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Sivakasi's fireworks industry, toil to fight odds

Sivakasi's fireworks industry, toil to fight odds

Only a lone liquor outlet could be spotted in this barren landscape, on the desolate road to villages like Alamarathupatti from Sivakasi that are home to a string of firecracker manufacturing units.

As the sun sets, workers of firework units mill around the solitary liquor shop downing their choice beverage and laughing away their travails, which is also a pointer to alcohol dependence among a chunk of them.

Many workers like M S Velusamy, who earn about Rs 300-Rs 350 as wages per day spend a half of their earnings to consume liquor, at least on two to three days a week. As both the spouses work in several cases, they try to make ends meet and womenfolk act as a 'deterrent' to try and prevent their husbands from consuming alcohol often and excessively.

While this is a challenging scenario for sections of workers, the approximately three-lakh strong workforce in the firecracker industry particularly those in unlicensed, grey units everyday face chemical hazard and a possibility of detrimental health effects.

With whitish grey powder-chemical compounds that go into the making of firecrackers- all over and his eyes appearing red, a worker hurries to take a bath in the factory premises following completion of the day's work as a delay would mean difficulty in removing the 'powder' from sore like spots over his neck, chest and abdomen.

A veteran worker of a unit off Sengamalathupatti, he applies coconut oil, sitting under a tree after bath. "It gives a soothing effect," he says and does not want to be named. A woman worker has boil-like small bumps all over her face but chooses not to answer. Workers wrapping small chemical packs with jute thread for atom bomb crackers, stick an adhesive like paper over their fingers, as continuous friction causes skin irritation and rashes. "But it does not help always. The cover slips away," says a worker.

Most workers could be seen either directly touching or handling chemical ingredients of some kind or the other during several levels of the manufacturing processes. Industry people say that hazardous process like filling and mixing are carried out in safe, separate enclosures early in the morning and such tasks are assigned only to trained men. All other processes are non-hazardous, they say.

In some factories, workers say they get Rs 20 as "banana allowance" to eat banana to aid easy digestion and "help neutralise" adverse effects in view of exposure to chemicals.

Owners of firework units say they "take good care of the health of employees which includes Employees State Insurance cover," and some point to periodic health camps as well.

Velusamy, Venkitakaruman and other workers, who have spent over 20 years in the organised industry told PTI, "though not all of us develop allergies or other issues, a section of workers develop some health issues."

Velusamy, who recently underwent a coronary bypass surgery in an ESI facility says with a chuckle, "chemicals should suit your body constitution, else it may be difficult; skills and endurance are needed to sustain."

For all the hard work, workers approximately get anywhere between Rs 290 to Rs 500-Rs 570 per day as wages and a bonus ranging between 20 and 27 per cent in addition to Provident Fund and Employees State Insurance Scheme cover. The pay structure is only indicative and applies to organised, licensed and properly run units and about 55 per cent of the workforce is women.
Remuneration, in some big units as well, covers aspects like the "piece rate" concept and working hours (up to 4 and 8 hours) and pay varies depending on the kind of work done while hazardous processes like chemical filling are mostly assigned to men. Workers say that annual hike is pending in several units for at least two to three years.

Unlike well-defined and mandated practices to ensure safety in regulated, licenced units, workers in unlicensed and illegal firecracker manufacturing cottage industry are exposed to grave hazards and a chunk of accidents, at least over a dozen mishaps with many casualties over a span of about 3 years, were reported from grey units.

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