Mahesh Ramalingam (30) can’t understand what the fuss over Wednesday’s chlorine gas leak at the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT) is about.
Five years ago, he recalled, when "some acid" spilled from a drum he was carrying and burnt his thighs and groin, not a single fellow mathadi (headloader) worker bothered to ask him what happened.
Mahesh, who has been handling hazardous waste for MbPT since he was 17, claimed he did not get any compensation from the MbPT or the workers’ union.
Mahesh is among the 64 ‘Clearing & Forwarding Unprotected Workers’, who have been handling hazardous waste at Haji Bunder, where Wednesday morning’s chlorine leak occurred, for years now. All for Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 a month.
But the port trust does not recognise them as its employees. "For them, we are just ‘unprotected workers’," Mahesh said.
They are called each time hazardous chemicals have to be handled. Most port trust employees secretly admit that they avoid handling these chemicals.
Most of these workers have been here, partly because their fathers did the same job and mainly because they do not have a choice. Many of them have seen their fathers end up with paralysis and chest infections.
Santosh Pawar knows the risks involved but cannot afford to think about them because he has a household to run. His brother-in-law, Jagannath Shinde (46), handled caustic soda every day for a week. He developed asthma and other complications. A week later, he was dead.
"He worked that extra bit only so that he could an extra Rs 2 per gunny bag he lifted," Pawar said.
When a worker takes ill, his colleagues have to contribute towards his treatment.
R.M. Murthy, PRO, Transport & Dock Workers Union, agreed that little is being done for workers.
"Counting them as employees isn’t possible, especially since the port trust is downsizing."
MbPT chairman Rahul Asthana said a health plan for these workers is not on the cards yet.
"We are caught up with the leak. As of now, we have no plans to recruit them or offer any health benefits."