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India's deadly industrial workplaces in the spotlight

January 9, 2024

India aims to become a global industrial hub. But could a high number of fatal or life-threatening workplace incidents be holding it back?

firefighters tackle a four storey building fire
At least 27 people died as a result of this factory fireImage: Dinesh Joshi/AP Photo/picture alliance

Ismail Khan's younger sister, 21-year-old Muskan, was among the 27 people killed in the massive fire that broke out in a four-story electronics factory in the Mundka area of India's capital New Delhi in May 2022.

She had been working there for two years and her income supported five family members.

Ismail still has nightmares about that day. He sometimes wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, thinking about his sister desperately trying to find her way out as the building was engulfed in flames.

Ismail holds the factory owners responsible for the catastrophe. "My sister could have escaped and survived the fire but there was no emergency fire exit. The only available exit was blocked by boxes when the fire broke out," he told DW.

Ismail and the family members of the other victims are suing the company.

The Working People's Coalition, a collective of organizations working on labor issues, highlighted in their fact-finding report that the factory in Mundka was operating without the permission of the fire department due to a number of safety and labor violations. 

When DW contacted Nitin Ahlawat, a lawyer representing the factory owners, he denied the charges leveled against the factory owners. He told DW, "This was an accident that happened due to an electrical short circuit." He said that he was unaware of a blocked emergency exit and added that the case was ongoing. 

In India,industrial accidents kill and disable thousands of people every year. Government data shows that on average, three workers die each day in Indian factories due to a lack of basic safety measures. In 2021, the Labor Ministry informed Parliament that at least 6,500 employees had died while working at factories, ports,mines and construction sites in the preceding five years. Labor activists and trade unions say that the figure could be higher as many incidents are not reported.

Lack of training

In addition to fire safety violations, inadequate training is also a primary cause of accidents at workplaces across the country. 

The Safe In India Foundation, an organization focusing on automotive industry worker safety, stated in its annual report "Crushed 2022,"  that every year thousands of workers lose their hands and fingers to accidents in this sector. 

Many workers in automotive manufacturing are migrants who are overworked, underpaid, and not adequately trained.

Workers recycling India's e-waste underpaid, unprotected

Dilution of labor safety laws

India is aiming to become a global industrial hub, encouraging investment and innovation with initiatives such as Startup India. However, with incidents like the Mundka fire in New Delhi still commonplace, it remains to be seen whether the country's health and safety standards can keep up.

The Indian government has made moves to reform its health and safety codes, but some activists think this has left workers at greater risk. India introduced the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code 2020. Included in the code was a change in the requirement for a "safety committee" in hazardous factories.

Previously, it was mandatory for all companies to form a safety committee, irrespective of the number of workers. However, under the new code, the safety committee is to be formed only after a government order or notification. The government also changed the protocols for workplace inspections, in a bid to simplify the process for companies.

Tapan Sen, a labor activist and general secretary of the Center of Indian Trade Unions, has slammed these new laws. "Random and unplanned inspections have stopped almost completely. Now we see no inspections taking place. Even if you want to inspect you have to inform the company person a few days ago. And this is going to be unsafe for workers," he told DW over the phone. 

Sen argues that the new laws put the compliance bar even lower. Currently, labor officers are responsible for inspecting and ensuring the implementation of safety rules, but this will be discontinued under the new codes.

Back in Mundka, Ismail and family members of other victims are determined to pursue their cases, despite the financial burden. They hope to get justice for the losses they have endured.

Edited by: Kate Martyr

DW Adil Bhat
Adil Bhat TV reporter and correspondent with a special focus on politics, conflict and human-interest stories.