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A Worker’s Death In Delhi Shows How Contractors Are Making Ports A Death Trap

On August 3, I heard about a death which took place two days before in the Inland Container Depot (ICD) in Tughlakabad, where I have been doing field research for some weeks.

According to the FIR filed, Mirajuddin, 45, was a surveyor employed by Metcalfe & Hodgkinson Pvt. Ltd. and was killed by a rubber tyred gantry (RTG) machine used to move containers onto the rail line. His brother Umar, 38, is a forklift driver and had filed an FIR against the driver of the RTG under sections 279 and 304A, that is for rash driving and causing death by negligence.

Container Corporation of India Ltd. (CONCOR) is a public sector undertaking under Indian Railways and has been running the show at this ICD since 1993.  It recently came in the news for a gas leak, which resulted in the hospitalisation of hundreds of school girls whose school was nearby. The gas leak was from a cargo which is believed to have contained a crop pesticide imported from China.

The daily workers and safai karamcharis employed in ICD alleged that CONCOR maintains a workplace rife with violations with regard to health and safety, minimum wages, and job security. The majority of the labour – cleaning, unloading, crane operation for example – is contracted out, whether on a private contract or direct tender with CONCOR. There is a CONCOR Employee’s Union but does not include contract workers within its membership.

There are various types of contract labour who directly interact with each other but fall under different contractors/companies.

According to a Metcalfe & Hodgkinson Pvt. Ltd. supervisor I had spoken with weeks ago, the company employs surveyors who are attached to each of CONCOR’s 32 various cranes. As each container is lifted, its location is fed into the system in real time by the surveyor.

After coming to know about this death, I spoke to the director of the company, Mr. VK Mathur, on August 4. He was aware of the incident and claimed that the deceased was fully covered with benefits which will be disbursed to his next of kin. He also stated that ₹50,000 compensation has been given to the deceased’s brother. However, on August 3, when speaking to the deceased’s brother, then performing last rites in their village in Bihar, it was claimed that the family had received nothing.

Unlike the coastal ports, this one is landlocked and is also known as a ‘dry port’. Everyone I had spoken to thus far had recalled deaths and injuries but they were talked about so casually. Even the secondary sources I could gather made it seem like deaths were common over a decade ago due to inefficient and arrogant management. This death, however, reflects the fact that hazardous conditions have not abated.

If one goes by the FIR, then it points to the crane operator. It is not known whether he was a CONCOR permanent employee or on contract, but according to another machine operator, these 9 RTG machines are both owned and operated by CONCOR.

When I had talked to various players in ICD TKD, specifically about the skill levels of the crane drivers and the associated salaries, one custom agent brushed the question off completely. He stated that drivers are taught on the job, and it is not like they are hired with a qualification from an ITI or anything. When I had spoken to CONCOR officials, one shirked off the fact that they even had contract labour on their premises – indicating to me that they do not believe they bear any vested responsibility towards the labour that works there, rather that it falls under the private companies or contractors. After coming to know of this death, I tried contacting the CONCOR Public Relations Officer, but the representative instead took my number and said I would be called back. I haven’t heard from anyone after that.

Then upon seeing this in the context of worker deaths in these port areas – a recent case of a truck driver’s death at the Mundra Port in Gujarat run by Adani Group on July 30 comes to mind. Bittu Roy was being made to do the job of a ‘lasher’, which involves locking the containers, when we was struck by the container and died on the spot.

The deaths that have happened in Tughlakabad in the past have also been harrowing; one report stated over 150 worker deaths between 2000-2010. One worker, on contract since 1998, said offhand that 1-2 major injuries or deaths may happen every year. Others narrated freak incidents like ‘getting flattened like a poster’ by a container, getting ribs crushed by trucks and spinal cord damage by falling cargo. Generally, FIRs are not allowed to be filed.

These deaths are just the tip of the iceberg of the numerous health hazards – from exposure to chemical cargo to heavy lifting combined with any lack of first aid or any safety gear. When I asked about safety gears such as helmets, a CONCOR official chuckled saying that if someone’s about to get crushed by a container, then a helmet is not going to save him. It wasn’t so much the potential correctness of this situation, but the disregards he showed towards worker safety, that stood out. Other responses were like, “Aise toh sab jagah hai.” (This happens everywhere) With no functioning workers’ union or any possible unity under the contract system, they are left to luck in hopes for a sensitive superior who may show concern – whether it is for payment of salaries or medical compensation.

The details surrounding Mirajuddin’s death are still unclear. Neither Metcalfe & Hodgkinson Pvt. Ltd nor CONCOR made any public statement. According to the workers, an ambulance paid for by CONCOR did take Mirajuddin while he was still alive to the AIIMS Trauma Centre where he was eventually pronounced dead that Tuesday afternoon.

Who is at fault here? It is abundantly clear that Mirajuddin and Bittu’s death and the thousands of other workers across the country who are killed in container depots and ports are the result of companies and the contractors’ anti-worker labour conditions and policies. Workers under contract have stated they do not complain about their conditions as they fear they will lose their job or will get beaten up by bouncers. While the FIR blames the crane operator, a worker himself, it goes without saying that these companies and contractors are hell-bent on creating not a workplace but a death trap.

Image source: Ravi Jangra/ Facebook
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