December 3, 2016
Time: 3.30 am
Venue: A factory that manufactures automobile parts for car-makers
Twenty-one-year-old Prakash* from Etah, Uttar Pradesh, is operating a power press machine on a shift that began almost eight hours ago. He has four more hours to clock before he can head home. Instead of home, however, Prakash goes to the ESI (Employee’s State Insurance Corporation) Hospital in Manesar, almost 25 km from Dharuhera, in a company vehicle. By the time doctors come to his side, Prakash has lost a lot of blood and the fingers on his right hand — the one that got stuck in the 80-tonne machine that he and another worker were operating that night — are reduced to a pulp. Lying in the cot while doctors around him try to stop further loss of blood, Prakash knows that his crushed fingers are history. The attending physicians at ESI advise the shift supervisor to move the injured worker to a private hospital in Gurugram’s Sohna Road. It is broad daylight by the time the surgeons at this hospital wheel Prakash into the operation theatre. When he goes home later that day, the only thing remaining of his right hand is the thumb. A thumb without nail.
A white cloth is what shields Prakash’s injured hand from onlookers as he walks through Kho village, neighbouring Manesar’s Industrial Model Township (IMT), on a hot April morning. His destination for the day is the Worker Assistance Centre that Safe in India, a start-up that works with those who sustain injuries in the automotive sector, runs. In a large room at the centre, which was inaugurated on December 6 last year, a group of eight to 10 men, in the age bracket of 20-40, wait for a meeting with the Safe in India team. Among them is Kamal*, also in his early 20s, his right hand covered with bandage, just like Prakash’s.
Kamal’s injury is more recent — March 24. A native of Sultanpur district in Uttar Pradesh, he lost his fingers in less than a week into his new job at a factory in Manesar’s Sector 8, which falls under IMT. The rest of what followed this accident — in fact in most of the cases discussed at this interaction — is similar to what happened with Prakash: A supervisor springs to action; rushes injured worker to one or more hospitals; victim loses blood; doctors try to save the digits by inserting temporary pins, plates or screws; and, finally, amputation.
After the surgery and, in most cases, loss of livelihood due to temporary or permanent disablement comes another cycle. That of following up with the ESI for pension and benefits. The core problems — those which most players in the automotive industry are loath to admit — are compromised safety standards in the factories, and the long hours of work that jeopardise a worker’s mental and physical well-being.
The repetitive nature of the task — something that demands swift hand-eye coordination — is the other concern. However, to expect clock-like precision from an employee whose shift lasts 12 hours (eight hours + four hours of overtime, without a weekly off in eight cases out of 10) is unrealistic, to say the least. According to Masab Shamsi, in-charge of Safe in India’s Worker Assistance Centre, some of these accidents (also reported as the Gurgaon Broken Fingers Epidemic by certain sections of the media in 2015-16) occur due to the absence of sensors in the machines — because machines run faster without them. And, therefore, the greater the risk of injuries and the loss of livelihood.
That their employers don’t provide the full safety gear needed for the factory floor is something that this group of workers is fully aware of. Says Shiv Pal* (40), a worker who lost an index finger to a die casting machine in June 2016, “We are supposed to be given aprons, respiratory masks, earplugs, goggles and gloves before we begin work. But in most places we are given only the gloves (of poor quality) and the earplugs.”
But notions of personal safety fall far behind in the list of priorities when your bread-and-butter depends on your output. Each machine in each of these factories in IMT, like elsewhere in the country, has a daily target. Depending on the one a worker is in charge of — die casting, power press, or a rolling machine — the output target for a single shift could be anywhere from 60 pieces an hour (which is one piece a minute) to above 8,000 in 12 hours. Fatigue is inevitable, but loss of pay due to underperformance is unthinkable — especially when the take-home is in the range of ₹8,000-12,500. Apprentices, who work the same number of hours, are hired at even lower wages. Shamsi adds that only recently have some companies started transferring salaries to bank accounts. In some cases, it’s still payments in cash and sans salary slips.
Under such circumstances, concepts of ‘overwork’ and ‘stress’ seem alien to the workers. When asked if they find their daily targets demanding, most in the group disagree. All they can think of — or did until they met with accidents on the factory floor — is the money they take home. While the companies often delay the payment of compensation, they keep the workers from approaching the court by offering a monthly dole — at the most ₹2,000-3,000 for ‘ kharcha ’ (maintenance), paid through the thekedaar (contractor). And only a lucky few, like Pal, are reabsorbed by the employer, in a different role with no pay cuts.
(*Names have been changed to protect identity)