We may be witnessing a watershed moment in India’s labour history.
Advocacy groups in India (all of them home-grown) have pushed for some time to obtain justice for victims of silicosis. This disease is caused by inhalation of dust without protective breathing equipment and causes sufferers to endure constant pain.
It’s sadly very prevalent today in countries lacking high health and safety standards. One industry where it is a problem is in making sandblasted jeans (covered previously). Another is gem-cutting. One small town of Gujurat state numbers 108 silicosis widows out of its population of 9,000 people. Usually these widows are compelled by economic need to follow their late husbands into the same work. This one village also counted 30 orphans who have lost both parents to the disease in this way.
Unfortunately solution via legislative fiat is not as easy as it sounds. To begin with, the country’s occupational health & safety laws only apply to specific, named industries: mining, manufacturing, ports and construction. That alone wouldn’t be so hard to redress but the majority of India’s workforce is in the informal sector (92% according to the Ashoka website) meaning that laws directed at employers will have no effect on them. Gemstone cutting, for example, is an industry based out of home workshops.
It’s been a long, convoluted journey to get anyone to take action on this issue.
Firstly there was a reporting problem. National figures under-estimated the prevalence of silicosis. Nation-wide – as in other nations – silicosis was being reported as tuberculosis. Public interest advocacy was pursued and successful litigation in the Delhi High Court compelled Employee State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) hospitals to accurately measure the disease’s incidence. Also the National Human Rights Commission started accepting complaints relating to silicosis.
The next step was to litigate for an actual right to compensation. This too was successful however the court, foreseeing the complexities of implementation, asked the state governments to legislate on the matter. To date, one has and two haven’t. Negotiations continue but the governments really have nowhere to run on this issue. It seems workers are on the cusp of securing a historic entitlement.
Even once this is achieved, a further issue is deciding who will pay the insurance premiums and setting up an framework that ensures that the body holding the funds sticks to its purpose and does not simply become a source of funds that gets used for political convenience. ESIC, the insurer for the organised sector, currently runs a surplus of $900 million which suggests either their premiums are too high or they are sitting on a lot of unsettled claims. Activists will tell you it’s the latter.
Meanwhile, the people cutting the gems we see in our fine jeweler’s shops continue to die of this preventable disease.