The tragedy of ribbons and scissors

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A young Chinese man left his country and family and came to our shores hoping for a better future. We don’t know his family or the circumstances that drove him to leave them. What we do know is that he will never return to see his close ones again. Last week, an accident on the construction site where he was working, apparently involving human error, and therefore avoidable, put an end to his life and his hopes.

His death is obviously no big news. This is at least the third such a tragedy since the beginning of the year in sites ironically managed by big companies. In this latest case, it is a state company rushing to finish the Côte d’Or project – a project likely to turn into a white elephant as soon as the ribbon has been cut. The young man – now euphemistically referred to as guest worker – was brought to the country illegally, employed illegally and thus manifestly exploited illegally even more than the other guest workers. Like many immigrant workers, he must have been promised the world and found himself working punishing hours digging, erecting scaffolding, spreading mortar and operating dangerous machines. 

The poor man, whose family must be grieving without even a body to grieve over, did not have any respite. Our colleagues from l’express took the trouble of visiting the accommodation where he and other victims spent the few hours they were not slaving away. It is deplorable and a clear violation of human rights. But the main focus is on the clock. The pressure from a government obsessed with cutting ribbons before the election must have largely contributed to this onslaught. And of course illegal workers have even less of a choice when it comes to working impossible hours than contractual, legal workers.

“What about their employers who are more responsible and not nearly as desperate? We obviously can’t touch them. We need them to hand over the sites in time for the scissors and ribbons.”

So was the construction site that is employing illegal workers without any respect for their rights as humans shut down to take stock of the number of other illegal workers who must be exploited to death? Was there a stop order on the site until the authorities are satisfied that it abides by all the health and safety procedures required? Was there any arrest after the tragedy? Any prosecution? No, perish the thought! More haste, more speed and more exploitation are needed to finish the Côte d’Or and the Metro Express in time for the election. Nothing else matters. All the precautions can be sacrificed to get the job done faster.

And so we are officially encouraging companies to cut corners on workers’ health and safety, particularly those of guest workers. And so workers die before our very eyes, not because they are unlucky but because the workplace is dangerous as managers are allowed to get away with the most rudimentary safety precautions. And so we brush their death under the carpet and treat it as an unpreventable accident.

As for employing illegal workers, manifestly to exploit them even more, the answer of the minister of labour in the National Assembly this week was very clear: we are tracking down illegal workers. Really? What about their employers who are more responsible and not nearly as desperate? We obviously can’t touch them. We need them to hand over the sites in time for the scissors and ribbons. That is the real tragedy. 

For more views and in-depth analysis of current issues, Weekly magazine (Price: Rs 25) or subscribe to Weekly for Rs110 a month. (Free delivery to your doorstep). Email us on: [email protected]


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