MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India has doubled the compensation for the death of power loom workers in its textile industry as part of a benefits scheme to weed out problems plaguing the labour-intensive sector.
India is one of the largest fabric producers in the world, employing 4.5 million workers for its 2.5 million power loom factories - most of which use old technology that requires workers to manually operate them.
A single person, working 12 hours or more, often tends to six to nine looms inside cramped spaces, exposing them to loud noise and injuries from the shuttle that moves at a high speed across the loom.
Nearly 60 percent of the fabric and garments they produce is exported.
The government's worker protection scheme, called PowerTex India, was launched in April and includes a helpline for workers and subsidies for employers to upgrade their machinery.
"We have to develop the textile value chain and upgrade the technology to be more competitive," India's textile commissioner Kavita Gupta told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"All the schemes are aimed at addressing drudgery, to better the working conditions and modernise infrastructure. If the sector has to grow, workers have to grow."
The insurance coverage - 200,000 rupees ($3,100) in the case of a natural death and 400,000 rupees for accidental death - was rolled out this month, in addition to disability compensation of 200,000 rupees.
A study by India's National Institute of Occupational Health found that power loom workers are exposed to more than 100 decibels of sound - equivalent to the sound of a jackhammer or lawnmower - putting them at severe risk of hearing loss.
At India's major textile hub - the port city of Surat in Gujarat - the local textile office has received more than 40 death compensation claims from families of power loom workers over the last two years.
Researchers say workers who are unwell avoid visiting doctors because of long queues that would mean a day's wages lost. In the case of an accident or injury, they pay for treatment themselves.
Many power loom workers are migrants from poor states and send home their earnings - often a family's only source of income, which disappears when these breadwinners die.
Most workers die after they are no longer able to work and have returned to their villages.
Gupta said workers often work long hours because of erratic power supply, an issue the government is trying to address by providing solar panels to factories.
About 20,000 workers have signed up for the scheme so far. Campaigners worry enrolment could be low because employers are worried about incurring more costs per worker and therefore reluctant to disclose their staffing.
"If power loom units (factories) declare them as employees, they will have to extend other social benefits as required by the law," said Jagdish Patel, labour researcher at Gujarat-based charity People's Training and Research Centre.
($1 = 64.3700 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll, Editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)