Most of the factories in Bawana have a single entry and exit gate, which means that in case of an emergency workers are left only left with the option to jump from the terrace, said a Delhi Fire Service official, on the request of anonymity.
In an attempt to protect units from theft, many factories have taken measures that compromise with the safety of workers.
In the Bawana fire tragedy, the factory owner had instructed the security guard to lock the main gate at 6 p.m. every day. The guard who was seated outside the gate did not allow anyone to come out or leave early. Due to this, the labourers working overtime were compelled to remain inside the three-storey building without being able to step outside even if they wanted to.
“The factories are more like cage for the workers. All exits or escape routes like windows or ventilators have been covered with iron grills. Basically, it has been done for security purposes as thefts and robberies are frequent in the area but it compromises the safety of workers inside the factory,” said Sunder Lal, a supervisor in a plastic unit in Bawana.
Following the tragedy, the employers are more cautious and ahve shut down all illegal activities as they are expecting severe action from concerned licensing authorities, said Bansi Lal, a labour contractor.
Sector 5 of Bawana Industrial Area, where the tragedy took place, was restricted to plastic processing units but many factories manufacturing other goods have mushroomed in the locality, added Mr. Lal.
India Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) says that the Bawana Industrial Area is divided in five sectors where five to six lakh labourers including women, work in various manufacturing units.
Low wages, no benefits
A majority of workers reside in Metro Vihar or nearby JJ clusters where they rent out a room for ₹1,000-1,500 per month.
“On an average, a worker in Bawana, gets ₹5,000-6,000 per month. They don’t get basic statutory benefits like ESI provident fund and minimum wages. They work for more than 10 hours. No pollution checking measures take place in the factories. The workers are exposed to harmful chemicals and gas in absence of masks or other safety measures,” said Rajesh, general secretary, IFTU. He added that low wages make it compulsory for the husband, wife and minors to work for sustenance.
Sukhdev Singh, a labour contractor, said there is no labour union office in Bawana. Also, the workers are unaware of their rights and rules. “Many of the factories are making plastic-related articles for which they prefer hiring only males as it involves them melting the plastic, which means getting close to the heat. Unknowingly, the labourers intake poisonous gases during their job. One such incident took place in F block [fire tragedy] factory where workers were not aware of the explosives they were dealing with and all of them died,” he said.
The labour office is located in Nimri Colony, Ashok Vihar, which is 20 km from Bawana. “I came to the city five years ago. After that, my wife and two brothers also shifted. We all work in factories. We have heard of labour laws and minimum wages but I am yet to get those. I can’t protest as I have to feed my three children. I have no work or job in my native village in Bihar,” said a labourer.