New Delhi: Although factory workers are prone to contract coronavirus due to co-working in the proximity of others, the notice issued by the Haryana government on 17 March  has left room for factory and office owners to decide whether to close their workspace or not.

The notice of the Haryana government is an appeal in nature; therefore, most of the factories and offices are still open and functioning as usual.

“In compliance with the Haryana Epidemic Disease, COVID-19 Regulations, 2020 dated 11.03.2020 notified under Epidemic Disease Act 1897, all MNCs, IT firms, industries, BPOs, corporate offices situated in District Gurugram are advised to allow their employees to work from their home till 31 March 2020 with immediate effect to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 in larger public interest,” a notice issued by Gurugram DM reads.

According to some experts, the government should urgently direct factory owners to shut down their work premises. Others consider such a move uneccessary and alarmist.

“Shutting down the industries is the best option as factory workers can’t work from home, and on an assembly line, they work in close proximity, touching the same surfaces and sharing tools many times a day. Across Europe, automakers have been shutting plants in order to cope with parts shortages, falling car sales or worker safety, but similar initiatives are not being taken in our country,” Jayant Datta, a labour rights activist told The Sunday Guardian.

“The Central government has already given a call to follow social distancing and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged countryman to observe a one-day “Janata curfew” on Sunday, but the business community lacks the coordination and precautions needed at this hour. Also, the concern is not limited to factory workers, as an average 90% of the Indian workforce is involved in the informal sectors and the outbreak of Covid-19 may be devastating,” Jayant Datta said.

To assess the ground reality, this reporter contacted several factory workers and most of them said they have no option to avail the “luxury” of taking leave from work.

Sarfaraz Alam, a resident of Bihar who works with a garment factory in Gurugram’s Manesar, told The Sunday Guardian: “The workers are forced to work as the factory owners have not closed manufacturing. We can’t skip going to work as this may cause job loss. Many of my friends tried to take leave, but the owners did not allow any leave due to which some of my friends left the job and returned to their respective homes.”

“Although factory owners are providing water and sanitizers to wash hands before going to work, they don’t provide face masks. We wear our handkerchief as face mask to protect ourselves, but don’t know whether doing this will protect us from getting a virus infection or not,” Alam said.

Rahul Shah, another factory worker, told The Sunday Guardian: “I work in a vehicle block making factory in Gurugram; I tried to communicate with the manager at work for getting leave from work. The manager said: ‘The report of outbreak of coronavirus is just nothing but a media creation and it will be over soon.’ The factory owner has already fired many workers for taking unapproved leave; if I don’t come to work, they will fire me too. I can’t afford that as I have to manage the livelihood of my four-member family back at home in Bihar.”

While MNCs are giving work from home options to their employees, there are still, many who have no such leisure.

Shambhu Thakur, who works as an HR professional in an MNC in Gurugram, said: “Our company is not giving permission to work from home, though the company administration has taken several measures to prevent the spread of the virus inside the office. The situation is turning scary as we have to take shared transportation services for commuting to the office and the owners are not trying to understand our vulnerability. Leave aside the less known MNCs, like the one I work with, even the big MNCs in Gurugram are not giving work from home options.”

Two women, including a 22-year-old studying in the United Kingdom, have so far tested positive for COVID-19 in Gurugram and this takes the total number of positive cases in the city to four.

Gurugram has become a leading financial hub and banking center in India after Mumbai and Chennai. The sub-city has local offices for more than 250 Fortune 500 companies and is categorised as very high on the Human Development Index. Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has announced that steps on a war footing will be taken to ensure that community spread does not take place in Haryana, including the big cities of one of the leading states in India in development.

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