Skip links

Occupational Health and Safety

The employers in capitalism go to the extremes to evade the costs of safe and healthy workplaces. The working class is hit with the choice: unsafe job, or poverty, or slave labour with both. The forces of globalisation and liberalisation have aggravated the miseries of this choice by worsening the already existing serious problems of occupational health and safety in the Indian capitalist context. With the advent of globalization, labour intensive, hazardous and environmentally destructive manufacturing operations have been shifted from the developed to developing countries, particularly in Asia. India has become a pollution haven for dirty or ‘red’ industries - energy, chemicals, transport, metallurgy and food processing. The largest inflows of foreign direct investment in India have been into he dirty industries, especially chemicals. With the advent of liberalization, many activities reserved for the public sector have been de-licensed and private and foreign firms have been allowed into these activities including polluting industries such as mining, power generation, chemicals, etc. The impact of this shift has been devastating for the environment and the workers in those industries. Moreover, India’s 75000 km long coastline has been converted into a destination for waste disposal of the entire world. Lead ash, battery scrap, zinc ash, waste oil and old ships laden with asbestos have been increasingly reaching this coastline. Indian coasts are now emerging as world’s largest ship breaking yards.

Ship breaking is a most dangerous work. With globalization also promoting a competitive model of export oriented growth based on foreign investments, the developing countries have been compelled to compete with each other for more and more export orders and for more and more share of foreign investments. This competition has actually become a war against own working people in each country, in terms of slashing subsidies from public welfare and extending huge monetary incentives like tax exemptions to investors, uprooting the indigenous communities and granting easy access of natural resources to investors, etc. The working class has been denied any labour rights as human rights and treated as unrestricted supplies of cheaper animal labour to ensure super profits for the investors. Whatever labour enforcement machinery was set up initially in the country became almost completely paralyzed in the name of abolition of ‘inspector raj’. This has progressively led to rampant violation of safety laws and aggravation of health and safety related problems at workplaces. The legislative framework of occupational health and safety (OHS) in India is pathetic. It is not comprehensive, covering all workers in all economic sectors. OHS legislation exists only for four sectors--manufacturing, mining, ports, and construction.

But even in these sectors there are serious deficits by way of coverage, quality and effectiveness of various provisions. Much of legislation is just paper-work show-off. About 97 percent of the enterprises in India employ less than ten workers and most of these employ less than five workers, and therefore these enterprises are out of the coverage of the Factories Act. About 66 percent of total workers employed in all enterprises are engaged in the enterprises employing less than 10 workers. In all major economic sectors, informalisation is predominant. Even in manufacturing the unorganized sector represents more than 80 percent in terms of labour input. The informal sector has become a source of generating super profits with the dispersal of the assembly lines in low wage locations stretching up to home based work. In the process, there are double benefits to capital--a huge reserve army of labour always puts downward pressure on wages in the formal sector; and there is unlimited opportunity to exploit highly vulnerable cheap labour without incurring any overhead costs. Therefore, it is evident that actually most enterprises which are not covered under the Factory Act, are actually doing work for the larger enterprises. Moreover, many of these enterprises are not actually employing less than 10 workers. It is a general trend that to save on the costs, factories try to escape from the coverage of the Factories Act, and even when they employ many more workers, they show only less than 10 workers on record.

Many of these small enterprises are engaged in manufacturing, waste handling, using hazardous chemicals or carrying on operations dangerous to the health and safety of workers. It is well known that the work conditions are highly hazardous in the informal sector enterprises, but without any justification they are put out of the coverage of the Factories Act. This is not all. The growing informalisation of workforce in the formal sector has resulted in worsening of the problems of occupational health and safety in the formal sector as well. Informal workers are generally denied any formal contract or salary slips, and so in the absence of any proof of employment they are unable to claim the legal benefits even when they are supposedly covered by the Factories Act or some other legislation. Informalisation of workforce also makes it almost impossible to form trade unions and without trade unions it is impossible to compel the employers to respect and implement the provisions of health and safety and provide the legal benefits to the workers. Informalisation of workforce has accelerated with the advent of globalization and liberalisation forces and there is no exaggeration in saying the fact that formal workers are becoming a minority. In majority of factories in some sectors like garments, the informalisation of workforce has reached almost 100 percent. It is also interesting to note that the increase in total employment in the Indian economy has overwhelmingly been of informal nature. About 94 per cent of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) in India are not registered, simply because registration is legally not mandatory. These enterprises are variously defined by level of investment in plant and machinery. There is no limit on the number of workers they can engage, and as such many of these enterprises are employing more than 10 or 20 workers.

They ought to be covered under the Factories Act, but as they are mostly unregistered they easily escape from the coverage of various labour laws including the Factories Act. The MSMEs are involved in the manufacturing of more than 6,000 products, including food products, textiles and readymade garments, basic metals, chemical and chemical products, metal products, machinery and equipment, transport equipment, rubber and plastic products, furniture, paper and paper products, and leather and leather products, etc. As majority of them are in the unorganized/informal sector, they are out of the coverage of the Factories Act, and therefore actually out of the coverage of any occupational health and safety law. We will only have to imagine the intensity of the OHS problems the workers are facing in these enterprises without any elbowroom to make any complaint against the injustice. The advent of globalization and liberalization has been associated with a legislative drive to making huge number of factories virtually immune to the Factories Act and also various other labour laws and OHS legislations. Moreover, there have been recommendations and proposals to introduce the provision of self-certification of labour laws, without inspection, in various industries. The policies are already in place in different states of India and the facility of self-certification is being liberally extended to IT and IT enabled services, biotechnology, export oriented units and Special Economic Zones all over India. Even if the labour department is free of corruption and also allowed to do inspections of factories, it is beyond its capacity. The Labour Department is actually completely paralyzed by way of downsizing its staff. The state’s attitude towards occupational health and safety in industries is also reflected in its meagre or negligible budgetary allocations.

The growing incidence of industrial injuries in the midst of such realities, which is well-supported by newspaper reports, is not going to change for the better with the recent drafting of the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019 under the aegis of the National Democratic Alliance government. The Code suffers from several serious shortcomings in terms of narrow coverage, poor drafting with conceptual as also operational deficiencies and so on and so forth. This drawback along with disappearing enforcement system on the pretext of enabling ease of doing business along with the rise of regional ‘hire and fire’ labour reforms challenging the relevance of national law making, does not augur well for workers confronting the reality of increasing industrial injuries. We badly need a preventive labour and social policy on the lines of the Scandinavian welfare states. These Nordic countries offer comprehensive protection against social risks and invest positively in lifelong learning by means of integration in the labour market of as many people as possible and provisioning of highly organised and high quality services to the working people.

Policy makers in India need to learn new things as to how the Nordic countries have designed preventive social policies by embedding them in a tax and fiscal policy regime in which extensive redistribution is combined with principles of robust public budget management so much so that economic growth is not at all compromised. There is substantial real-world evidence from the European countries that high taxes coupled with social spending fosters, rather than inhibits, economic growth and welfare. The final truth is that there is no effective solution to the problem of occupational safety and health deficits in any part of the world without there being the universalization of the preventive Nordic social policies.

Annavajhula J.C. Bose,
PhD Department of Economics, SRCC


Surendra Pratap, Annavajhula J.C. Bose and Shashi Kumar. 2021. Working to Illness and Death: Who Cares?, in Journal of Indian Research. 9 (1-2). January-June.

Leave a comment

This website uses cookies to improve your web experience.