Mainstreaming of occupational safety and health in labour movement by the trade unions in India

Samit Kumar Carr

Man is an integral part of nature, and sharing a deep relationship with the same, forms the family and society. Therefore, developing perceptions is a continuous process of changing and advancing during the struggle for sustainability. Continuous development of perception for sustainability leads to different production processes right from hunting, food gathering, and shifting cultivation to settled agriculture where river water is used for irrigation. Retaining fertility of the land, domesticating animals, using metals and natural resources for agriculture and developing artisanal tools was for improving quality of lives. But, in capitalist system that indulges in consumerism, manufacturing of war equipments and military establishments causes ruthless appropriation of natural resources including mining of metals and non-metallic minerals. This is the beginning of industrial production process for surplus accumulation and monopolization of capital. In this process, some dangerous items are produced using chemicals that have been affecting human health and life, forest, bionetwork, environment and climate. Therefore, mainstreaming of OSH and environment campaign in labour movements by the trade unions is the need of the hour for ensuring occupational safety and health of the working people, environmental justice and heading towards a just and equitable humane society free from all forms of coercive oppression based on caste, creed, gender, nationality and religions.


Conceptualization of safety and health is inherent qualities of basic human instinct. Construction of huts or using firewood at night to save them from wild animals holds the statement true. Discovery of 5500 years old leather shoe of Armenia’s copper age by the Archeologists of University College Cork in Ireland prompted author of this article to think that the design and production of such leather shoes was the first conscious effort for developing shoes as safety measures to protect their feet for walking miles upon miles from one place to another place and chasing & hunting of animals in thorny & sharp rocky areas. It was the result of inquisitiveness, innovative & creative ideas towards safety & sustainability of their lives. The Clothing of Iceman [2] of Neolithic / Chalolithic age indicates that the Iceman belonged to that community which had developed such clothing that could protect them from cold ice and glaciers which related to comfort and safety of their lives. Such types of safety measures have been developed by the communities across the globe according to environmental conditions and their needs. But unfortunately, in every sphere of production process, community or their King/rulers/pharaoh could not become successful to protect themselves especially from occupational lung disease like silicosis because of their limitations as they could not develop preventive measures for dust control systems and respirators. It was scarcely known that stone mining, hand grinding and carving required in building the pyramids led to many workers getting silicosis. The affliction was revealed after an examination of 3500 years old mummy [3]. But how many of us know the fate of the workers engaged in building these final resting places for the Egyptian pharaohs?[4] Notably, Hippocrates first diagnosed silicosis in 430 BC, so, silicosis is considered as oldest occupational lung disease.

Inquisitiveness, innovative and creative ideas towards safety and sustainability of human beings started vanishing, as the control over natural resources and production process went to some powerful people. Coercion and exploitation-based production pattern was imposed by the occupiers and producers that seized the human rights of the working people and damaged their inherent quality to think about their safety, sustainability and sense of dignity, protection of which had become the primary issues for the workers. So, this situation did not exist for long; since the workers did not accept that the situation persists after industrial revolution happened in Europe from 1760 to 1840 and in America from 1820-1870. The workers started protest & campaign in early 1860 against working for 10 to 16 hours in unsafe working condition where death and injury was rampant and the workers sacrificed their lives to gain eight hours workday [5] eight hours for rest and eight hours for recreation. With this, 1st May is now recognised as Workers’ Day, which reinforces the importance of the workers’ health and the sustainability of their lives. It has now been accepted by all establishments, governments, the ILO (member org of UN) and other international bodies. Dr B R Ambedkar is the architecture of important labour laws and also changed the working time from 14 hours to 8 hours became a light for workers in India [6].

Later, the workers realised that the reduction of working hours did not serve the purpose alone. So, to prevent health issues arising out of unsafe construction and production methods in mines and industries, the workers further united and started a campaign, raising the issue of occupational safety and health at workplace. That resulted in the formulation of OSH policies and relevant rules and regulations in different countries, especially in European and American countries but the situation remains mostly unchanged in the Asian and African countries with some exceptions.

The ILO was created in 1919. The Constitution contained ideas tested within the International Association for Labour Legislation, founded in Basel in 1901. Advocacy for an international organization dealing with labour issues began in the nineteenth century, led by two industrialists, Robert Owen (1771-1853) of Wales and Daniel Legrand (1783-1859) of France. The driving forces for ILO's creation arose from security, and humanitarian, political and economic considerations. Summarising them, the ILO Constitution's Preamble states that the High Contracting Parties were 'moved by the sentiments of justice and humanity as well as by the desire to secure the permanent peace of the world [7].

The formation of the ILO was possible in the European industries, and did not turn into a reality for their Indian counterparts and other underdeveloped and developing nations, simply because of two reasons, namely, continuing with the old mindset of production management in mines and industries, and the double standards of developed nations who maintained one standard in their own country and a different one in their colonies and uncompromising commitment to enhancement of surplus value, thanks to indulgent attitude of ruling class and delayed advent of consciousness among traditional trade union leadership.

India is a capitalist country and surplus accumulation and profit mainly depends upon unethical ways of appropriation of natural resources, corruption and extra economic coercion based on caste- creed, gender, religion, nationality etc as Dr B R Ambedkar rightly says “The caste is not merely the division of labour, but division of labour based upon graded inequality”[8]. Right from wage fixation of different grade of various industries and amenities provided to the workers basically depends upon caste background of the workers [9].

India has total workforce of 47.41[10] crore, out of which 33.69 crore workers are in the rural areas and 13.72 [11] crore are the urban workers. In the rural areas, 35.3 per cent of the workers are employed as casual labourers while the figure is 14.6 per cent in the urban areas. About 48,000 workers die in India of which 38 fatal accidents take place every day in the construction sectors [12] and out of 11 million cases of occupational diseases in the world 1.9 million cases (17%) are contributed by India and out of 0.7 million deaths in the world 0.12 (17%) is contributed by India [13]. Major cases of accidents at workplaces and occurrences of occupational diseases that expose the pitfalls of safety management and pollution control system in production process for which majority of public & private sectors, industrial units and mining companies, government regulatory agencies are responsible because they never comply the labour laws to protect workers’ occupational safety and health rather insisted upon intensive production process violating OSH standard at work. Not even that, the employers employed contractual workers for skilled, semiskilled and unskilled work in permanent nature of job. These contractual workers are mostly from socially and educationally backward communities like adivasi, dalit, OBC & MOBC and Muslims who are compelled to work as daily wage labour in mines and industries and most of them are the worst victims of occupational accidents and diseases.

This is true that safety standards are maintained in some big and medium scale industries where majority of the permanent workers are employed from upper caste. Safety standards are not applicable for the workers belonging to backward communities engaged as contractual workers in the same companies, double standard is also visible here while maintaining safety standards at work place. No workers of construction, small scale and unorganized sectors units heard about safety and health at work. The industrialist very often talk about investment but no such investment is found for maintaining OSH standard by installing dust and polluting control equipment and machinery as such things are costlier than the lives of dalit workers.

Possibly, insensitivity towards workers and downtrodden communities Government of India did not ratify recommendations of ILO’s Occupational Safety & Health Convention, 1981 (No.155) and Occupational Safety & Health Recommendations of 1985 (No.161) which are among the recommendations, selected code of practice of occupational safety and health that starts from convention 150, whereas India has remained permanent member of the governing body of ILO since 1919. It is interesting to note that during the British rule over 18 years of ILO, India agreed to the 22 conventions whereas after independence, only 18 conventions have been agreed upon in the last 65 years. Surprisingly this has not become one of the issues of trade union movements in India. Some NGOs and few trade union leaders realised the importance of the issues relevant to OSH and has been raising them in the national and international level workshop and public seminar organised by the NGOs.

As occupational safety & health has not become a national priority in India yet, so government doesn’t have any data base of occurrences of accidents at work and occupational diseases. Recently, Government of India has amended forty four labour laws and clubbed into four labour codes, OSH code being of them. But mandatory clauses of enforcing labour laws have been diluted or removed from the present labour code as I came to know from different sources. As the Factories Act 1948, Mining Act 1952 were basically for ensuring safety standard at work, it has definition of factory and mines and Workmen (employees) compensation Act 1923 and ESI Act 1948 were to ensure social security of the workers are being amended in such a manner that will push the workers into death trap and social security of the workers will not be ensured, therefore, mainstreaming of OSH in labour movements in India has emerged as issue of great importance and union can start mainstreaming by creating OSH cells in their respective trade unions for advancing campaign for ensuring human rights developing occupational safety and health culture at work.

The control of health hazards necessitates technological solution of the pollutant control. But such solution with modern technology in production process may reduce the requirement of existing labour force, a section of whom may eventually lose job, but this is not desirable at all. The experience shows that such type of production units is better run in an worker’s co-operative format where all the workers including the skilled and technical employees are jointly the owner and managers of the industrial unit and the State/Government participates as a facilitator and monitoring authority.

With this in view, we suggest simultaneous incorporation of modern technology to avoid health hazards, and management of the production unit through worker’s co-operative so that the workers do not lose job for technological change in production.


[1] World's Oldest Leather Shoe Found—Stunningly Preserved news. National geographic .com/100609-worlds-oldest-leather

[2] Otzi the Iceman - Archaeology -
[3] MUMMY Organs Give Clues to Disease / Biopsy performed on 3,500 ...
[4] Jharkhand plagued by silicosis | Down To Earth › Crosscurrents
[5] The Brief Origins of May Day | Industrial Workers of the World
[6] Some Unknown facts about Dr. Ambedkar on 'MAY DAY' also › notes › babasaheb-ambedkar › some-unknow...
[7]Origins and history - International Labour
[8] Republican Party of India -Wikipedia › wiki › Jump to Independent Labour Party.
[9] Source: ‘Caste as a Special Feature of the Indian Revolution’ -Vashkar Nandy.
[10] India has a workforce of 47.41 crore: Government - The Economic Times › News

[11]Economic Activity - Census of India › Census_And_You › economic_act...
[12] Accidents at workplaces in India 'under reported'; 38 per day ... › India.
[13] National Programme For Control & Treatment of Occupational ... › NationalHealthProgramme ›

Samit Kumar Carr
National Convener (Jharkhand Chapter)
Rising Occupational Safety & Health Network of India (ROSHNI)

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Nov 18, 2019


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