8 workers were killed at the Poraiyar bus depot, 40kms from Nagapattinam, when the rest house that they were sleeping in collapsed early on 20th October. The deceased include eight drivers and one conductor. They had finished the second shift duty late into the previous night and were getting ready for the first shift on Friday morning. The G+1 building which was used as the rest house was constructed in 1943 when transport was still run by private agencies. Unions say that the transport corporation paid no heed to repeated demands to demolish old buildings and reconstruct better structures. The blame has squarely been laid on the government, transport corporation and labour department for their negligence. On 21st October, workers throughout Tamil Nadu held condolence meetings at the depots and began work half hour later.
According to a statement by the committee of trade unions, the building, where 24 workers were asleep, collapsed at around 3.30am on 20th October. Com. Manimaran, general secretary of CITU in Kumbakonam said that the workers slept on the first floor, below the only fan in the room, after finishing the second shift on the previous day. “The building is old and built in an out-dated style so the centre of the floor collapsed to the ground. Eight of the workers died instantly”, he said. Although the accident took place at 3.30am, it was 6.30am by the time the bodies were pulled out of the rubble. However, what is shocking is that the forces of the state were at play almost immediately to cover up the issue. Com.Manimaran says that three MLAs arrived on the scene, ensured that the post-mortems were carried out hastily and that no FIR was filed. “Five of the families took the bodies but after we arrived, we protested and ensured that an FIR was filed”, he said.
According to activists of TTSF, an independent union in the state transport sector, the safety of buildings and rest rooms in depots is an issue that they have been continuously raising with the corporations and the government. It even came up during the last conciliation proceedings before the Deputy Commissioner of Labour a month ago. “Rest houses and toilets in almost all depots are in terrible condition. We have demanded that the government and the corporation must inspect and maintain them”, said Com.Nagarajan, Joint Secretary of TTSF. One activist from CITU even spoke about a “protest for bathroom doors” at a depot.
This heinous act of negligence by the government and transport corporations is part of a larger problem. The transport corporations are constantly claiming huge losses that have led to piling up of crores of rupees in dues to the workers as arrears in wages, dearness allowance, etc. It also includes unpaid gratuity for retired workers. The corporations are determined to cut costs and compromise on safety and well-being of workers. Com.Chandran, Vice President of CITU’s MTC Union, Chennai says that the Civil Engineering department of the corporations has been down-sized. This is the department that ought to inspect depots and maintenance of buildings. “If this department were to do its job, they would constantly be recommending that buildings are renovated, and it would cost the corporation money. This is not something that the management is willing to do”, he said. The Motor Transport Workers Act 1961 which lays down regulations of work as well specifies facilities like the rest rooms, canteens, etc is not implemented.
There are serious issues of health and safety which are often lost in the talk about increments, bonus and wages. Com.A.Soundarajan, President of the CITU Transport workers union, also said that one of their long standing demands includes that light work and light routes be assigned to workers on a seniority basis. “There must be a principle through which work is allocated. Given that buses are in such bad conditions, we have been asking that the corporations to assign work in a systematic manner. Workers who are older or have just recovered from serious illnesses or accidents must be assigned the shorter routes. Currently, the practice is that the depot management will only act in favour of the cadre of the ruling party’s union”, he said.
Furthermore, cost-cutting means that accidents also occur often as the buses are not maintained properly. During Thozhilalar Koodam’s coverage of the two-day strike in May 2017, many workers spoke about the abysmal condition of the buses, many of which have been on the road long after their prescribed service life. With much of the technical and maintenance work being outsourced, vehicles are badly maintained.
Workers through out the state mourned the loss of their colleagues on 21st October with candle light vigils and black badges.
Unions have vowed to hold the Labour Department and Transport corporations accountable and initiate legal action. They have also demanded enhanced compensation and government jobs for the victims’ families. But it is hoped that the issue of health and safety will not be lost in the on-going negotiations for the new wage agreement with the government and corporations.