Kussi Amma Sera was disconsolate. Pointing to a news item from her favourite newspaper, she told her friend Serapina – during a conversation on the garden bench: “Mona aparadayakda, meka (what a tragedy).” Their discussion was over the recent deaths of five workers from ammonia poisoning at a rubber factory in Horana, south of Colombo. [...]

Business Times

Workplace accidents: Ticking time bomb


Kussi Amma Sera was disconsolate. Pointing to a news item from her favourite newspaper, she told her friend Serapina – during a conversation on the garden bench:

“Mona aparadayakda, meka (what a tragedy).”

Their discussion was over the recent deaths of five workers from ammonia poisoning at a rubber factory in Horana, south of Colombo.

It was too far for me (the ‘respected’ nosy parker), from my office room window to pick up the rest of the conversation, as I normally do when the two women are in agitated mode. However, these few words were food for thought on this gloomy Thursday morning. For instance, are local workers adequately protected in factories and other workplaces against health, safety standards and/or hazardous work?

These issues were also brought to the fore at an International Labour Organization (ILO) discussion on April 27 in Colombo to mark ‘World Day for Safety and Health at Work’ which is celebrated across the world on April 28.

This year’s commemoration of this day centred on the safety and health of young workers. The ILO says that certain sectors and occupations are more dangerous than others and it’s important to protect workers in hazardous conditions – in what is often known as the “3D”, dirty, difficult and dangerous, jobs.

The unfortunate deaths of the five Horana factory workers, two others at a spices factory at Dambulla and dozens of workers being hospitalised due to a gas leak at a garment factory at Ja-ela are some recent incidents that drew public attention.

Raising these concerns, Ms. Simrin Singh, Director, ILO Country Office for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, told the Colombo meeting that situations like this arise since there is no proper occupational safety and health (OSH) mechanism in workplaces, particularly for the protection of young workers.

Approximately 2.78 million workers die every year due to work-related accidents and disease, according to the ILO with more than 85 per cent of these cases being due to occupational illnesses.

In the case of Sri Lanka, there are more than 4,000 accidents reported every year but this is far below the actual picture with the Labour Commissioner General, lamenting that the number should be much more since many accidents go unreported and reporting happens only when deaths occur or workers are hospitalised.

Accidents of a ‘minor’ nature go unreported by workplaces – to avoid action or public attention — and thus makes it difficult for policy planners to strengthen the framework to minimise accidents through stiffer penalties and upgrading safety measures.

According to the latest Labour Department data, the number of industrial accidents (settled through compensation payments) rose to 439 in 2016, sharply up from 247 in 2015 and 249 in 2014. The number of (settled-compensation paid) fatal accidents also rose to 141 in 2016 from 125 in 2015 but was unchanged from 141 in 2014.

However, as discussed earlier, this is just the tip of the iceberg and doesn’t reflect the actual numbers of industrial accidents.

The voices of residents protesting against the Horana factory where five workers died are an echo heard across the country but muffled due to political interference. In the Horana case, residents had complained about the factory vis-à-vis environmental concerns but no action was taken because the factory owner was politically powerful and the residents and workers, powerless.

Haven’t we heard this before – in every sphere of life where the authorities are slow to react or are inactive?

Such cracks will happen, blatantly, since Sri Lanka is desperately wooing investment and politicians and officials could be persuaded to turn a blind eye to an investor ignoring laid down local and international standards in the safety and health of workers. The transparency of investments should not suffer at the expense of wooing investment at any cost. All investment-promoting agencies like the Board of Investment (BOI) or state tourism agencies (where investments) must strictly adhere to such, laid down guidelines in approving new investments.

This is particularly so in the case of the booming construction sector where apartments and condominiums are multiplying at dizzy levels like the dizzy heights of the buildings. Are proper safety standards followed by building contractors particularly so when cheap foreign labour is hired? Reputed contractors would follow the rules but what about the others who are prone to bend regulations by greasing the palms of corrupt local officials – the collapse of a couple of buildings in Colombo and the loss of lives, being a case in point?

Unlike years ago when the builders were unable to get a certificate of conformity (COC) quickly from strict local authorities to certify that the building has been built according to accepted standards (in some cases two to three years), today COCs are being handed so quickly that one wonders whether these constructions are ‘perfect’ or has money changed hands to fast-track the process.

Many years ago, residents went to court against a building construction by a tuition master complaining that the partially completed staircase without a railing was a hazard to students. Rather than being praised for their concern for public safety, the petition was thrown out on a technical point. The residents in fact should have complained about the tuition class – like many classes in Colombo – being a nuisance to the neighbourhood, but opted to act as responsible citizens.

For the record, here are the latest labour statistics from the Central Bank’s 2017 annual report released last week. In the country’s population of 21.4 million people, the workforce (described as the ‘economically active population’) reached 8.6 million and out of this 8.2 million persons were employed. This is made up of 26 per cent in agriculture, 28 per cent in industry and 45.5 per cent in services.

While there may be enough laws to deal with imposing safety standards, penalties should be stiffer, offences made non-bailable and jail terms mandatory — that is if they are already not in place. Interfering politicians and corrupt officials should be made to pay – as accessories to an industrial accident that failed to follow proper standards by bending rules through political meddling or bribes.

In today’s environment, however, where politicians sway over laws (notwithstanding the arrest of a key presidential aide on Thursday while allegedly accepting a bribe, which is a rare case), the plea for action against politicians and officials is what one would describe as a ‘potta’ shot — hitting blindly and, to the amazement of others, reaching the target!

Kussi Amma Sera, as usual, has the last say on the subject. Coming into the house and listening to a tele-conversation (this time she is the nosy parker) I was having with my friend, good-for-nothing ‘Somey’, on this issue, she says (just as I finished the call): “Mahattaya, meka hari nehe. Mehema hariyanne nehe. Naththung, aanduwa paradai (Sir, this is not right. If this continues, the government will lose the election).”

I laughed off her suggestion, telling her that this is the least of the problems of the political hierarchy in an unstable administration that is struggling for survival, and instead, picking up my guitar, sang Sunil Perera’s ‘Lankawe//I don’t know why song’, as she went to the kitchen to fetch my morning tea.

The lyrics went like this: “Paga gahana hora amathila godak inne mona rateda? Engalanthe engalanthe !! (Only in England do you have corrupt politicians), or “Suddanta enna kiyamu//Ape rata balanna kiyamu//Balala igena ganna kiyamu api//Suddanta tuition demuko api (Invite the English to learn from great Sri Lanka// We can give them tuition on how to run a great nation).”

The Horana issue is a classic case of a time bomb ticking away and the safety of workers at stake. Proper safety and health standards in workplaces are a must and should go hand in hand when promoting investments. Don’t wait for another tragedy.

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