India set to adopt landmark ILO declaration on workplace safety

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Incidents such as the gas leak at chemical and other factories in Vizag in Andhra Pradesh in May 2020 and in Anakapalli district on August 2, 2022, the ferroalloy factory in Vizag in September 2021 and the fire in unregistered electronic manufacturing units in Mundka, New Delhi, have often occurred.

Given the regular occurrence of workplace accidents, workplace safety in India, despite the so-called “strict and rigid” labor regulations, has become a matter of serious concern. It is in this context that we must understand the adoption of “a safe and healthy working environment” within the framework of basic and fundamental labor rights by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in June 2022.

The ILO adopted in 1998 the historic declaration: Fundamental Principles of Rights and Labor (FPRW). The FPRW has recognized four principles of labor standards: freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; the effective abolition of child labour; and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation. For each of them, two ILO conventions have been identified as fundamental conventions.

It was expected that member countries, by virtue of their membership of the ILO and their attachment to its Constitution, have the obligation, whatever their record of ratification of the said ILO conventions, to “respect, promote and realizing, in good faith” the four sets of principles mentioned above.

After the FPRW, the ILO and the fundamental conventions enjoyed global legitimacy. India has only ratified six of the eight fundamental conventions. It has not ratified C.87
and C.98 (freedom of association and right to collective bargaining) for political reasons.

Even a casual reading and analysis of the FPRW, one can see that the right to job security, minimum wage, social security and the like are among the fundamental principles. Differences in economic growth between countries were a possible reason for not adding them. However, the cruel reality of the constant increase in work-related accidents around the world cannot be ignored for long.

The ILO estimates that approximately 2.3 million workers worldwide experience work-related accidents or illnesses each year, resulting in more than 6,000 deaths every day. Worldwide, 340 million work accidents and 160 million workers suffer from work-related diseases each year. The experience of the Covid-19 pandemic across countries has heightened concern over the enormity of all kinds of dangers.

Eventually, on June 10, 2022, the ILO adopted the landmark declaration to include “a safe and healthy working environment” as a fifth principle of FPRW. Two ILO conventions on this subject are: the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Convention, 1981 (No. 155) and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. ° 187).

According to ILO standards, regulations must be in place to govern and guarantee OSH in all branches of economic activity and they must cover all workers, including the informal economy and MSMEs.

A well-equipped and empowered law enforcement system (in accordance with the ILO Labor Inspection Convention) must exist. The government should maintain a system of annual statistics on work accidents and occupational diseases and publish both the statistics and the measures to meet the requirements arising from the former. It is against these that we have to assess the institutional framework for OSH in India.

According to the Guiding Principles of State Policy, among others, the State “shall take steps to ensure just and humane working conditions”.

We have labor laws providing for OSH in factories, mines, plantations, construction and other instruments in railways etc. It is well known that OSH regulations do not mainly cover the informal sector. In the neo-liberal economy, the effectiveness of laws is questionable even in the organized sector.

On the other hand, the regional law, viz. shops and commercial establishments, covers unregistered factories and non-governmental segments of the service sector. But the OSH regulations in this law are loose and weak. There is no OSH law for the agricultural sector and MSMEs which together make up more than half of India’s workforce.

In fact, this is one of the reasons why India has not ratified C.155 even though the central government set OSH policy in 2009.

On the other hand, the Indian government, following neo-liberal labor market deregulation policies, has considerably liberalized the labor administration and inspection system, which in any case only covers segments of the so-called organized sector.

We have, however, ratified the Labor Inspection Convention, 1947 (C.081). The statistical system for industrial accidents only covers registered factories, mines, ports/docks and railways. Despite strict regulations, newspaper readers frequently read about workplace fatalities.

There are no data on occupational diseases. In fact, the recent Delhi Mundka fire and others show the presence of a new problem: the “legal invisibility” of workplaces. We don’t have any estimates. Thus, we find that there are serious and serious deficits in the regulations and implementation of OSH, among others, in the economy.

Despite all this and, in fact, because of these serious legal and institutional shortcomings, India must adopt the Declaration without any hesitation, because this step will lead India on the path of restructuring and reforming the institutional system in matter of OSH.

It should be noted that the recently adopted Occupational Safety Code does not cover all branches of economic activity and that the regulations in force are inadequate. Thus, the adoption of the FPRW Declaration 2022 will lead to many positive aspects and ultimately to the creation of a safe and healthy working environment. The economic and social benefits deriving from OSH hardly need to be emphasised.

Business leaders will not hesitate to point out the costs of having an elaborate OHS environment in place as required by law or the fact that industrial accidents happen because workers need to be held accountable.

The monetary costs pale in comparison to the costs in human lives. Legal training and disciplinary action against offending workers will resolve operational failures. The right to safe workplaces (right to life) is simply a non-negotiable right. The NDA government must start the process of endorsing the Declaration as soon as possible because India, as a founding member of the ILO, is committed to promoting decent work, which also includes safe work.

(The author is Visiting Professor, XLRI, Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur)

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