‘Disabled’ system fails auto workers

Injuries encountered at work have turned around the poor workers’ lives for the worst. Many are dismissed from their jobs citing disability and are forced to settle for a low-paying alternative

February 19, 2022 10:45 pm | Updated 10:45 pm IST - GURUGRAM

About five years ago, within a span of a few months, Sagar and his wife Arti lost their right hand fingers in separate accidents while working at different automotive units in Faridabad. Dismissed from work soon after citing physical disability, the couple has been reduced to hand-to-mouth existence, earning a meagre ₹8,000 per month.

Theirs is not an isolated case. A recent annual report, “Crushed 2021”, by Safe In India Foundation based on the data of around 2,500 workers suffering non-fatal injuries in factories in Faridabad-Gurugram-Neemrana auto belt has revealed that over three-fourth of them lost almost two fingers on an average. Almost half of these accidents took place while working on power press machines, and there has been no let-up in such cases over the past five years, said the report.

Yet to get relief

Speaking to some of these victims, The Hindu found that the injuries had turned around the poor workers’ lives for the worst. Besides adding to the financial woes, they are running around for years for compensation.

Though Arti, helped by her employer, gets ₹1,635 monthly pension from the Employees State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) in the present case, her husband is still running from pillar to post to seek relief as his employer is yet to complete the paperwork. Sagar’s employer had enrolled him under the ESIC with a backdate after the accident, but has failed to complete the legal formalities till date.

“I made a complaint to the Labour Department, but they told me that it was a civil matter. I consulted an advocate who demanded ₹20,000 as file charges and around 40% share in the total compensation, so I dropped the idea to pursue the matter legally,” said Sagar, now working at a small automotive unit for four hours a day. He makes ₹250-₹300 per day.

‘Was turned away’

For almost two years, Sagar remained without work after the accident. “I ran around a lot for work, but everyone turned me away due to my physical disability. We survived on my wife’s meagre pension,” said Sagar, who lost four fingers in the accident. His wife lost three.

Sagar was a foreman, earning ₹9,000 a month, when he met with the accident on power press machine. “Though the capacity of the machine was 50 tonne, it was being used for 100 tonne work. The machine had got stuck and I was trying to fix it when it suddenly started. I did not get time to pull out my hand,” said the 31-year-old.

His employer paid ₹8,000 for his treatment initially, but gradually stopped paying for the medicines. “He paid me ₹50 each for two days for milk, and for a fortnight for my medicines. But my treatment went on for over six months. I paid from my own pocket for two months before the treatment at the ESIC began,” said Sagar.

Mohammad Jabir had been working for around 36 hours, with a two-hour sleep break in between, when his left hand got crushed under the power press machine at an automotive unit in Ballabgarh on December 5, 2020. He lost his entire right hand palm except the thumb.

Company negligence

“One of my co-workers rushed me to a private hospital. The doctor said that my hand could be saved, but demanded ₹1.50 lakh for the treatment. The Human Resource department official refused to pay the money. Instead, they took me to ESIC Hospital with my hand bleeding profusely, and it was found closed. The next day the doctors at ESIC referred me to a private hospital and my hand was finally operated upon two days after the accident. It was too late by then,” said Jabir.

The employer never asked him to return to work after the accident. Jabir now works at his friend’s grocery shop earning ₹3,000 per month. With occasional help from friends and relatives, he somehow makes both ends meet.

The 31-year-old said that the employer had removed the sensors of the power press machine to facilitate more production causing the accident. “It was only during the audit inspections that the sensors were installed and the workers were provided safety equipment such as ear plugs and helmets. All safety equipment were taken back after the inspection. I learnt it from my worker friends that more such accidents had happened at the company after I left,” said Jabir.

A migrant worker from Bihar’s Darbhanga, Jabir said he had always dreamt of good education and a better life for his children, however, due to his disability he found it hard to earn even two square meals for them. Jabir lost his five-month daughter to an illness a fortnight ago. His five-year-old son also does not keep good health.

Like most of the victims, Jabir continues to wait for compensation from the ESIC, but his employer too is yet to complete the paperwork.

Everyday struggle

It was Ranjan’s first day at an automotive unit on May 16, 2018, when he lost three fingers of his right hand in a crush injury at a power press machine. From taking meals to buttoning up a shirt, it has been an everyday struggle for him for the past four years. The injury also means additional medical burden and lower wages for him with a family of six, including his aged mother, to support. In order to save for his eldest daughter’s wedding, Ranjan has stopped sending his children — a son and two daughters — to school.

His employer had goofed-up to re-register him under the ESIC. The two registrations have now caused inordinate delay in the benefits from the ESIC. Not just that, the factory owner paid him less than the promised wages after the accident citing his disability. “Since I work with my left hand, I fail to meet the production targets. The constant pressure could also be the company’s ploy to make me quit,” said Ranjan, from Chhapra in Bihar.

Prevention and compensation are two important aspects of the problem, said Masab Shamsi, head of Workers’ Assistant Centre at Safe In India Foundation. He said the question was whether it was worth the thousands of lives shattered every year in these accidents.

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