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Losing your fingers as a cost of the job: Automobile workers in Manesar, India

24 March, 2017

The industrial belt of Manesar, near New Delhi in India, is a hub for the country’s growing automobile industry.  The sector provides economic opportunity for many workers, who migrate from other states.  

However each year, thousands of auto workers in Manesar alone lose their hands or fingers on the job.

As one worker puts it: "Ungli bachayenge ya jaan bachayenge.”  “It’s whether we will save a finger or our life”: in other words, we risk losing fingers to ensure our economic survival.

Auto-manufacturing is an important industry in Prime Minister Modi’s “Make in India” campaign.  In 2014-15 the sector saw 15% growth in on the previous year.  Several tiers of the supply chain are concentrated in Manesar, from the assembly lines of Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM)s like Maruti Suzuki, Hero and Honda, down through tiers one, two and three of sub-contractors.

On a recent visit we met with some of these migrant workers. All had been injured, having lost either their whole hand or some fingers. We met at the office of SafeInIndia, which works with workers and factory owners to reduce the number of crush injuries from machinery and enable workers to access the government “ESI” social insurance to cover their treatment.

All the often-reported concerns regarding working conditions in global supply chains were starkly on display.  The worst conditions are in the lowest-tier factories. Many companies have moved to announced-only audits, so that, for example, prior to the audits taking place workers are given safety gear (which they don’t normally have), and mal-functioning machinery is put out of use.  Few workers receive any training for the machinery, and when accidents happen the employers take little action as in most cases the worker is easily replaced.

The workers usually lack formal contracts.  They are reluctant to engage in organizing efforts for fear of retaliation and being blacklisted.  They rarely raise grievances, and when they do so they are ignored.  One worker described how a machine he was using was not working properly for a period of months.  He along with other workers raised the issue a few times with the managers and they ignored him: predictably, one day it crushed his hand.

From the factories’ perspective it is cheaper not to invest in upgrading the machinery or providing training for the workers because the jobs are in such demand. Or as one worker put it: “it’s all about the money.”

These pervasive injuries will only be prevented if there is concerted action by the industry from the top down through the supply chain.

Arun Maira, Former Member of the Planning Commission of India and Former India Chairman of Boston Consulting Group” wrote in the introduction to SafeInIndia’s latest report:

“Indian manufacturing will not catch up and stay sustainably ahead of global competition, if the minds and hearts of workmen are not engaged for the betterment of enterprises.  Workmen cannot be seen as mere costs, or only hands to be hired through contractors, so that the principal employer can avoid dealing with their human needs for care and compassion.”

Auto-manufacturers need to take steps to ensure that decent working conditions are in place through to the lowest tiers of their supply chain, and that workers have access to remedy when accidents occur.

In February this year, John Ruggie, author of the “UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”, gave a keynote address to the G20 countries – these countries include major car-producing countries such as India, Germany, and Japan.  He urged the countries to ensure human dignity throughout global supply chains, saying that “their effective management can turn them into significant leverage points to make globalization work better for all.”

For the workers of Manesar, this will ensure that the simple step of seeking a better life does not lead to being injured for life.

Read more:

Commentary by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre's South Asia Representative Harpreet Kaur, "Make in India should not break India", TheNewsMinute, Nov 2015

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