At 8am on 2nd December 2016, a van transporting 12 workers and two of their young children to the Vijay Garments factory in Padalam toppled over. Three months on, six of the women workers who suffered serious injuries have received no compensation, even as they are unable to work and seek proper medical treatment. The Garment and Fashion Workers Union, who has been helping the workers says that this demonstrates the glaring apathy of the company and the government towards issues of safety of workers.
According to the workers, the driver was speeding and did not see a speed breaker, causing the van to collide with another vehicle and topple over. Amrutham, 33, who worked as a checker in the factory can not recount what happened but her friends say that she was bleeding profusely from the mouth and was lifted out by the driver. Her face was swollen beyond recognition and she could not see from her right eye. Sangeetha who was sitting in the front close to the driver’s seat was thrown out of the front windshield due to the impact and broke her jaw. She was unable to speak or eat solid food for almost two months.
The injured workers were taken in an ambulance to the Chengelpet government hospital. Prema, 26 who suffered a fracture in her right hand and forearm said that her hands were filled with shards of glass and she was bleeding, but the nurses and doctors did not even clean the wounds for several hours. All of the workers said that they were not given adequate treatment. For most of them, the doctors merely took CT scans to check for internal injuries and then they were asked to go home. Out of 12 injured workers four were asked to be admitted. After spending a few hours there they realised that they would not get proper treatment and their families decided to take them to private clinics closer to home.
A representative of Vijay Garments management who was present at the time promised the workers and their families that the company would take care of all their expenses but did not give them any money for immediate medical treatment. These workers, who earn between Rs.6000-Rs.7000 each month, had to borrow money for treatment. Amirtham who could not afford to do so immediately stayed at the Chengelpet GH for three days. She has two broken teeth in the front and vision in her right eye is still blurry. “I decided to leave GH because they were not giving proper treatment. My injuries did not improve so I went to a private hospital where they said it would cost Rs.12000 or more to fix new teeth. I cannot afford this as I have already borrowed Rs.15000 from my neighbours for basic medical treatment. I told the doctors to fix the existing teeth and hoping there will be no infection”, she said. Amritham has three children and her husband works at a local fast food shop as a cook earning Rs.400 per day. For almost one month he was unable to work as he had to take care of her, forcing them to borrow money to make ends meet. When Muniamma’s husband heard that his wife had met with an accident, he was so shocked that he consumed poison. He was admitted in the same hospital along with her. Despite suffering a severe leg injury she was forced to go back to work for a few days.
In the case of Sangeetha, whose jaw was completely broken, the surgery cost almost Rs.50000. The family had no way of meeting these expenses and the hospital required an advance for the surgery. The family tried to contact the HR managers of the company for several days but to no avail. In fact, the surgery had to be postponed by two-three days till the manager finally came forward to pay part of the money. They claimed that due to demonetisation, they had no cash to give the hospital.
Vijay Garments is part of the DPS Reddy group of companies and has two factories, including one in MEPZ-SEZ and another one in Padalam where the injured workers were employed as permanent worker – some close to a year, and others a little more. The company claims on its website that it’s “Core asset is its family of 15000 members”, presumably referring to the workers they employ. They also list secured transport facilities for pick up and drop as one of the welfare measures that they provide. But the injured do not feel they are part of the ‘family’, in fact far from it. Prema had to travel by bus to the factory for almost one week with a broken hand to collect her salary for November. With tears in her eyes she recalls “I had to hold my son in one hand and the railing of the bus with my fractured hand. I was in immense pain but we needed the money. They said that they could not give us the full salary due to demonetisation so I had to go on three days to collect the money. The company did not bother about us at all.” Traumatised by the accident, her young son who was with her in the van says he doesn’t want her to go to work. Her family is facing eviction from their home as they have not paid rent for almost three months.
The workers in Vijay Garments produce clothes for some of the most sophisticated and high-end brands. The union also says that the Padalam unit has produced for Manda-as, Karen Scot, Jockey, Oliver and Napawear. Despite ESI deductions, the company had failed to deposit the amount in the ESI. When the workers visited the ESI dispensary, they were told that they would not be eligible for medical treatment as the company had not paid the money. Although the company denies this, workers say that it was paid subsequent to this incident.
Victimised for seeking union’s help
The HR Manager, Mr.Balamurugan, met with representatives of the Garment and Fashion Workers Union including its President,Comrade Sujata Mody, and assured them that he would make a payment of Rs.15000 for immediate relief and provide three months wages. He even signed an agreement to that effect. Nithya says they were relieved when they heard the news but on the next day he came to their homes offering some money individually which they refused to take. “We were skeptical if they would honour the agreement, so we told them that the six of us would come to the company to collect the money as per the agreement. However, when we went to the factory the next day we were shouted at for approaching the union for help”, says Nithya. The workers were made to sit in room, hiding them from other workers and not allowed to speak. They were told that they had gone to a “third person” who was instigating them. “We told them that it was union who was there for us when we had nobody. They took us to a doctor in Chennai for a full checkup and have raised money to support us. We told them we had done nothing wrong”, said Prema. The manager agreed to pay the money only if all bills were provided. Workers say that they went to several hospitals and do not have a full account of the money spent. According to them, the amount that they have claimed is minimal.
Workers returned empty handed and are currently in a difficult situation. Without money to pay back debt and not in a position to go back to work as they are still in pain due to their physical condition. Although the Factories Act 1948 considers accidents occurring to and from work on company transport as industrial accidents, Com.Sujata says there is no protocol on dealing with these issues. “The onus is on the police to ensure that the company is made liable. Doctors and medical professionals in the government hospital must provide proper treatment but also be proactive when it is an industrial accident. Between the labour department, ESI and Department of Industrial Health and Safety, there must be a protocol to deal with such accidents. There must be a redressal mechanism whereby compensation and punitive action for negligence or failure to provide it is swift so that workers are not left to suffer like this”, she said. The Employee’s State Insurance Act clearly states that accidents occurring in transport provided by employer are covered by law (Section 51C of ESI Act). In this instance, police have only registered a case under rash driving against the driver of the van. The union has raised a dispute with the Deputy Commissioner of Labour. Workers plan to report to work on Monday so that the company will be forced to take notice of their situation and provide compensation. “We are afraid for our safety in a company like this, but we have no choice”, said Nithya.