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Who Gains by not Protecting Occupational Health of Workers?

Written By Gopal Krishna on Tuesday, December 23, 2008 | 6:59 AM

Once upon a time our legal system through held that, "Occupational accidents and diseases remain the most appalling human tragedy of modern industry and one of its most serious forms of economic waste." And "Therefore, we hold that right to health, medical aid to protect the health and vigor to a worker while in service or post retirement is a fundamental right under Article 21, read with Articles 39(e), 41, 43, 48A and all related Articles and fundamental human rights to make the life of the workman meaningful and purposeful with dignity of person."

The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Bill that has just been passed by the parliament on December 17 awaiting the assent of the president does not provide for occupational health infrastructure in cognisance of occupational health rights among other things.

Revealing the true nature of the Bill, Suravaram Sudhakar Reddy, the chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour observes, “As a matter of fact, most of the security welfare measures are being given to insurance companies. Insurance companies are not created in this country for social service. The workers from 18 years to 58 years of age are covered under life insurance and medical insurance. In spite of repeated efforts by the labour ministry, the insurance companies are not agreeing to increase the age limit to 70 years for the coverage. That means, at a time when the worker is vulnerable to death, they are not ready to give that coverage”. In a occupational health case related to asbestos, the Supreme Court The Bill has disregarded the views of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour, trade unions and voluntary organisations. Hannan Mollah, a member of the parliament dubbed the Bill as “cosmetic” because it does not recognize social security as a right.

Non-enforcement and dilution of national laws which provides for the regulation of the health of workers like the Factories Act, 1948, the Mines Act, 1952,The Dock Workers (Safety, Health & Welfare) Act, 1986 has just been revealed by a recent study that examined the role of the medical community and inferred that “occupational health is a neglected subject…” Currently, the occupational health of the workers looks all the more grim if one takes note of what National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector has revealed. It has found that 47 % of all workers in the organized sector are working as informal workers and informal sector workers account for almost 92.4% of all labourers in the economy. Amid a hitherto ignored “global cancer crisis” due to which some 84 million people across the globe will die of cancer by 2015, what has not been factored in is that in India, majority of individuals in general and workers in particular will not receive the required treatment, and many would not even be formally diagnosed because of the consistent neglect of the decaying public health infrastructure. This is clearly evident in the case of victims of asbestos and silica related diseases.

Showcasing its myriad acts of omission and commission, central government has also failed to ratify ILO’s Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, the only international instrument based on basic social security principles which establishes globally agreed-upon minimum standards for medical care; sickness benefit; unemployment benefit; old-age benefit; employment-injury benefit; family benefit; maternity benefit; invalidity benefit; and survivors' benefit.

Indian government remains manifestly apathetic towards existing Occupational Safety and Health Conventions of International Labour organisation (ILO) besides other relevant international and national labour laws. It is revealed by its unpardonable indifference towards international labour legislations like Occupational Cancer Convention, Working Environment Convention, Occupational Safety and Health Convention, Occupational Health Services Convention, Radiation Prevention Convention, Safety in the Use of Chemicals at Work Convention, Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents Convention, Asbestos Convention & others which have not been ratified by the government.

In a consistent demonstration of anti-worker approach, although on an average 450,000 Indians go abroad annually for employment, India has not ratified the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families entered into force on July 1, 2003. This UN treaty defines the term ‘migrant worker’ as “a person who is to be engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.” The UN General Assembly has proclaimed 18 December International Migrants Day. India chooses not to celebrate this day. The Convention constitutes a comprehensive international treaty regarding the protection of migrant workers’ rights. It is noteworthy that majority of workers even within the country are migrant workers and their rights deserve protection through a national legislation.

The UPA government can make a beginning by doing the needful for the migrant workers who go abroad and who migrate from one state to another within the country. It must be remembered that the condition of migrant workers within Indian states is also really bad besides appalling working conditions they face apartheid like discrimination. The recent violence in Assam, Maharashtra and the plight of informal, casual and migrant workers in Alang, Gujarat and government’s connivance in all these instances is a case in point. One wonders, which nation-state can ever gain by not protecting the health and security of the workers?
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