Mazdoor Ekta Lehar (MEL) interviewed Com. Preethi, one of the leaders of Indian Oil Employees Union regarding the condition of workers in Indian Oil Corporation LPG bottling plants under Corona Virus threat and Lockdown situation. Following is the text of the interview.
MEL - All over the world countries and people are facing very serious situation due to Covid-19 Virus attack. In our country the Lockdown that is being implemented has put untold sufferings on the people and workers of India. In this context, we like to know the condition of the workers in Indian Oil Corporation (IOC).
Com. Preethi (PR) - Workers in essential services sectors are impacted directly due to the crisis of Covid-19. In this war against Covid-19, Health sector viz. Doctors, Nurses, paramedical staff, Ambulance workers, Sanitation workers and people who provide other essential services such as ration shop staff/shop keepers, police personnel, etc. form the front line fighters. Other than these workers, Bank employees, workers in Petroleum industries, power generation, etc. also provide essential services for the people under the current situation. People may not realize this, but they are also exposed to the same risks as the front line workers.
MEL - Can you elaborate on the working conditions and the risks for IOC workers working in LPG bottling plants?
PR - IOC has Chennai Petroleum as its primary Petroleum refinery unit in Tamil Nadu. About 5000 workers are working there.
One of the key services of IOC is to provide petrol and diesel for transportation through all petrol bunks. As the entire transport services are blocked now, no supply is needed to this sector. The other service is providing cooking gas to every households. In Tamil Nadu, IOC has about 10 LPG Bottling plants employing about 3000 workers. 70 % of them are contract workers. Together these workers fill and distribute 2.9 Lakhs LPG Cylinders per day. All over India, about 60 lakh cylinders are being produced every day.
Our workers in gas filling plants, fill in Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) in cylinders. Recently government has announced free cooking gas cylinders to those under Ujwala scheme for next 3 months. In various ways, lockdown has increased the demand for gas cylinders in the country. Now our workers are working to produce more than normal levels to meet this demand.
Thousands of empty cylinders come in and our workers fill them with LPG and cylinders go out for distribution. These cylinders go to all houses including the ones marked as red zone due to potential Corona virus spread. All cylinders are manually handled by the workers. Some of these cylinders could be carrying the Covid-19 virus. But our workers have no knowledge of them and they handle them all alike. It is an essential service which cannot be suspended.
The physical distance between the workers in the production area has remained as it was prior to the Covid-19 crisis. There is no change. Despite all talk of social distance, this cannot be maintained in the production lines. The same number of workers are working together to carry out the production. So they work at the risk of catching the Virus either from the cylinders they handle or from the other co-workers if any of them are infected with it. They do not get any special allowances for the serious risks they face in the course of their work.
MEL - What are the specific demands of the workers in IOC in this context?
PR - Considering the Virus attack risks they undertake at this time, workers in this sector are demanding special payment such as doubling of their wages. Among the workers, the contract workers face maximum impact and risks, compared to other workers.
Although the Corporation has provided face masks, hand gloves and sanitizers, they are inadequate for the number of workers. Based on the work and other contingencies workers have to remove their face masks every now and then. But once it is removed, it should not be reused. And there are not sufficient masks and hand gloves to meet the need.
IOC workers are not provided with transportation. They are treated as daily wagers. If they do not turn up for work, they will lose their wages for the day. Police also attacks the workers when they commute to the factory, even if they show their ID cards. Workers are demanding transport facility at least for the current locked down period.
Canteens in the factories work in the same old method. There is no provision to maintain social distancing, etc. In some factories, canteens are closed and not functioning, leaving workers without any options for food. Workers are demanding that the Company must provide necessary provisions such as - rice, dal, oil, etc so that workers can manage in the present situation.
For the gas delivery agencies all over the country the drivers, delivery boys and handlers face even greater risks. Company should provide them with sanitizers and hand gloves. But this is also not done in all cases.
In order to detect any Corona Virus infection on our workers early, the management should organize necessary medical checkup of workers on daily basis and take proactive preventive measures.
But the Company management has not shown any serious interest to address the above critical requirements of the workers.
MEL - What does the current situation indicate?
PR - In the interests of big capitalists, Indian Government is very keen to push the privatization of various public sector companies, particularly the Petroleum producing companies. IOC and other petroleum companies are part of one of the vital sectors of economy. In the event of a crisis such as the current Corona virus, a war or trade sanctions and blockages on India, it is these public sector companies in energy sector which will be the backbone for running our country. If you privatize such an important sector, then people are virtually defenseless in case of any such emergencies and crisis. Why would a company which works with the prime objective of maximizing its profit, intervene and do its best for the people under difficult circumstances? Under such critical situations, instead of solving the issue, a private corporation could actually create artificial scarcity and would not hesitate to hold the country to ransom. This is what we are seeing today in retail sectors by big retail and distribution corporations, who are hoarding essential food items and minting money at the cost of society. Besides, pure profit motive also intensifies the exploitation of workers, outsourcing and increases unemployment in the country.
Thus, Corona crisis very clearly tells us that enterprises in critical sectors should not be allowed to be privatized, instead they should be brought under social control.
MEL - What can we consider as the lessons from the Corona pandemic?
PR - In our own country, most people opt to go to public hospitals and not to private hospitals. This is because if a patient has to use a ventilator or any other equipment it would cost lakhs of rupees in a private hospitals, which most people cannot afford. Public ownership of all key production and services is necessary to protect the interests of the people. Hence, whether it is pharmaceutical, medical equipment, medical research or any other service in the health sector, it is critical that production and distribution of goods and services are under social control and not in the hands of profit-driven private corporations.
Countries all over the world spend a very large percentage of public funds on militarisation. Instead, they should be spending more on health and other essential social goods and services. The present crisis has shown how inadequate the investment is in the health sector and how poorly equipped it is to deal with a pandemic. The money that is being wasted on military and armaments must be utilized for productive purposes. It must be used for education, health care and other services that contribute to people's welfare.
All of us must work towards establishing social and political systems which are people centered.
MEL - MEL whole heartedly supports the IOC workers' demands. Thanks, Comrade for sharing your views and time.