The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Acid test at workplace
- 12-year-old employee of cork factory handles boiling water, corrosive chemicals

Twelve-year-old Ali is perched precariously in a sweaty, foul-smelling room with a tub of boiling water in front and two barrels of acid on either side.

For hours on end, he dips scores of corks — that will soon be used to cap sweet-smelling perfume bottles — first in the hot water tub and then in acid, once in the barrel to his right and next in the barrel to his left.

Work conditions can’t get much worse — electric wires hang over the boy’s head, there is a live fire burning all the time in the bhatti and capping it all are the acid barrels.

Ali is one of the many child workers at the perfume cork-making factory at 19 Pilkhana, 3rd Lane, Howrah. They are all under lock and key as long as they are at work — the saving grace, unlike the leather-bag-manufacturing unit at 33C Topsia Road that turned into an inferno on November 22, claiming 11 lives, is that Ali and his co-workers go back home to sleep.

“I keep dipping the corks in the acid barrels for eight to 10 hours a day,” reveals Ali. He has been doing this for the past one year, for no more than Rs 1,000 a month.

Pilkhana is no different from Topsia — buildings and sweatshops everywhere.

Ali’s workplace is, of course, a serious health hazard. “Children working in these sweatshops are exposed to many dangers, led by burns. There can be thermal burns from boiling water or acid burns from chemicals. The burns occur mainly on their limbs while at work. Children working in units that involve the use of minerals are also exposed to tuberculosis,” warns Dr Arpan Chaudhuri, attached to Westbank hospital in Howrah.

Md Afzal, 8, and his brother Md Ali, 9, aren’t exposed to the dangers that Ali is, but the two have to work their scissors, needles and sewing machines for long, tedious hours. The boys are busy in a baba-suit factory at 6 Alam Mistry Lane, Pilkhana, Howrah.

They do not have the time to lift their heads or chat or take a breather. They have been at it for at least six months. Munna, owner of the manufacturing unit, is nonchalant: “They are very naughty, so their mother sends them here. They stay here till evening and then go back home. I do not pay them.”

The suits produced in Munna’s shop are supplied to various swank shops in the Howrah AC Market on Dobson Road, nearby. Little Afzal and Ali can only steal a glance at the forbidden market from a distance.

“Child labour is rampant in Howrah and the kids are often made to work in very dangerous conditions,” says the teacher in a local school.

“Howrah being an industrial town has various small industries. Poverty forces many parents to send their kids to work. The owners take advantage of this and make them slog under inhuman conditions for peanuts,” he lamented.

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