Fingers ‘turned to powder’: the maimed workers of India’s auto hub

Poor training, shoddy equipment leave thousands of workers injured in India’s auto hub.

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India's auto manufacturing sector is a key contributor to the country's economic growth, but workers complain of shoddy safety practices [File: Vijay Mathur/Reuters]

Haryana, India – At the break of dawn, thousands of workers walk out from dusty and congested maze-like alleys to work at nearby factories in Manesar, one of India’s leading automobile hubs, about 50km (31 miles) south of the capital.

In India, the automobile industry employs around 3.7 million people and contributes 7.1 percent to the gross domestic product (GDP). Just in Manesar and the next-door city of Gurugram, both in Haryana state, approximately 80,000 workers are employed in different automobile units of Hero MotoCorp, Maruti Suzuki, Yamaha, and other global companies.

Waiting restlessly outside a government dispensary for his turn, Manish Kumar, 20, a worker at one such factory in Manesar, quickly covers his bandaged hand with a piece of cloth as a group of workers walk past him. In February, Manish lost two fingers when a power press machine, used in the manufacturing of car windows, came crashing down on his hand.

“I came to Manesar like thousands of other workers to support my family and for a better future. But little did I know, instead, this place would make me dependent on someone for the rest of my life,” Manish told Al Jazeera.

“The incident is fresh in my mind and I get traumatised when someone asks me what happened to your hand, and that’s why I try to hide it most of the time,” he said.

Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Manish worked as a casual labour in his central Indian state, Madhya Pradesh. To meet his daily ends and support his ailing parents, he boarded a bus to Manesar, like hundreds of others from his village, in search of a better job opportunity. Soon at the recommendation of a friend, he landed a job that would earn him 13,500 rupees ($163) per month in a small factory manufacturing parts for auto major Maruti Suzuki.

“The factory owners don’t care about our safety; their main agenda is production should not stop at any cost … The machine I was working on malfunctioned for a week, and still I was made to work on it instead of getting it repaired. The machine crushed my two fingers due to their negligence, turning them into powder.”

“It has been over a month, and still, I don’t know whether I will ever be able to work again,” said Manish while struggling to clear drops of sweat dripping from his face. He said he is yet to receive any compensation for his injury.

Manish Kumar,20 waits outside a government dispensary in Manesar Haryana, India
Manish Kumar is still waiting for compensation after two fingers were crushed more than a month ago [Shoaib Mir/Al Jazeera]

Like Manish, thousands of others have been injured while working in this sector in India. “Crushed”, a report published by Safe in India Foundation (SII) revealed that, on average, 20 workers lose their hands and/or fingers daily while working in automobile factories spread in the Manesar and Gurgaon areas. Around 65 percent of injured workers are under the age of 30.

The automobile manufacturing sector in India recorded 3,882 incidents of injuries including 1,050 deaths in 2020, according to data from the Directorate General Factory Advice Service and Labour Institutes (DGFASLI). That year, the state of Haryana reported 50-60 nonfatal accidents, it said. However, SII says that figure is far from reality as each year it helps at least 4,000 workers suffering from a range of injuries in the state’s auto sector.

‘Bizarre’ laws

Professor Prabhu Mohapatra, a labour expert from the Department of History at the University of Delhi, says the situation in India is “bizarre”.

There are laws regulating large factories, but many of them are staffed with contractual workers who are not protected under these laws, he said.

In the case of small factories, there is no chance of inspection or application of rules as occupational or safety regulations are not applicable in factories with under 10, 20 or 30 workers.

Most of the manufacturing for big factories is done by smaller factories. These in turn are fed by smaller businesses that run out of slums and that provide raw materials. These factories employ raw or unskilled workers, pay below minimum wages and make them work longer hours. They are completely unregulated and as a result rarely report any accidents, Mohapatra said.

Legal “loopholes have been allowed to flourish as the law applies to formal establishments, but it does not protect the informal worker who is working in these formal sectors,” Mohapatra said.

Another important factor is that most of the workers are migrant workers who don’t have a support network and are more vulnerable to exploitation, Mohapatra said.

With India pushing to be a manufacturing hub, workers’ safety is an important issue it has to ensure, experts say.

“Safety should not be compromised irrespective of the businesses which are catering to both domestic or export markets,” Professor Rajesh Joseph, a labour expert at the Azim Premji University, told Al Jazeera. “Safety being a top-down approach, it falls on the companies at the top of the supply chain to enforce safety along the supply chain.”

‘Exhausted and sleep deprived’

Shivpujan, 23 both hands got crushed under a power press machine while manufacturing bike spare parts in a factory situated in Manesar, Haryana, India
Shivpujan (pictured) is one of the thousands of workers in India’s auto sector injured on the job [Shoaib Mir/Al Jazeera]

In a small dark room, Shivpujan, 23, lies on a mattress with dried blood stains. His roommate switches on a torch to carefully feed him a few biscuits soaked in tea. Shivapujan, who hails from a small village in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, joined a two-wheeler manufacturing factory at a salary of 10,000 rupees  ($117-120) per month in Manesar in late December 2022. With just basic training and a pair of gloves, he was asked to operate a press machine, and two months later both his hands were crushed under the same machine.

The report from SII states that 52 percent of accidents happen on the power press machine, and around 47 percent of workers owned or had low-quality safety gear provided to them in the factories, with workers putting in 12 hour shifts or longer.

“I was exhausted and sleep deprived as I had been working for more than 12 hours when my hands came under the powerful machine instead of an iron sheet. My only memory is blood oozing from gloves and fellow workers running towards me. Then after that, I became unconscious. Is it even a life worth living where I depend on someone for everything? Isn’t death better than this?” said Shivpujan with a broken voice and tears rolling down his eyes.

Under the government Employees State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) scheme, workers are eligible for compensation for their injuries. Depending on the level of damage, the workers can get free medical treatment, a short-term disability allowance and a lifetime inflation-indexed pension if the injury is severe.

However, SII points out that more than 60 percent of the workers injured in the automobile sector get their ESIC cards after they face an accident. It slows receiving treatment and other facilities. It even results in cancellation in a few cases.

Sitting on a patch of grass outside a factory amid heavy noise, Manoj, 30, waits for his manager to submit the medical documents to extend his leave while the security guard on duty orders Manoj to stay across the road.

Manoj lost his two fingers in February while cutting a metal sheet in a car manufacturing unit. Since then, he has been visiting the factory every week to get his leave extended. Like Manish, he also worked in a small factory manufacturing parts for Maruti Suzuki.

“If a person falls slightly ill, he is advised to rest. But even though I lost my two fingers, I am supposed to get a leave extension written from the doctor every week. Isn’t it common sense that, in my condition, I won’t heal in a few weeks? They make us injured people suffer even after getting hurt,” he said, holding up his medical documents with his uninjured hand.

The suffering increases as they don’t get any compensation, he added. Manoj said no one informed him about ESIC when he joined the job and now is borrowing money from a colleague.

Manoj considers himself lucky that he only lost two fingers, “I have seen people losing their entire arm. In front of that, my injury is nothing. People like us have to work in any condition or we will die of starvation. The only thing that keeps me awake is how will I tell my parents about my disability and who will marry me now?” he said.

A Maruti Suzuki spokesperson told Al Jazeera that it takes all the necessary steps to safeguard its workers and disagrees with the claims made by SII.

“At Maruti Suzuki safety is no compromise, even the minute safety incident or a near miss case is taken up with utmost seriousness,” it said, adding that it pushes its top suppliers, those who directly supply it parts, to spread safe systems and practices with their subcontractors. In one such drive for subcontractors in Delhi and neighbouring areas more than 4,360 press machines and over 1,980 molding machines were upgraded with safety features, the company said.

Source: Al Jazeera