Safety last

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

The death of 42 workers in a fire in an Agra shoe factory brings into focus the flouting and lax enforcement of safety regulations.

THE death of 42 workers in a fire accident in an Agra shoe factory on May 24 has brought to the fore important issues of workplace safety. It is evident that the Agra district administration had failed to bring under the ambit of the Factories Act industrial units that functioned as cottage industries ignoring safety rules. Yet, in the aftermath of the accident the shoe factory owners had the temerity to demand amendments to the Factories Act, under which they ought to have been registered by the administration. However, what remains ignored in the midst of all this are the long-term measures needed to improve the working conditions of more than two lakh persons who are employed in such illegal factories.

The cause of the fire in Shree Jee Industries, which started at 10-45 a.m., had not been ascertained even three weeks later. Senior Superintendent of Police B.K. Maurya told Frontline: "There are two versions. The fire started owing to either an electric short-circuit or the negligence of a worker who smoked near inflammable materials. What is certain is that the factory owner flouted almost every safety rule and did not take proper care of his workforce." The owner of the factory, Sunil Goyal, who was arrested, said that he was in the factory when the fire started. He said that an inflammable adhesive that a worker was pouring into a canister caught fire. According to Goyal, the worker was smoking. The 42 workers who were burnt to death were working in the first floor of the factory. Only a handful were able to escape from the first floor. The workers who escaped recall the heroic acts of Ashok, their co-worker, who helped them squeeze out through a window in the first floor of the factory before explosions started in the factory room. The explosions occurred when 30 canisters kept in the store room, each with 20 litres of adhesive used to stick the rubber sole to the shoe upper, caught fire.

Then the explosions started and made escape impossible for 41 people who had gathered near the window. "I was one of the first to run to the window and climb down. We detected fire coming out of the storeroom soon after we started work. It was not possible to come out of the door as it was on fire. The window was the only available option and we all ran towards it", said Bishan, a worker.

All the other windows had been sealed by the owner in order to prevent pilferage. The window that the worker used to escape was not far from the storeroom. Forty-one workers died inside the factory. One worker, who was hospitalised, died the next day. Thirtynine of them were Dalits. All of them were men and were contract labourers.

Politics came into play even in the distribution of funds to the kith and kin of the deceased. Three days after the accident, on May 27, Chief Minister Mayawati visited the site. She announced a compensation of Rs.2 lakhs each for the next of kin of the deceased who belonged to the Scheduled Castes. This left out three of the deceased who belonged to the upper castes. Later Mayawati asked the shoe manufacturers' association to distribute to the relatives of three uppercaste workers the funds they had collected. The State Labour Department has served a notice on the owner asking him to pay a compensation of Rs.84 lakhs. The district administration has promised another Rs.10,000 to the families of the dead. The State government has announced Rs.50,000 for the dependants of each deceased worker from the State treasury.

More than one inquiry has been ordered into the accident. Based on the first information report (FIR), the police have booked the factory owner under Section 3(1)(x) of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, besides Sections 304, 285 and 282 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for criminal negligence. Section 3(1)(x) of the S.C. and S.T. Act can be used against anyone who is not a member of an SC or the S.T. and intentionally intimidates a member of the community in any place within public view with the intent to humiliate. "We realise that we will have to be cautious in using this Act as we need to prove that the intention of the owner was to cause harm to the workers because they were Dalits," said a police officer.

Agra District Magistrate Mahesh Kumar Gupta has constituted four task forces to undertake a detailed survey of the safety measures adopted by the footwear producing factories in the district and also find out whether they are registered. The team has been asked to submit its report as early as possible. In the days that followed the fire accident, the team visited 37 factories. The task force is to find out whether six main provisions of the Factories Act are being implemented. The provisions include the ones that make mandatory the construction of store rooms of adhesives away from the workplace; provision of smoke zones; adequate fire-fighting equipment; and accessibility of keys to the locked doors in case of emergencies.

The shoe manufacturing industry in Agra exists mainly in the form of cottage industries. There are about 5,000 to 7,000 such units in Agra. Besides, there are about 200 export-oriented units. These employ more workers. In addition, there are mid-size manufacturing units which can be classified as small-scale industries. Such units employ about 10 to 50 workers. According to State government records, about 1.5 lakh pairs of shoes are manufactured a day in Agra by the cottage, small-scale and medium-scale footwear units together. About two lakh people work in the shoe industry in Agra.

According to the records maintained at these "cottage industries" they employ fewer than 20 people each and hence cannot be categorised as industries. The Factories Act defines a factory as a premises employing 10 or more workers involved in a manufacturing process using power, or 20 or more workers working without using power. On record, Sree Jee Industries had shown itself as employing only 11 workers.

The factory was registered on October 10, 1996. Although the licence was valid up to December 2002, no inspections took place after 1997. "The inspector raj in Uttar Pradesh came to an end in 1997. Now the factory inspectors have to take prior permission from the District Magistrate before inspecting factories. The employers even use goons to threaten the inspectors, if they approached the factories without permission," said Naval Singh, president of the Agra district unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

An examination of the company's register after the fire showed the strength of the workforce as 150 contract labourers. The dismally low number of registered units reveals the laxity on the part of the State and Labour, Fire and Electricity Departments, all of which work in tandem to register units under the Factories Act.

The National Campaign on Labour Rights, which has published a fact-finding report on the fire accident, has alleged that the owner defaulted on several counts. The report says that the factory violated the Industrial Disputes Act by failing to keep a record of contractors and workers in the factory. The piece rate wages paid were not in accordance with the Minimum Wages Act. In violation of the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, the contractors of the factory did not possess any licence from the authorities concerned. Amarjeet Kaur, a member of the team, said: "The factory also violated the provisions of the Employees' Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952, and the Employees' State Insurance Act, 1948, by not extending to its employees the benefits under these Acts."

Meanwhile, the shoe manufacturers have sought amendments to the Factories Act. "The Factories Act is a broad-based one. The procedures that are fixed for, say, a chemical factory, are not practicable in a shoe-manufacturing unit," said Puran Dabar, president of the National Chambers of Industry and Commerce. The factory owners say that since the shoe manufacturers largely employ contract workers, amendments should be made in the Factories Act to include provisions relating to contract labour. Dabar said: "The Act should be made more specific, based on the nuances of the shoe-manufacturing units. Manufacturers have their own set of problems working with contract labourers who don't even tell their correct names at times. How can a unit using such workers, who in most cases leave in a week's time, register itself as a factory and not a cottage industry?" On June 4, after a meeting, the Chamber formally demanded an amendment to the Factories Act. Nazeer Ahmed, a former president of the Agra Shoe Manufacturers and Exporters Chambers, said: "We want the procedures for registration as a factory under the Factories Act to be simplified so that only manufacturers who default are brought under its purview."

The reasons for the unwillingness of the manufacturers to bring their units under the Factories Act are apparent. If they are brought under it they will not only have to look after the safety, welfare and rights of the workers in a conscientious manner, but also to improve the working conditions. Usha Ramanathan, a researcher in law, said: "The Factories Act is a broad-based Act with details on humidification, placement of machines, avoidance of overcrowding. There is nothing in the Factories Act that cannot be applied in a shoe-manufacturing unit."

With reference to fire risks, the Act makes it mandatory for the owner to provide safe means of escape and necessary equipment and facilities to extinguish fire. Under the Act, it is the responsibility of the factory owner to take effective measures to ensure that the workers are familiar with the means of escape in case of a fire and that they are trained in the routine to be followed in such cases. For the welfare of the workers, the Act makes it mandatory for the owner to provide suitable working conditions, which include facilities to store and dry clothes; to find if it is more comfortable for the workers to work while sitting or standing; provide first-aid appliances, canteens, creches and lunch rooms.

Shree Jee Industries is located on a major road of Agra and hence it was possible for fire-tenders to reach it. Most of the other units are on congested bylanes in areas such as Shahganj, Heeng-ki-Mandi, Nai-ki-Mandi and Khandari. Implementation of various provisions of the Factories Act would go a long way in improving the conditions of the workers and making work areas safe.

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