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No Masks, No Safety Standards: Industry Workers Complain Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

Ronak Chhabra |
Auto workers of Manesar’s Bellsonica Auto Component India Private Limited in Haryana had submitted demands to their plant management earlier on March 5, but to no avail.
No Masks, No Safety Standards: Industry Workers Complain Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

Representational Image. Image Courtesy: BloombergQuint

As corporates across the world are waking up to the outbreak of COVID-19, popularly known as only coronavirus, Indian IT firms have also stepped up their employee safety efforts. They are now increasingly embracing the ‘work from home’ option. However, many in the army of industrial workers in the country have complained that their units are not adhering to even the basic safety standards and the staff is not being provided with masks—despite demands—let alone the luxury of working from home.

Auto workers of Manesar’s Bellsonica Auto Component India Private Limited in Haryana had submitted similar demands to the management earlier on March 5.

A letter, demanding masks for about 1200-strong staff, suspension of biometric attendance system and a soap to wash hands among other things, was written to the management by the Bellsonica’s employees’ union in a bid to ensure safety of the workforce amidst novel coronavirus pandemic.

At the time, the letter had mentioned that 30 cases had been reported in India. That figure has now touched 75, as per government’s own data, with first death reported in the country in North Karnataka late on Thursday night. The demands of the workers, however, have remained unheard, according to the union body.

“There is no seriousness shown by the management. Workers in thousands—who work together in batches—are not provided with any masks. There are not enough soaps in the toilets to wash hands,” said Jasbir Singh, general secretary of the Bellsonica’s employees’ union.

According to Singh, this is “alarming” as the work conditions are ditto in almost all other industrial establishments in Manesar—an automotive hub which houses several multinational companies across sectors, employing as many as 10 lakh workers.

“The workers in the industrial belt know of coronavirus, but mainly through WhatsApp (a social media platform)” he said, adding, “many workers are not educated enough. There is a need for awareness campaigns in the region as many who know about the disease don’t know of the precautions and symptoms.”

Singh also raised concerns over setting up of medical facilities, run by the military, one of which is “not very far” from the Manesar’s Industrial Model Town (IMT). Those, who can potentially be tested positive, are reportedly kept in isolation at Manesar facility. “We are concerned about such a facility to be near a town where basic safety provisions are also not being taken care of,” Singh said.

NewsClick spoke with human resource manager of the Bellsonica’s Manesar facility Ramesh Kundu who said that orders have been placed for sanitiser and masks. “The biometric system is the one that is used around the world. It is not a new thing and it can’t be changed in one day. The workers will be provided with masks and sanitizers, orders for which have been placed,” he said.

However with no results even after a week of submitting letter, the union body has now decided to approach the district collectorate office, demanding that precautionary measures be implemented at the earliest.

Contrary to the casual approach adopted by the industries, the tech firms in the country seem to be taking the situation much more seriously. Many big companies, including Paytm, Cognizant, and Twitter have reportedly shut operations and asked the employees to work from home.

On Thursday, state-owned Software Technology Parks of India (STPI)—an autonomous society set up by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY)—also issued an advisory enabling around 18-20 lakh employees of IT units registered with it to work from home, after IT industry body NASSCOM urged the government to relax restrictions.

Among those tested positive for coronavirus, Google confirmed on Friday of its employee in Bengaluru to be one. Earlier, Dell and Mindtree were among the names of IT companies, where employees tested positive were reported.

The two reactions to the rapid spread of coronavirus—of which the former can be read as ‘lackadaisical’—calls attention to the role that the state machinery must play in such situations.

Asking the government at the Centre to come forward with a scheme to provide assistance, Professor K. P. Kannan, a renowned development economist, told NewsClick that the government may help in providing masks, sanitizers, etc. to manufacturing and service establishments.

“Industrial sectors like IT may be able to manage by working from home… but manufacturing and many service establishments do not have this option,” he said in an email response. “When workers come for work, employers should provide masks, sanitizers, etc. Government may help,” he added.

When asked on how the industries will be affected, he answered “adversely.” “The process has started. Interdependence for raw materials, markets have proved to be a factor in increasing the adverse impacts on industry. This is because globalization has gone too far,” Prof Kannan said.

Speaking about how the state of Kerala, setting an early example, had successfully treated and discharged three coronavirus-affected students from Wuhan, Prof Kannan pressed on the need of “strengthening the public health care system”.

On Thursday, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Manipur among other states decided to shut all schools and colleges as a measure to counter the outbreak of the disease in the country. However, in absence of a robust public healthcare system in state—especially in central and eastern India—tensions continue to prevail among the citizens.

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