Today saw an industrial tragedy in Vizhakhapatnam with over 12 dead and thousands injured. This happened following a gas leak in the LG polymers plant in Vizag. Reports are that the plant was sought to be opened with only 30% strength as per the Kovid-3 guidelines. The personnel proved insufficient to run the plant safely and this resulted in a gas leak which led to the deaths and the disease. Coming, as this does, in the middle of the third Covid lockdown, it is putting pressure on the already fragile medical system especially in AP.
Nor was this the only tragedy today. As there is a rush to reopen after the lockdown, there was another gas leak reported in Chhatisgarh in Raigarh and a boiler blast in Neyveli in Tamil Nadu. This clearly shows that safety for workers and for society as a whole is being thrown to the winds in trying to regain the profits lost by industry due to the lockdown.
TUCI commiserates with the families of the dead and the injured. We promise to fight to see that justice is done for those dead and injured. The State Government has announced some compensation. At the same time, the dead and the injured are also entitled to compensation from the company. There have been reports that the company, in Vizag, has been trying to fob off the workers with insurance payments of Rs. 25000 per death and 1000 per month for loss of earnings for the persons injured. TUCI vows to fight any such attempt by the LG company to avoid its liability.
At the same time it is obvious from the three accidents today that industrial establishments are being opened in a hasty manner without adequate care being taken for safety and for health. At the same time, instead of increasing the measures for the health and safety of the workers and of society at large, the Central and various state governments are bent upon removing every vestige of rights for the workers, under the mistaken understanding that any increase in the rights of workers will mean a contraction of industrial growth.
One of the main, if not the sole, protections of the rights of workers to safety, is the Factories Act. This was already under attack even before the lockdown. Now many state governments like Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab and Maharashtra are amending the act to allow 12 hours duty as a norm in place of 8 hours duty. The Gujarat notification also reads that the wages are to be paid at single rate for the whole 12 hours and not at overtime rates. All of these notifications are clearly illegal. They offend the sections of the act, the powers given to states under the act as well as being against various conventions of the ILO which India has signed and endorsed and also some which it has not.
Today the UP Cabinet has taken a decision to suspend all rights of workers under under all labour laws (except the Bonded Labour Act, the Workmen’s Compensation Act, the Building and other Construction Workers Act and laws regarding women and children) for 1000 days. The reasons given for such decision is that industry has slowed down in the lockdown (as it was bound to) and it needs to be helped for some time to be able to recuperate. This is foolish and no reason at all. Firstly, it is tautology to say that industry has slowed down when it was ordered to be locked down by the Government. Secondly, there is nothing to show that curbing workers rights will allow industry to recuperate. History shows otherwise. Workers rights and growth of industry have gone hand in hand. There is no precedent to show that curbing workers rights will allow for a sustained growth of industry. It is clear that the UP cabinet have no constitutional or legal right to pass such an ordinance and certainly not without the assent of the President. Further, it is the workers who have been the worst sufferers in the lockdown. It makes no sense to remove rights like double wages for overtime, PF, ESI, etc and justify it as a measure to encourage industrialisation. Even morally, such a move could never be justified.
This is not even good economics. If workers don’t get proper wages, etc. This will have an effect on the home market. The workers employed by institutions like the PF office and the ESI office will starve. We will go back to the rule of hire and fire which has never been shown to help the growth of industry. It is clear that such a mentality does not even come from a developed capitalist thinking but from a primitive feudal or slave mentality. This is only the result of the UP Government pimping itself to the interests of the big corporates to squeeze the workers.
Similar decisions have been reported to have been taken by the MP Government. The same reasoning applies here also. Similarly for the decisions of several governments like the Karnataka government which was disallowing migrant workers from going back after talking with the builders lobby.
It is clear that the BJP Government at the centre entered into the tactic of lockdown for this pandemic merely as a statement, without any preparation whatsoever. There was no preparation for the workers and the poorer sections of society. Similarly for the lifting of the lockdown. There has been no thought and no plan but only press conferences and statements. The figures of the affected and the deceased keep rising but all that follows is more conferences and further statements. There is no integrated plan to deal with lockdown and with its aftermath like one finds in almost all other countries.
The economy was in no great shape even before the lockdown. The figures for the third quarter (Sept to Dec 2019) already showed the economy was ailing. The government was to attempt to push the burden of this ailment upon the workers and other toilers by means like GST, amendments to labour laws etc. These amendments, ostensibly to consolidate the labour laws, were clearly designed to remove even the meagre protections given to workers and make them into contract and casual workers and push down their wages and living standards. While these attempts were under way, came covid-19. Now the attempt is to push the whole burden of covid-19 upon the backs of the workers by all the means outlined above.
TUCI vows to fight against this attempt by the ruling classes in aid of the big corporates. We will fight such attempts in the courts and in the streets when it is safe and responsible to do so. Till then we will fight then virtually by all means at our disposal. We call upon the working class, the toiling masses and all democratic sections of society to join us in this struggle. n