COVID-19 cases among factory workers rise after India lifts lockdown

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As India’s coronavirus cases exceeded one million last week, union leaders say spikes in infections in reopened factories are putting workers at risk, accusing companies of skimping on health and safety as they rush to get business back on track.

Such is the case of factory worker Bajirao Thengde who fears going to work after dozens of his colleagues fell sick with coronavirus. His boss at a motorbike factory in western India said he should “learn to live with the virus”.

It was only after several workers died and district authorities ordered a seven-day lockdown that Thengde’s plant in Maharashtra state finally closed on July 10, weeks after calls for it to shut when the first cases appeared.

“We were demanding that the factory be temporarily closed but work carried on,” said Thengde, a union leader who has worked for more than 30 years for Bajaj Auto Ltd – India’s biggest motorbike exporter.

“The cases kept increasing despite us wearing masks, maintaining distance using foot pedals to access water taps and eating lunch by ourselves. And then there were the deaths.”

Of the plant’s roughly 8,000 staff, 250 have tested positive for the virus, but with their pay dependent on showing up for shifts, Thengde said workers had little choice but to go to the factory.

Bajaj Auto Managing Director Rajiv Bajaj said in a recent TV interview that the “factory was the safest place to be”, saying employees were catching the virus in the community and bringing it to work.

India has issued health and safety guidelines for manufacturing facilities as part of a gradual exit from a weeks-long lockdown that has left millions jobless and short of food.

According to most estimates, the Indian economy will register a record contraction of over 4.5% in the current fiscal year that started on April 01 due to the pandemic.

Manufacturers are implementing measures such as temperature checks, mandatory wearing of masks, smaller shift groups and social distancing, industrial associations said.

State officials have also stepped up contact-tracing programmes around industrial hubs where cases have been reported, setting up special teams to work with factories on compliance and training workers on the new mandatory safeguards.

“We are very concerned about workers falling ill,” said Pankaj Kumar, president of the Indian Industries Association, which represents small and medium-sized businesses.

Labour advocates, however, say the measures put in place do not go far enough, calling for more routine inspections, guaranteed living wages, as well as housing and transportation for workers during the pandemic.

“Workers are still not central to the unlocking of industries,” said Hemalata, who goes by one name and is the president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

“While some industries may follow protocols, who will ensure that smaller and medium-sized factories have safety measures in place? What is the point of opening up if workers returning to work are falling ill?”

Authorities, meanwhile, say regulatory requirements to protect workers must be balanced with the need to allow industry to recover lost ground following the strict nationwide lockdown.

“A fine balance has to be maintained because economic activities cannot be stopped,” said Maheshwar Rao, principal secretary of the Karnataka state labour department.

“Safety guidelines have been issued and we are asking industry associations to ensure they are followed. We don’t want to have a heavy hand on regulation.”

While Thengdeis back in his job, he is keeping track of his sick co-workers’ condition.

“I worry for them as much as I worry for myself,” Thengde said. “At the end of the day, we all face the same risks and so do our families.” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)

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