The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Locked in, to toil and die
- 30 workers to a tinder-box room in illegal sweatshops dotting Howrah

The news of a dawn blaze in a illegal sari factory at 34/1 Bon Behari Bose Road, Howrah, sent a shiver down Biswajit’s spine. For he, too, works in a sweatshop similar to the one in which seven workers were burnt alive on Monday.

The workers caught in the fire had been locked in, like Biswajit is every night, in the factory at 56 Nanda Ghosh Road.

The 300-sq-ft room, in which Biswajit works as a shirt karigar with 30 others, is stashed with raw material. It has a single exit and no fire-fighting arrangement. A concrete slab in the room serves as a bed for the workers.

“The factory is like a jail, where we do not even realise whether it is morning or evening outside. We are constantly striving to meet deadlines,” says Biswajit, in his mid-20s.

He came to the city from Burdwan five years ago and started working in the shirt-manufacturing unit that supplies to shops in Burrabazar and New Market.

His colleague, Sheikh Asghar Ali, who came to the city from Hooghly three years ago, says: “All of us have come here for money. We even cook and sleep in the room. With the room locked from outside, we sometimes work till as late as 2 am. If a fire breaks out here, we will be burnt alive.”

Cooped up in an adjacent room with 11 other workers, Mohammad Ashraf Ali is busy embroidering a sari, oblivious of the fatal morning fire that broke out barely a kilometre away. When told about the deaths, he says: “Agar woh bhi sari line mein the, toh shayad hum unmein se kisi ko jaante hon. Par humein to ghatna ke baare main pata hi nahi chala.” (Perhaps I knew some of the workers who died. But I did not hear of the incident.)

“If I step out of the factory for even half-an-hour, Rs 10 is deducted from my pay. We are paid strictly according to the work we do. There is no time to step out and meet people,” explains Usman Ali, busy lighting a stove in the room to cook for himself and his colleagues.

After a post-Diwali lull of two months, orders have started pouring into these illegal factories. It is a profitable business, but the benefits don’t percolate down to the workers.

There are reasons for sweatshops to have sprouted in the bylanes of Howrah — proximity to the Burrabazar trade hub and easy availability of rooms.

“For Burrabazar, it makes sound business sense to buy merchandise from Howrah because of the low transportation cost. The sweatshops that are putting so many lives at risk can be shut down easily by disconnecting the illegal power supply. But the authorities will not do so because they are regularly paid in cash by the owners of these illegal units,” claims a Pilkhana resident.

Howrah fire services officials admit that the sweatshops do not abide by the norms. “They do not have any fire-fighting equipment. The workers even cook inside the units. At least a basic fire extinguisher should be installed,” says Howrah Fire Services divisional officer Dilip Kumar Basu.

Local councillor Reshma Ali claims: “We are trying to close down the sweatshops, but we have not achieved the desired success. After all, it’s the question of livelihood for so many people. We are trying to create awareness on the issue.”

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