Even as mishaps constantly rock firecracker units in southern Tamil Nadu including Virudhunagar and Sivakasi claiming several lives, social activists and NGOs working among the firecracker unit workers in Tamil Nadu have alleged that these units are under-reporting the actual number of workers employed in the units to deny benefits to the workers.
Sivakasi is the capital of the Indian firecracker industry with most of the people in the town engaged in this business fetching more than Rs 700 crore revenue annually. Sivakasi is known for selling firecrackers across the country. However, accidents have been leading to gory deaths. In the past two years alone Sivakasi and Virudhunagar have witnessed more than 120 deaths and since January 2022, more than 7 people have lost their lives in mishaps in firecracker units.
According to data from the EPFO and the Department of Industrial Safety, there are around one lakh workers employed in the 938 firecracker units in Virudhunagar district alone. However, trade union activists and officials with the labour department said that more than 3 lakh workers are in fact employed in these factories with the actual number not being shown anywhere and no registration cards or labour cards are given to employees.
Veera Perumal, a social activist, has moved the Madras High Court urging the court to take ‘suo moto’ cognizance of the grave tragedy the families of the accident victims are going through. He said the laws must be made more stringent to ensure that cracker units follow all labour regulations.
Most of the workers are illiterate and very poor so that they are not in a position to verify whether they were included in the Provident Fund or the Employees Welfare Fund or whether the factory managements are providing them with labour cards.
Muniamma, 65, a worker with a firecracker unit at Virudhunagar, told IANS, “We don’t complain as we fear that our job will be gone. At least we can have three square meals a day. We don’t know whether our owner has included us in PF or EWF or under the state government labour department list. Me and my 72-year-old husband are least bothered as we can fill our stomachs with this job.”
She however said that the job involves high risk and that they are paid extremely poorly but they have no other option other than to continue with the factory. Both Muniamma and her husband Shekar were farmhands but the intermittent weather and regular rains have led to major crop losses leading to farmers reducing their cultivation and farming. This has led to loss of jobs but the old couple said that the firecracker unit job though risky provides them food.
Kathir of NGO ‘Evidence’ which works among the downtrodden while speaking to IANS said, “We have visited the firecracker units where explosions have taken place and have given detailed reports to the concerned authorities but no action has still been taken. Government must immediately act and include all the workers under the Labour Act which will fetch them money if an accident occurs.”
He said that in most cases accidents take place as the factories work beyond their capacities. Kathir said that in most cases, the family of the deceased employee is not interested in taking the matter further as the owners of the factories or their relatives would have settled the matter outside.
Labour department officials are sceptical about the workers and their families approaching the department to get compensation as in most cases the owners of the factories settle the compensation (a meagre amount) outside the court.
Joint Commissioner, Labour, Tamil Nadu, L. Subramanian, told IANS, “Each and every factory that employs more than 15 workers is liable to be covered under the EPF and ESI Act but in most cases, they are not covered. The Workmen’s Compensation Act is another major measure through which the family of the deceased will receive Rs 15 lakh but only after the kin approaches the court.”
The labour department is also sore that in most cases the firecracker unit owners association enters the scene and tries to arrive at a consensus on the compensation.
Data reveals that the employees are not properly covered under any of the acts and this is directly affecting the families of those who die in the accidents at the units as the family gets only a meagre compensation given by the owner of the unit.