BY R. K. RADHAKRISHNAN/The Hindu –
The death of an Indian worker at a private steel plant in Sri Lanka on Tuesday has exposed the callous manner in which workers are brought to the island-nation, and trapped in factories from which there is no escape.
A 29-year-old Odisha worker, Manas Kumar Mallick, of Jajpur’s Barapada village, who was working as an assistant fitter at Confab Steel Private Limited in Muddaragama in Gampaha district, was electrocuted in an accident classified as industrial.
The semi-skilled worker was brought to Sri Lanka in December last year. Confab Steel, a company set up by an Indian, employs 153 persons, of which 101 are Indian.
A sister concern of the company, Bhuwalka Steel Industries, which commenced operations much earlier — in 1999 — employs 300 persons, of which 200 are Indian.
Both are Board of Investment companies, which means they enjoy certain concessions.
The modus operandi of bringing in a worker from India runs thus: get agents to recruit people from impoverished places, get a tourist visa for the worker, make him sign a contract in English — a language he doesn’t understand — and herd him into a vehicle once he reaches Colombo. How an impoverished worker gets past the radar of immigration with a tourist visa is a question that authorities in India will have to answer.
The rest of the procedure seems to have been incredibly easy: convert the visa into an employment visa with help from the Sri Lankan authorities, house him in a camp next to the work place, and pay him a fraction of what was promised. The condition of housing, too, is pathetic, and doesn’t meet any standards under labour laws of either country.
Mallick’s contract, which was seen by The Hindu, is a revelation: it wasn’t written on stamp paper; a plain white paper was used. The contract expressly says the company isn’t responsible for any losses suffered by the worker in the plant. There is a vague sentence which says the insurance will take care of any accident. No worker seemed to know which was the insurance company, what premium was paid or how much the compensation was.
After the Indian High Commission in Colombo intervened in the issue — workers had preferred a complaint with it — it was revealed that the compensation through insurance was LKR 3 lakh (2.5 LKR = 1 INR). High Commission officials told the owner of the company, an Indian, in no uncertain terms, that this wasn’t acceptable. The workers demanded a compensation of INR 15 lakh, and a final settlement was made at INR 5 lakh. The company has also assured the Indian High Commission that it would send the body home at its own cost, and also provide return air-tickets to Mallick’s two brothers, who are also employed in that company.
Enquiries reveal that the company was under watch for at least the past 5 years. Even then, it has been able to bring in people with impunity, and with no fear of law, either in India or in Sri Lanka. In fact, the company has been placed in the ‘prior approval’ category by the Protector General of Emigrants here, and also in India.