Apathy and flawed policies cripple Karnataka workers in second wave
The second deadly wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be far more serious in all respects than the first wave. Consider this: The daily peak during the first wave in Bengaluru was 5,800 cases, while the daily peak in the second wave was almost 25,000 cases. Daily cases nationwide peaked at around 3-4 lakh, alongside valid concerns about low testing rates and systemic underreporting of Covid-19 deaths.
The flaws in our healthcare system have been brutally exposed, with reports of shortages of hospital beds, oxygen and essential medicines. The prime minister’s big vaccine announcement for all from May 1 turned out to be another case of boastfulness and ended a hiccup, with most state governments suspending the largely symbolic vaccination campaign for the group of 18-44 years old. The desperate attempt to widen the gap between doses seemed like a hasty cover-up of the vaccine shortage. Decisions on the lockdown and purchase of the vaccine have been left to state governments. The Center, in the general opinion, has abdicated its responsibility and political paralysis reigned everywhere. It has been left to the country’s high courts to instill the urgency and direction much needed in the battle against the Second Wave.
The Karnataka government announced a phased lockdown from April 24. There has been a lot of ambiguity in the guidelines for the functioning of the industrial sector. The guidelines of the first phase specifically excluded the clothing sector from the list of industries allowed to operate. Not surprisingly, the government backed down and allowed 50% of the sector to operate within two days of the announcement. Almost all other industries have been allowed to operate at full capacity.
During the second phase of the “tighter” lockdown, the guidelines only allowed essential and processing industries. Industries such as steel and chemicals require furnaces and boilers to operate all day, therefore classified as processing industries. Again, after the announcement of the “stricter” guidelines, industry bodies lobbied to allow their operation and lo, the government forced to allow almost all industries to operate through an addendum published to the original guidelines. Even the auto industries were allowed to operate as essential industries.
The deliberate ambiguity designed into the guidelines allows virtually any industry to function. In fact, the flabby government only “asked” and not mandated full wages and job protection during the lockdown. The government’s mother-in-law treatment of the working class is beyond doubt. A few progressive industries / industrial organizations have voluntarily made the decision to close (some partially) with the payment of full wages to the workforce, despite being allowed to operate at full capacity.
The primary sector of agriculture and mining and the secondary sector of manufacturing and industry, which process raw materials and produce commodities for society as a whole, are extremely critical for any society. . While trade and commerce can afford a break, agriculture and manufacturing cannot. It’s undeniable. The industrial sector not only mass-produces essential drugs and equipment in the fight against the pandemic, but also produces essential commodities to supply our markets. The worker fulfills an indispensable function in our society. The industrial worker produces, the transport worker distributes and the worker delivers. It is the labor force of these workers that allows the rest of society the luxury of working from home.
The organization of production processes in most factories does not allow compliance with the physical distancing standards adapted to Covid-19. Transportation and canteen facilities in most factories are overcrowded and poorly equipped to meet such demands. In the event of infection, home quarantine is often very difficult in small social housing in and around industrial areas. Some progressive industries have organized isolation and Covid care facilities in some cases. However, what we are seeing is complete and utter disregard for the industrial worker on all sides of government. There is a complete lack of policy surrounding the safety and well-being of the worker, with the exception of an order for 14 days of paid Covid quarantine leave which was not taken until January 2021 after Pressure was exerted by the High Court of Karnataka.
The urgency shown by the government in allowing industries to function is not seen in the development of health and safety policies for workers. In this total contempt and these political shortcomings, lies a real danger. Today there are thousands of infected workers in industries.
Numerous deaths of young workers are reported daily in the second wave. Added to the risks of working in factories in the immediate vicinity for an extended period of time is the well-documented shortage of healthcare facilities in the state.
There are around 16,900 factories in Karnataka employing around 16.5 lakh of workers. The rest of society depends on these workers for the production of all essential goods. The health and safety of these workers is the collective responsibility of the company and, therefore, the responsibility of the government. It is a logical proposition to require that all workers called to work during closures be considered frontline workers. It is important to declare all workers as frontline workers and to provide benefits and free vaccination in their workplace immediately and as a priority if we are to fight this second wave and prepare for the third wave in all sincerity.
Certainly, vaccinating these workers is a collective small price to pay for the risks and sacrifices of the working class in this continuing battle against the pandemic. It is high time for the government to focus on the problems of the working class in the wider interest of society.
(The author is secretary, All India Trade Union Congress, Bengaluru)