The jute industry is an important contributor to the economy of West Bengal, and also an important source of livelihood for many. However, workers in these jute mills face several challenges. In our interactions with our client, the Member of Parliament, we were asked to identify some of these challenges, and address them without an exceptionally high investment of time or resources. Several problems like low wages, poor working conditions, and physical exertion of workers were identified. After interactions with a broad set of stakeholders including the workers, Indian Jute Mills Association, State Labour Institute- West Bengal, we decided to focus on the respiratory ailmentsamong many jute workers.Respiratory disorders like Byssinosisand Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) are common due to prolonged exposure to jute dust on the shop floor. Existing statutory provisions for health and safety of workers under the Factories Act, 1948 have largely been ignored due to lack of training and awareness. The Parliamentary Committee on Labour has also expressed concern over the issue in recent years.
The Swaniti team, including dedicated Fellows and volunteers, adopted the following 4-pronged approach to tackle the problem:
- Health Awareness Camps: Since lack of awareness was identified as an important reason behind poor implementation of safety provisions (for example, safety masks were not used by a large number of workers), Swaniti conducted pilot health camps for jute mills.
- Reforms in Industrial Health Insurance:Swaniti also analyzed the existing insurance model, and explored the possibility of incentivizing preventive care over curative healthcare.
- Industry awareness: Swaniti realized the urgent need to mobilize the jute industry and other associated bodies in order to create awareness about workers’ health and safety.
- Self-help groups: Community mobilization in the form of Self-Help Groups (SHGs) could be used to produce safety equipment such as masks. In the long term, this could help to bridge the gap between demand and supply of such equipment)
On the Ground Impact: The Swaniti team conducted five pilot health camps covering 1759 jute mill workers across five mills. The health camps were well received by the workmen and mill management and it was observed that there was a behavioral change in the workmen who proactively sought to protect themselves through increased usage of masks on the shop floor. Talks have been initiated with hospital chains and corporates to have more such periodic health camps in the long run. A committee of Jute mill owners has been formed to create sustainable practices on the industry floor that would improve health outcomes.
Policy Impact: Submitted a detailed report to the Standing Committee on Labour on the importance of bringing in preventive health care under the ambit of ESI Act. The issue will be taken up for discussion in the parliament post a detailed study on the merits of the case by the Standing Committee.
- Swaniti’s health camps impacted 1759 workers across 5 jute mills