Fact-finding team visits Vembakottai fireworks unit

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Finds violation of several rules, detects possibility of employment of child labour

“We work for 9-10 hours daily. The contractor gives ₹200 per day. On Fridays and Saturdays, workload increases as we have to meet production target,” said Balamari, a woman worker who is under treatment at a private hospital here, on Saturday.

Speaking to a team of social workers from Evidence, a city-based NGO, which visited Sri Mariammal Fireworks in Vembakottai near Sattur in Virudhunagar district and also some of the injured workers at a private hospital, the victims said around 1 p.m. on Friday, they heard a big sound. “For the next 10 minutes, it was chaos. People were running to safety,” they recounted.

There were at least 50-60 workers on the premises. Though the unit was spread on an 18-acre plot, the approach road was bad. Moreover, infrastructure facilities in the work spot were very minimal and water was available only for washing hands and face. “Where do we go for water to extinguish the fire?. With the bad roads, fire tenders took a long time to reach there,” the workers said.

The factory was owned by a person and taken on lease by another. A third person engaged the workers. And, there was no accountability to the workforce. The workers were not insured though labour laws mandates it. There was no log entry and the workers did not have ID cards, A. Kathir, Executive Director, Evidence, said, adding the fact-finding team also found that the contractor engaged child labour.

Mr. Kathir said when he interviewed Muthupandi (17) and Muthukutti (19), both from Scheduled Castes, they claimed that they were working in the unit for the last three years and five years respectively. In that case, the contractor should be booked for engaging child labour in a hazardous unit, he said.

At least 60% of the workers were from Scheduled Castes. While women workers said they came to work at 8.30 a.m. and left by 6 p.m., the contractor paid ₹200 for them and ₹300 for men, and they would get a 30-minute lunch break.

The workers said they had to spend a few more hours on weekends, as weekly production targets had to be met. Hence, there would be a higher number of workers in the sheds.

Mr. Kathir said those arrested in such cases should not be granted bail at least for 12 months. While a very few fireworks units in Sivakasi, Virudhunagar, Sattur and Kovilpatti followed rules and standard operating procedure, most units violated them. Officials from various departments were hand in glove with contractors, he charged.

There had been so many deaths in fireworks units. The owners should be made to compensate the workers and their families and hospital bills should be borne by the employer, contractor or licence holder.

According to Mr. Kathir, fireworks units should have rubber sheets of 3 mm thickness as floor mats to prevent friction, as mandated by the Occupational Safety Health Working Conditions Code.

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