The state must ensure safe, healthy working conditions for all workers

The Occupational Health, Safety and Working Conditions Code (OHSW) is one of the four Labour Codes that the government passed in Parliament, in the name of simplifying labour laws, but with the actual intent of ensuring greater ease of doing business for the capitalists. It was passed by parliament without any discussion and enacted as a law on September 28, 2020. Workers’ organisations were not consulted on this issue of vital importance to the working class. No attempt was made to address the concerns raised time and again by workers and their organisations on occupational health, safety and working conditions.

The OSHW code is a blatant attack on the safety, health and dignity of workers. It has been roundly condemned by all trade unions and workers’ organisations in every sector. Workers are demanding repeal of this anti worker law. They are demanding that the state ensure safe, healthy working conditions for all workers.

The safety, health and working conditions of workers have always been a major preoccupation of the working class movement of our country. Through many struggles waged over decades, the working class was able to force the capitalist governments to enact laws that provided for some improvement of working conditions for some sections of workers. These sector specific laws dealt with factory workers, mine workers, journalists and others working in the newspaper industry, port and dock workers, beedi workers, construction workers, etc.

Despite these laws, the conditions in which majority of workers are forced to work continue to be terrible. Tens of thousands of workers lose their lives every year while at work. Lakhs more suffer grievous injuries. Fires engulfing factories and godowns, underground mines caving in and trapping workers, blasts in furnaces, workers falling to death at construction sites, trackmen killed during work, deaths while cleaning sewers, etc. are a daily occurrence in our country. Workers who suffer grievous injuries at work due to machine failure and lack of safety measures, and are thereby rendered incapable of work, are simply thrown out of their jobs, with no compensation. There is no official count of the actual number of deaths in such accidents, 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 that exist in our country.

Apart from those who die in the workplace, many workers contract numerous life-threatening diseases in the workplace, which lead to ill health and early death. The debilitating effects of such workplace hazards often show up several years later, making it difficult for workers to prove the cause or claim any kind of compensation. 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.

It is the right of workers to have healthy and safe working conditions. It is the duty of the state to ensure that this right is guaranteed. The fact that this right is not guaranteed for the vast majority of workers is an indictment of the man-eating capitalist system and the state which protects this system of exploitation.

It is not difficult to ensure that safe working conditions are created for workers. The Indian state has refused to ensure safe working conditions for workers at the workplace, because it regards this as a roadblock in the drive of the capitalists for maximum profits. All governments from the time of independence have only paid lip service to defending workers’ concerns, but done nothing to seriously address those concerns. The Modi government is no different. ​ This is confirmed by the OSHW Act.

The working class has been demanding that the state take steps to ensure safe working conditions for all workers in all workplaces. The OSHW Act excludes the vast majority of workers.

Establishments employing less than ten people and factories employing less than 20 workers are excluded. Contractors can employ up to 50 workers and not have to register under the OSHW Act. They do not even have to maintain a record of the workers they are employing at a particular time. Capitalists can run their factories using multiple contractors and subcontractors, and thus ensure that the vast majority of the workers are not covered by the Act.  IT workers, workers who are categorised as managers and supervisors, and gig workers, such as delivery workers and taxi drivers are excluded. Agricultural workers are not covered by this act.

Based on experience with existing labour laws, workers have been demanding that mechanisms be put into place to ensure that capitalists actually implement safety measures in the workplace. However, the OSHW Act is not enforceable. Trade unions and workers organisations cannot demand inspection of workplaces which are violating safety measures. Workers who have complaints about safety and health are expected to lodge their complaints directly with their employer!

Owners are supposed to self-certify that they are implementing safety measures in their enterprise. The government has announced that it will not send inspectors to the vast majority of enterprises which are registered under this act, to check on safety measures in the enterprise. It will send Inspector cum Facilitators to a few enterprises selected on a random basis from the computer database of all enterprises registered under the act. If the enterprise is not properly implementing the measures prescribed in the act, the Inspector cum Facilitator is supposed to suggest what should be done as a remedy. The maximum fine for violation of the Act is Rupees 2 lakh!

The working class has been demanding a safe working environment for working women. Trade unions and women’s organisations have been demanding that women must not be forced to work in night shifts. Where women work in night shifts, like in hospitals and airlines, the employers must ensure their safety and security both at the workplace and in commuting between their home and workplace. The OSHW Act is a major attack on working women. It does not guarantee the safety and security of the working woman, either at the workplace, or on the way to and from work. It legalizes night work for women, saying it is “voluntary”. How can a woman or girl, desperate for a job, refuse night duty “voluntarily”, when her livelihood is dependent on it?

The OSHW Act was passed after the whole country witnessed the terrible plight of crores of migrant workers working in different parts of the country following the Covid Lockdown. Faced with hunger and starvation, workers walked hundreds of km to their homes in the villages. The government claimed that it would take measures to ensure the rights of migrant workers in the cities and states where they work. The OSHW Act shows that this too is an eyewash. The welfare measures prescribed for migrant workers in the Act are applicable only if an enterprise employs at least 10 migrant workers. Most migrant workers are employed by contractors on construction sites. A contractor who employs up to 50 workers does not even have to register under the OSHW Act.

The draft rules prepared by the Central Government for the OSHW Act reveal the anti-worker character of the Act ever more clearly. The Rules, for instance, increase the spread of hours at workplace from 10 hours 30 minutes to 12 hours. The spread of hours refers to the period between the time workers report to work and the time when workers finally leave the workplace for the day. This effectively increases the length of the working day to 12 hours. This will enable capitalists to intensify the exploitation of workers by forcing workers to do supplementary work even during the “off time”.

The OSHW Act is so long and complicated, that ordinary workers will find it very difficult to understand its provisions. Only a trained lawyer, versed in the art of promising one thing in one line and negating it in the next, could possibly comprehend it. The Act does not constitute a clear and simple charter of workers’ rights at the workplace, which must be made known to every worker in every workplace in our country. In the name of reducing the number of laws related to labour, the government has eliminated 13 existing laws dealing with workers in different sectors. In the process, it has deliberately removed crucial provisions which workers of these sectors had fought for, and incorporated in the respective laws.

Trade unions and other workers organisations are justly demanding the scrapping of the Occupational Health, Safety and Working Conditions Code.

The struggle to ensure legislation that guarantee occupational health, safety and working conditions for every worker are put in place and are enforceable must be stepped up. It is part of the struggle to replace the present capital centric orientation of the economy with a human centric orientation. As long as the capitalist class wields political power, it will use this power to deny workers our rights. Hence our struggle for rights must be waged with the political aim of replacing capitalist rule with worker peasant rule. With political power in its hands, the working class will be able to reorient the economy to fulfill human needs instead of capitalist greed.

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