more than 500 workers will have a mandatory safety committee. This excludes the vast majority of workers in small enterprises as well as contract workers.
Shri Sanjay Pandhi pointed out the many provisions in the Code which allow the employers to increase the amount of overtime and intensify the exploitation of the workers. He called for stepping up the united struggle of all workers against the Labour Codes, at all workplaces as well as on the streets.
Shri Subhash Bhatnagar spoke of the long struggle, stretching over more than 25 years, that construction workers have had to wage, in order to have a comprehensive legislation for workers of this sector, the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Act. As a result of this struggle, today more than 5 crore construction workers all over the country are registered and a corpus of more than Rs 80,000 crore has been created for their immediate and long term needs. Shri Bhatnagar pointed to various ways in which this fund was being misused by the authorities, to the detriment of the workers.
However, with the introduction of the OSH Code, the BOCW Act itself has been repealed and the construction workers are likely to be denied many of these hard-won rights, Shri Bhatnagar explained. Therefore, construction workers are demanding the revival of the BOCW Act. Together with all other Trade Unions and workers’ organisations, construction workers too are opposing the four Labour Codes, said Shri Bhatnagar.
Dr Swati Rane spoke of the health and safety concerns of nurses and health workers. She denounced the government for not fulfilling its duty of providing good quality health care at affordable cost to all people. The government is wrecking the public health system, she said, and pushing for more and more privatisation of health care services. The government, she said, is working in the interests of the capitalists, who want to earn huge profits out of the sickness and misery of the workers. Diabetes, hyper tension, cancer, etc. are some very prevalent work-related diseases today. In addition, workers do not have clean and hygienic living conditions, clean drinking water, nutritious food and a clean environment. An average worker spends a very large part of his wages on health care, because he and his family members are forced to go to private doctors and hospitals.
Dr Rane said that the government is trying to close the ESI hospitals and compel workers to go to private hospitals. The Covid pandemic showed that only the government hospitals, though very few and very inadequately staffed, were the ones that served the people whereas the private hospitals turned away patients or fleeced them. Nurses and health workers are highly exploited, she pointed out, and much more so in private hospitals. Nurses do not get proper drinking water, do not have proper changing rooms or rest rooms for night duty and are exposed to hazardous conditions without proper safety kits. She denounced the use of contract workers for hospital duties, even in the government hospitals. She put forward the demand for more government hospitals and that all health workers in hospitals must be government employees, properly trained and paid adequate salaries and safe working conditions.
Swati Rane proposed the setting up of peoples’ forums, which can fight for the rights of workers to good and affordable health care. She appealed to all to work to spread awareness among people about the conditions of work of health workers and workers of other sectors and to demand proper health care and safe working conditions. Health workers and all workers must unite and demand better health, safety and working conditions for all workers, she said.
Geetha Ramakrishnan from Tamilnadu spoke about the conditions of construction workers. She pointed out that the section of the BOCW Act dealing with safety at work has been completely omitted in the OSH code. That is why the immediate demand of construction workers is the restoration of the BOCW Act, she explained.
Construction workers are not covered under Employees State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) as they do not work for a single employer. Most of the construction work is on contract and sub-contract, she explained.
She raised the demand for universal coverage under ESIC, of all workers including construction workers and all other workers in the unorganised sector, such as agricultural workers, domestic workers, home-based workers, beedi workers, etc.
Father Bosco, working for the rights of migrant workers, spoke of the problems of migrant workers from many different states of India, who come to work in Tamil Nadu. The majority of these workers are on contract and contract labour is on the increase, he explained, including in many departments of the state administration. There are no laws for ensuring that the employer provides any kind of security at the workplace for contract workers. Whatever victories workers have won through their struggle are going to be denied under the labour codes. Water, shelter, education, health — all these basic necessities and rights are denied to the contract workers and migrant workers. They are forced to live in terrible conditions, without toilets, proper food and drinking water. He called for all workers’ organisations to unite and fight for the labour codes to be revoked and for the state to guarantee safe and proper working conditions for all workers.
Shri Krishnamurthy of the Workers’ Support Group, Tamilnadu, intervened to highlight the conditions of the textile and garment workers of Tirupur. Tamilnadu has the largest concentration of spinning mills. Most of the workers are young women from different states of the country, working on contract, with no job security. They are forced to live in miserable conditions in hostels, within the mills, without proper food, drinking water or toilets. Workers in the textile mills are constantly exposed to cotton fluff and noise, which affect their health adversely. They are not provided with protective safety gear. They work like bonded labourers. Majority of the workers are not covered by ESIC. There is no compensation for accidents or for leave that workers have to take when they are recovering from illness. Krishnamurthy said that the OSH code is a blatant attack on the basic rights of the workers. He called on all workers’ organisations to unitedly fight for repeal of the labour codes.
G Bhave of Kamgar Ekta Committee described how the hours of work of railway engine drivers and trackmen are being increased. This is not only making their work more hazardous and adversely affecting their health, but also increasing the risk for the passengers.
Dalvinder of Indian Workers’ Association, UK, pointed out that all governments make promises to people but faithfully implement the agenda of the capitalist class. How can people be empowered so that they can hold their elected representatives accountable, this is a question we all need to think and debate about, he said.
Speakers thanked MEC for providing a platform where workers of different sectors can speak about their problems to workers from other sectors, thereby strengthening working class unity.
There was unanimity that the four labour codes are aimed at intensifying the exploitation of workers. The OSH code is increasing the insecurity of workers at the workplace, and depriving workers of rights won through years of struggle. There is need to step up our united struggle against these labour codes, in defence of the rights of workers.
The way forward for the working class is to strengthen our fighting unity against the capitalist class and all attacks on our rights. We must strengthen worker-peasant unity against the program of globalisation, through liberalisation and privatisation. We need to step up our struggle with the aim of establishing workers’ and peasants’ rule, so as to reorient the economy to fulfil human needs instead of fulfilling capitalist greed.