On one hand, if they show up for work, they are exposed to the risk of contagion, on the other, they are at the risk of losing jobs if factories decide to shut down due to falling demand.
With malls shut and exports slowing every passing day, in the textiles sector which alone employs more than 6 million factory workers, and accounts for one of the highest employments in India after agriculture, the situation is so grim that factory owners would be forced to shut down facilities if the coronavirus scare continues for long.
According to Rahul Mehta, president of the Clothing Manufacturers Association of India (CMAI), the business has been impacted drastically.
"The retailers are not taking fresh supplies as markets are closed. Many workers are going back to their home towns as they fear getting infected working in crowded zones.
“Already attendance has started falling, but we need to meet the committed obligations. The retailers have stopped placing orders, and if this continues, manufacturers will not be able to run factories for long. Large corporates can pay wages but we won’t be able to pay. This is going to have an unprecedented impact,” said Mehta. As a precautionary measure, textile mills are spraying disinfectant and providing sanitizers for safe work environment, he said.
In the jute sector, which employs close to 350 thousand workers in West Bengal, the risk of contagion remains and jute mill workers are demanding better work conditions. So far, the workers have not been provided with much of a safeguard against infections.
On Monday, the All India Central Council of Trade Unions, a trade federation affiliated to the Left, in a deputation to the West Bengal government and the Indian Jute Mills Association (IJMA), said that the workers in jute mills are subject to unhygienic conditions, and hence they should be provided with access to clean water, soap, separate towels and masks.
According to Raghavendra Gupta, Chairman of IJMA, the association is now contemplating providing masks to workers. “We have provided washbasins and many factories are now doing temperature checks,” he said.
Sanjay Kajaria, former chairman of the Indian Jute Mills Association and a mill owner, said, to prevent the infection, mills are supplying soaps and educating workers towards cleanliness and social distancing. Close to 200 posters in different languages have been put up in the mills, he added. In each shift, depending on the size of the mill, 2000-5000 workers are engaged in close to nine departments.
“Neither the jute mill owners nor the government is bothered about the safety of jute mill workers. They are working in hazardous conditions,” said Baijnath Rai, general secretary of BJP-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS).
In the tea estates of West Bengal and Assam, which houses around 8,00,000 workers, workers are faced with similar risks. Tea companies cite that estates are isolated and therefore there was little need to make provisions for additional safety of workers.
“Estates are isolated; hardly anyone leaves or enters. Throughout the year, it is mostly self-quarantined and hence I think there is far lesser chance of any outbreak of the Coronavirus there”, a senior official at a major tea company said.
The West Bengal government has however asked tea companies to arrange for masks and hand sanitisers for the workers; the Assam government has asked estates to discourage workers from leaving the estate and maintain a record of any outsider entering the estate. Additionally, estate hospitals have been ordered to maintain close contact with the district hospitals and all schools in the gardens have been ordered to shut down till March 31.
Estate owners, however, point out masks and hand sanitisers are hardly available. “We are increasing awareness about personal hygiene and preventive measures against Coronavirus”, a planter from Assam said.
In the mining area, the nature of industry makes it difficult to sanitise it completely. “It is not possible to sanitise the machine or the mining area completely no matter what steps are taken. There is a chance that there can be an outbreak”, working president of All India Coal Workers' Federation, B K Srivastava, said.
The Maharatna company has stopped all biometric devices in its offices and mines and has stopped all departmental and co-ordination meetings at the mine level. Additionally, mines are being sanitized with bleaches and disinfectant sprays and workers are ordered to wash hands with soap and water. Isolation centres and a dedicated ambulance service has been opened in each of its eight subsidiaries.