| Child labourers at work at the bag factory at Topsia, a stone’s throw from the scene of a blaze early on Wednesday that left 10 dead. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta
The company flaunts accreditation for complying with the best labour practices, for protecting its employees from occupational health hazards and for maintaining safety norms at the workplace. Its owner claims “there is no child below the age of 14” working in the 24F GJ Khan Road factory.
Pramod Mahapatra of SP International has obviously not met six-year-old Bhupinder. The boy was busy putting adhesive on leather when Metro met him on Thursday afternoon at SP International’s leather bag-making facility in Topsia, a minute’s run from 33C Topsia Road.
Early on Wednesday, workers like Bhupinder could not run from the flames that raged through the third-floor bag-making factory of Tenex Exports because they had been locked in for the night. Just like little Bhupinder and his co-workers — mostly ranging from age six to 14 — are, at the end of a hard day’s work, inside the official factory address of SP International.
The three-storeyed building in Topsia looks like any other residential building.But the hum of machines, a private security guard and the imposing gate under lock-and-key 24x7 hint at the horrors within.
Bhupinder and gang are busy on all the three floors, 15 to 16 hours every day. “I have been working here for the past six months. I work here, eat in the hotel downstairs and sleep here,” mumbles Bhupinder, without taking his eyes off the well-tanned sheet of leather. He is not paid a paisa for his toils behind closed doors.
With machines, leather and adhesives, there is hardly any room to breathe. But the 50-odd boys on each floor — from Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh — tirelessly churn out wallets, ladies’ bags, portfolios and credit card holders, for the international market.
“We do not employ underage children to make leather bags and we adhere to the best labour practices,” declares a senior officer of SP International in the company’s swank corporate office at 162B AJC Bose Road. ISO:9002 and OHSAS 18001:1999 certifications are flashed to corroborate the claim. Owner Pramod Mahapatra is even more categorical: “No children under the age of 14 work at our factory on a permanent basis.”
But a visit to the factory reveals a sweatshop like any other at Topsia — only better-maintained. “This is the standard practice here… Most exporters employ children for three meals a day and keep them under lock and key,” says a resident, who has seen such illegal and exploitative units mushroom here in the past two decades.