Report highlights the plight of frontline workers in Bengaluru during the pandemic and makes recommendations to improve their working conditions and reduce occupational risks

Published : October 29, 2020 10:26 IST

During a COVID testing drive conducted by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike at Deepanjalinagar, Bengaluru,on October 13. Photo: Sudhakara Jain

A report titled “Working at the Margins: A Report on the Working Conditions of Invisibilised Frontline Workers”, which looks at the dismal conditions of frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in Bengaluru, has been released by the Ashirvad Centre for Social Concern. It is jointly authored by Dr Siddharth K.J., Dr Sylvia Karpagam and Dr Alwyn Prakash D’Souza.

The report broadly looks at two categories of workers. In the first category are those who manage hospital waste and dispose of dead bodies. It includes hospital staff dealing with the personal care of patients, clearing waste, sweeping/swabbing in both public and private hospitals; ambulance and hearse van drivers and helpers; and mortuary workers and burial ground and crematorium workers. The second category is of workers who are involved in municipal solid waste management and disposal such as pourakarmikas (garbage cleaners) and auto-tipper drivers and helpers. The report follows the work processes in each of these work chains, from the beginning (generation) to their logical conclusion (disposal) during COVID.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has laid down several rules for disposal of hospital waste because this work exposes housekeeping staff several occupational hazards. Considering that there were not enough health-care workers to perform these tasks after the COVID pandemic began, the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Karnataka High Court on July 3 and the court issued directions to the government following which the conditions improved in a few government hospitals in Bengaluru.

A major finding of the report is that there are not enough measures in place to ensure the safety of frontline workers during the pandemic, exposing them to serious occupational, health and safety risks. Its authors also looked at the caste profiles of many of these workers. For example, they found that the mortuary workers at Bowring Hospitals were all from Dalit communities. The workers said the number of bodies of COVID victims coming into the mortuary in a day increased from about 5 to ten in July and August. Despite the increase in workload and the heightened risk, no risk allowance was being paid to the workers. Nor do they have life insurance cover.

The report says that the drivers of hearse vans “have not been given any training in handling the risks or hazards that they may get exposed to while transporting COVID patients’ dead bodies”. It also points out the risks faced by pourakarmikas, auto-tipper drivers and helpers involved in the collection of municipal waste. the contractual nature of the jobs of many of these frontline workers was responsible for them not being entitled to risk allowance, employees’ state insurance (ESI), employees’ provident fund (EPF), bonus, gratuity or other social security benefits.

The report makes a slew of recommendations for improving the working conditions and reducing the occupational risks of these workers. An important recommendation is that “all workers should be provided PPE kits and other equipment that are ergonomically designed and do not become barriers to the work”. Another recommendation is that health benefits that are available to State government/Union government employees should be extended to all the frontline workers and their families. The report also recommends regularisation of employment of all frontline workers.

The report says: “Identifying occupational hazards, putting in place mechanisms to protect workers from these hazards and monitoring the implementation of these measures have to be a continuous process and not a knee-jerk, ad hoc and temporary reaction to an emergency situation like a pandemic. Hence, we recommend setting-up a permanent mechanism with adequate funds and representation from all these categories of frontline workers to monitor working conditions, labour rights issues, grievances and occupational hazards and take corrective action.”

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