SAIL: There Is a Little Death in Every Steel

The New Trade Union Initiative condoles the death of 11 workers and stands with the 14 others who are grievously injured due to the blast at the gas pipeline on 9 October 2018 at the Bhilai plant of the Public Sector giant Steel Authority of India Limited. The blast occurred around 10 am in the Coke Oven Battery Complex No 11 during a scheduled maintenance job. Around 24 employees, including contract and regular, were working in the area when the blast occurred. Injured workers are being treated at the Bhilai Steel Plant Hospital.

Established in 1955 the Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) was India’s first manufacturer of steel rails and remains the largest and most profitable production facility of SAIL.

SAIL and the Government refuse to learn

Chhattisgarh government following the advisory of the Commerce and Industry Ministry did away with compulsory and random inspections in 2015. Since 2015, the BSP alone has reported 31 deaths, excluding the blast that happened yesterday.

A preliminary report of the Industrial Health and Safety Inspector points out anomalies in following protocol for the repair work and for not following Standard Operating Procedure and concluded that haste and lack of planning led to the blast. The inspection report also notes that the gas pipeline was in use while it was undergoing repairs. This is also in violation of the norms of quality management set by ISO 9001:2000 certification for its core processes, ISO14001 for Environment management system, SA8000 certification for social accountability and OHSAS18001 certification for occupational Health and Safety.

This is the fourth major incident since 2017 at a Public Sector Undertaking and second at BSP when accidents during routine maintenance and repair work have cost workers their lives. On 12 June 2014 a gas leak at the BSP had resulted in asphyxiation of 6 workers and severely injured 50 others.

The SAIL accident is yet another incident of culpable homicide in a Public Sector since the deliberate attempt of the BJP government to implement ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ through dismantling of the labour inspection machinery, in violation to the ILO Convention 81 to which India is a signatory, and through its implementation of ‘self-certification’, ‘self-regulation’ and ‘third-party certification’ policies. Clearly, SAIL and the government have failed to learn from its past experiences of fire at BHEL and fatal accidents at Cochin Ship Yard and NTPC.

Kill in India

In 2017, India jumped 30 places and made it to the list of top 100 business friendly countries while it slipped on all lists for human development indices. Not surprisingly, in the same year, India reported 695 workplace related deaths only in its factories. The government now is aiming to make it to the list of top 50 countries by pushing through over 90 ‘reforms’ along with the labour codes. The increasing use of contract workers and contracting out of core activities is being used to avoid accountability and responsibility in cases of accidents. The knee-jerk dismissal of senior managers at BSP without following due process is an attempt to push the burden of responsibility on to individual managers rather than holding accountable the undemocratic policies that led to the incident.

New Trade Union Initiative calls upon the Government of India to:

  1. Ensure that the families of the workers killed are compensated with amounts that equal to the life-time earnings of each worker, irrespective of tenure, based on the principle of equal pay for equal work.
  2. Ensure that the workers, both regular and contract, grievously injured are compensated and rehabilitated adequately in accordance to the Workman’s Compensation Act.
  3. Charge of criminal negligence be brought against the management of SAIL and all third party agencies and involved in the manufacture, installation, operation and maintenance of the pipeline and related equipment and not merely labour contractors.
  4. Appoint a National Commission on workplace safety.
  5. During the pendency of the national commission, repeal all laws and amendments since 2014 allowing employers the power of ‘self-certification’ and reintroduce the mechanism of compulsory certification.
Gautam Mody,
General Secretary,
New Trade Union Initiative.

October 11, 2018

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