Migrants sucked into a searing existence

At risk:Several migrants work in extremely hazardous conditions in the plastic reprocessing units in Kattedan. —PHOTO: G. RAMAKRISHNA

At risk:Several migrants work in extremely hazardous conditions in the plastic reprocessing units in Kattedan. —PHOTO: G. RAMAKRISHNA  

It has been a risky life for workers in the city’s plastic processing units

With three fingers of his worn-out hand sucked in by a plastic reprocessing machine, crushed to the bone and later amputated, Ramesh (30) has lost his livelihood.

With no education, he was working in the city’s thriving plastic capital, Kattedan, to feed his family in Kolkata.

“I have been asked to quit my job as I cannot do any work with this hand [with only the thumb and index finger]. I am waiting for some compensation from my seth . I do not know how much he will give me, or if he will ever give me anything,” says Ramesh, who has no education.

In the past month alone, two others also met with accidents — Gaurav, 20, of Bihar lost two fingers, and Rajeev of Maharashtra, the tip of one finger while working in the plastic units of the Kattedan Industrial Area.

Workers in several such units say that every month at least 10 labourers lose anything, from a finger to an entire arm. “The risk is very high, and one person who worked in this unit lost his whole hand. Barely any compensation is given; nobody files a police complaint as they might may not get even a little amount that is given,” says Rajaram, who works at a unit.

All that an affected worker gets is a ‘settlement,’ ranging from Rs.10,000 to Rs.1 lakh. The higher a worker’s negotiating power, the more will be the compensation, say workers. For, none of the nearly 100 units functioning at Kattedan has either licence or name in order to evade taxes and get around regulations.

“These hazardous units are run illegally, and over 1,000 labourers working here have absolutely no security,” says P. Sridhar Reddy, president of the Kattedan Labour Welfare Association. “The Labour Department is apathetic to the rights of these workers.”

These units now depend entirely on migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar and Orissa as the high risk and low wages have kept local workers away.

No registration

And the owners admit to running the units with impunity, for years. “A little profit is made from this plastic scrap business, and if we are registered, we will have to pay up taxes. So none of the units here has a licence or registration,” says Praveeen Agarwal, an owner.

These labourers work in extreme heat, smoke, pungent odour and hazardous conditions, turning scrap into buckets, mugs and polythene bags. From slotting the scrap into the narrow compartments of a machine that sucks it in at a high speed to pulling out searing molten plastic and cutting it into small pellets — the process is fraught with a huge risk.

For no more than Rs.250 a day, workers toil for 12 hours in two shifts, as against the norm of three shifts of eight hours each. “They are not paid overtime or medical expenses. Nor do they get Provident Fund benefits,” Mr. Reddy points out.

When contacted, Labour Department officials said they were aware of the functioning of such units for several years.

“The Department has been hand in glove with these illegal establishments, hence nothing has been done to protect the rights of vulnerable workers, despite officers being aware of the accidents for many years now,” admits an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

(The names of workers have been changed to protect identity.)

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