MAC/20: Mines and Communities

India's contract workers face growing dangers in construction, mining, brick-making and manufacturing

Published by MAC on 2008-08-04

Rise in Construction Accidents Accompanies India's Rapid Growth

By ERIC BELLMAN in Mumbai and JACKIE RANGE in New Delhi

Wall Street Journal

16th July 2008

When Subhash Rathod piled his pregnant wife, some blankets, vegetables and a stove into a small truck for the 15-hour drive from their village to Mumbai, the couple joined a wave of rural workers on the front lines of India's building boom.
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A labor contractor had persuaded Mr. Rathod and about 50 others from the village of Gandhari to make better money -- about $4 a day -- building a warehouse.

A couple of months later, one of the towering warehouse walls collapsed, killing 14 villagers and injuring more than 50 others. Mr. Rathod's wife, brother, sister and sister-in-law all died in the accident.

"Companies need to pay more attention to safety," Mr. Rathod said, back in his village, where he returned with the bodies. "I miss my wife."

The villagers had become victims to the downside of the country's expansion: The danger workers face as they are thrust onto construction sites with little training and no safety equipment.

Safety standards always have been an issue in India, whose building boom is helping the country maintain an economic growth of almost 9% a year. But as the number and scale of the airport, toll roads, skyscraper and mall projects increase, so the risk of tragedy rises. The number of accidents is also climbing in mining, manufacturing and brick-making as those industries expand, experts say.

"It's not just worsening, it's worsening precipitously," said Colin Gonsalves, a human rights lawyer who practices in the Supreme Court in New Delhi, and specializes in labor law.

Big construction companies tend to train workers and provide for safety. But the industry remains dominated by small contractors who pay little attention.

Virendra Nautiyal, a safety manager on a Mumbai apartment complex construction site, says he doesn't get the budget or the authority he needs to protect workers. In the past six months, one worker without a harness fell three floors and broke his collar bone; another was hospitalized after a buzzing blade detached from a saw and lodged in his head. He wasn't wearing a helmet.

There are no reliable comprehensive national statistics that show the rise in workplace injuries and fatalities. Rules that require accidents to be recorded are seldom obeyed. According to statistics provided by the Ministry of Labor and Employment, 20 fatal accidents were recorded in all of India, in the year ended March 31. That number rose from 14 fatalities in 2007 and 10 in 2006.

Experts say those numbers massively understate the problem and that outside of major urban centers and big projects, information isn't gathered at all.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that construction deaths and injuries are increasing sharply.

Emergency room doctors say they have seen more workers with broken bones, burns and other injuries. In some states, accident-compensation payments for construction workers are rising markedly.

The International Labor Organization estimates there were 47,000 deaths from occupational accidents in India in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, an increase of 17% from a year earlier.

Anil Swarup, director general of Labor and Welfare at the Ministry of Labor and Employment in New Delhi said the government is "very, very concerned about it because the accidents are taking place."

India has had a national law in place since 1996 that aims to ensure the welfare of construction workers. But Indian states have been slow to adopt the law and implement it, which is required for its provisions to take effect. India also faces a shortage of safety inspectors for construction sites, Mr. Swarup said.

Accidents and deaths are frequently swept under the carpet. Many construction workers are casual migrant workers and often illiterate.

The national government and some states have plans to compensate victims and their families. Some states pay as much as 100,000 rupees, or about $2,500, for a death. But frequently, companies silence families with an immediate, lesser payout or stonewall to prevent a claim."The employers don't want to get into the legal hassles, so they may give the construction laborer money, get him treated somewhere," said Amit Bhasin, a New Delhi lawyer who has represented construction companies in workplace-accident disputes. "The matter's just hushed up."

For Mr. Rashod, 22, the construction job had promised more money than working as a day laborer in the fields. About 300 of the village's 1,000 residents had also left to work in the city. "After the harvest, there is nothing to do here in the village," he said, sitting on the dirt floor of his brick home.

On the construction site, the men laid bricks from shaky bamboo scaffolding while the women and teenage children carried cement and bricks on their heads to and hand up to the men. The workers had no helmets and no harnesses.

Then, on a clear Saturday in February, just as Mr. Rathod was starting to think about lunch, the accident happened. He was midway up the wall and his brother was at the top. His wife was handing them wet cement when he heard a rumble. His brother and other workers screamed. Then there was silence as the wall covered the workers. "There was a lot of noise and then it just stopped," he said. His arm was broken and his head was bleeding. As he was being carried away, he saw his wife's body sticking out of the rubble.
Families that lost members got 100,000 rupees from the state government. Those who were injured got nothing. This year, only a small number went back to the city to work.

Mr. Rathod used the money from the government to buy some land and build a new room on his home. He needs it because he had to adopt his brother's four children. His wife, in her seventh month of pregnancy, gave birth through caesarian after she died. The baby had survived the accident but failed to survive the premature birth.

--Vibhuti Agarwal and Krishna Pokharel in New Delhi and Tariq Engineer in Mumbai contributed to this article.

Write to Eric Bellman at eric.bellman@wsj.com and Jackie Range at jackie.range@wsj.com

 

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