Vizag gas tragedy exposes gaps in labour laws

KR Shyam Sundar | Updated on May 10, 2020 Published on May 10, 2020

The new ‘code on occupational safety and health’ does not inspire confidence, as statutory obligations have been diluted

The leakage of toxic styrene gas from the LG Polymers chemical plant in a village in Vizag should sound alarm bells to lawmakers.

The episode exposes vital gaps in our laws even as employers and a section of academics flog the labour laws as imposing high rigidity and even costs on the business. India has arguably not ratified the ILO Convention Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155) on account of two reasons — the incapacity of some sectors like agriculture and the higher costs arising out of complying with the safety regulations contained in it.

The Factories Act, 1948, was amended in 1987 to insert a Separate Chapter IV-A (Provisions dealing with hazardous processes) in the wake of the Bhopal gas tragedy. On the night of December 2-3, 1984, methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from the Union Carbide India Ltd pesticide plant in Bhopal, which killed thousands of people and injured more than half a million; these figures are contested, though.

There are several issues with the Act even after the significant 1987 amendment. Safety precautions and disaster control measures, with respect to the workplace and the community, have failed to keep pace with technological advances in chemical substances. This failure has been highlighted by recent public movements in Tamil Nadu and other places.

The potential hazard of “leakage” of gases and their airborne adverse implications has not been included in the Act, which only refers to the event of “explosion”. In fact, under Section 41F, styrene is included in the Second Schedule, which deals with “permissible levels of certain chemical substance in work environment” (Item 102).

The reports on the functioning of the Safety Committee under Section 41G should mandatorily be submitted to the appropriate authorities for technical ratification by the experts and as a regular governance measure. It is well-known that the range of committees, be they the Safety Committee in this Act or the “works committee or the grievances redressal machinery” exist in the laws, but have not been functioning efficiently.

The Act does not contemplate inclusion of local representatives, say panchayati institutions or representatives of the community and medical and domain experts, to be a part of the wider Safety Committee. The Act requires every occupier to draw up and disseminate disaster control measures like safety measures to the workers employed in the factory and “to the general public living in the vicinity of the factory…” [Section 41B(4)].

Hazardous industries should be equipped with hospital facilities (under the Employees’ State Insurance Scheme or otherwise) and medical specialists to address the immediate consequences arising out of any disaster and tragedy. This is, however, outside the scope of the Factories Act. The measure of self-certification under various labour laws has been offered by many States, including third-party auditing even for boilers.

In fact, an undated circular on the website of Andhra Pradesh labour department has liberalised factory inspections based on the “risk criteria” — the low risk factories, i.e., those employing 20-150 workers will be inspected once in three years, the medium-risk factories among others employing 150-1,000 workers once in two years and the high-risk employing 1,000 and above and major accident hazard factories once a year.

Unsafe Code

To be sure, many States have liberalised the factory and labour inspection system in response to the notorious tag given to inspectors as “inspector-raj” — which, however, was not without basis. But it calls for reforms of the inspection system and not a free-for-all.

India has ratified the ILO Convention on Labour Inspection, 1947 (081). There could be reforms to curb corruption and harassment but to do away with inspection amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

When the non-implementation of labour laws is taken into account, the labour rigidity argument falls like the pack of cards. In fact, the Code on Occupational Safety and Health and Working Conditions (one of the four ‘codes’ under the proposed labour laws) has diluted safety issues. For example, the Code has removed the above-mentioned Second Schedule and left it to the rules which are yet to be drawn up.

There is a tendency to transfer provisions in the law into the domain of rule-making. In the Factories Act, every occupier (the legal entity or individual designated as responsible for conditions in a unit) under Section 41G in a factory handling hazardous substances and/or using the hazardous processes shall constitute a bi-partite Safety Committee.

But the Code has left its constitution to a general or a special order by the appropriate government. The growing role of rule-making on matters of labour does not augur well for labour rights and safety. Bhopal, Rana Plaza and now LG Polymers are cruel reminders of the downsides of the low-cost globalisation paradigm.

The writer is Professor, HRM Area, XLRI

Published on May 10, 2020

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