New Delhi: A fact-finding report on the Mundka factory fire in west Delhi on May 13, 2022 has charged that the “catastrophic incident could have been avoided by proper enforcement of the laws and by limiting human greed”. The fire had claimed the lives of at least 27 workers, of which 21 were women, and left 40 workers grievously injured. The new report by the Delhi Chapter of Working Peoples’ Charter (WPC) has termed the fire incident a “monumental criminal negligence of workers’ safety by employers in connivance with the administration”.
The WPC team, comprising labour NGOs, trade unionists, women’s rights activists and public health experts, had visited the factory site and surrounding areas and interacted with the victims and their family members on June 11. It enquired about the factory building, status of the locality and regulatory provisions and gaps.
In its report, released in July 4, the WPC said the four-storey building was being used for industrial purposes in the extended Lal Dora area. It said such operation in the area “is not permitted” and that the unit was operating without a valid factory licence. “It was acting in violation of all labour laws and safety regulations, as it was in a congested area, without any sufficient fire safety mechanisms in place and without a No Objection Certificate from the fire department,” the report said.
The devastating fire had resulted in the death of 27 workers, out of which 21 were women. The report said “this was not surprising since nearly 90 per cent of the workforce in this factory were women.” Most of them, it said, were below 30 years of age and some were as young as 18-19 years old.
Victims, families facing financial hardship, distress following tragedy
Following the tragedy, a majority of the affected families have been forced to live in a state of severe financial hardship and emotional distress, the report said.
The report also pointed to some structural aspects of the building that contributed to the tragedy. It said “the fibreglass facade of the building was unbreakable during the fire and there were no windows in the building”.
The workers also told the WPC team that they were not allowed to take mobile phones inside the factory. One of the workers, Aanchal, who survived the tragedy, told the team members that when the fire started one of her co-workers Preeti was carrying her phone. Through this, Aanchal informed her brother about the incident and he immediately reached the factory with a rope to evacuate those trapped. Some of the workers also told the fact-finding team that “the employer, showing utter disregard for the lives of the workers, fled the scheme after incurring minor injuries”.
`Deaths under-reported as many workers were not on rolls’
The team members spoke to a number of survivors and family members of the victims. Following this interaction, the report said the factory was not paying minimum wages to its workers and some they were also not being issued pay slips. “This was just one, among a host of labour code violations by the factory,” it said, adding that “most employees did not have any documentation that they were employed by the factory”.
The fact-finding claimed that lack of proper documentation was also a reason why “official figures of death were underestimated”. “Workers reported to the fact-finding team that more than 50 people were killed, of which 45 were women,” the report said.
Victim says no support or compensation received from Delhi government
The report also quoted a survivor, Kajal, as saying that they were yet to get any support from the government and not a single rupee has been given as compensation.
Reacting to the approach of the authorities towards the fire incident, national secretary of the WPC, Dharmendra Kumar, said there cannot be any compromise on compliance with statutory provisions protecting workers’ rights. He blamed the nexus between government departments and companies for the Mundka factory fire and demanded that fair affirmative actions be taken to regularise work sites.
The WPC also released another report on the actual access to minimum wages by workers in Delhi. This report was based on a survey of 1,076 workers in Delhi across the four clusters – domestic, construction, industrial and security guards. This study, conceptualised by WPC and guided by Delhi Shramik Sanghatan, Janpahal, Gram Vaani and Yuva, stated that in 2015, the Delhi government implemented the historical Supreme Court ruling on implementation of ‘need-based minimum wages’.
95% workers not being paid minimum wages
However, the report said, “95 per cent of workers, despite having required skill sets, are not being paid a statutory minimum wage as stipulated by the Government of Delhi.” It said “approximately 46% of workers earn monthly wages between Rs 5,000 and Rs 9,000 and around 74% of workers are able to save less than Rs 500 per month. This amount, the report suggests, is not enough to even get a social insurance scheme as provided by the Government of India, such as ESIC.
It added that over two-thirds of the workers were not aware of the laws that strengthen their right to receive decent wages and 98% of workers do not receive pay slips. Women were worse off as 98% of female workers, in comparison to 95% of male workers, were found to be receiving wages below the stipulated minimum wages.
`75% workers work in indecent environment’
The study also revealed that over 75% of the workers work in indecent working environments without sufficient facilities and insecure work site premises. This, it said, could lead to unhealthy industrial relations and welfare losses for workers.
Ramendra Kumar of Delhi Shramik Sangathan and vice president of WPC lauded the Delhi government for fixing need-based minimum wages. However, he expressed his disappointment at the non-enforcement of the minimum wages for workers in Delhi and urged the government to prioritise strengthening labour administration for proper implementation of the minimum wages including for unorganised and migrant workers.
Shruti of Jagori demanded exemplary punishment for gender-based discrimination at work and advocated for constituting labour monitoring committees at central, state and local levels with due representation of women and informal workers.