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Indian Saint-Gobain worker dismissed for occupational illness

17 March, 2020A former Saint-Gobain Crystals and Detectors worker in Bangalore, India, Jayaraj Mathangi, was fired for abstenteeism after developing severe health problems due to hazards he was exposed to at work.

The company fired him in 2016 after years of service. In addition to his job, he lost his health insurance, which also covered his dependent parents and wife. Jayaraj, who is 35 years old, has kept fighting for his rights and demands reinstatement and compensation for lost health.

Jayaraj first joined the company in August 2008. He started as a trainee, and after three years was employed in February 2011 as a production technician in the quality control department.

Jayaraj’s job was to check some 300-400 cadmium crystals per day. Transparent under normal conditions, cadmium tungstate crystals emit light when exposed to gamma rays and x-rays, and are used to make scintillation detectors. To test and calibrate the detectors, workers used Caesium-137, a radioactive element. Cadmium and Caesium are extremely hazardous and must be handled with great care.

From 2012 onwards, Jayaraj noticed a serious deterioration in his health. He suffered headaches, pain and numbness in his legs. He informed the management of his health issues but no action was taken. He sought medical treatment, and tests revealed the cadmium level in his blood was three or four times the acceptable limit. He had a high red blood count, high lymphocytes, abnormal glucose levels, and low levels of vitamin D and calcium. The doctors also found that he suffered from bronchitis, muscle cramps and bone softening.

Although it is difficult to prove that all these conditions are work-related, many can be caused or exacerbated by cadmium toxicity and radiation. Jayaraj has been in treatment until the present, but he was fired in 2016 on the grounds of long absenteeism.

In 2012 workers set up a union at the company. The newly created organization tried to address the health and safety situation, including Jayaraj’s case. Management dismissed workers who were part of the union, while others were offered slight pay rises in exchange for a written renunciation of any future union activities. Workers at the company remain without representation.

The situation has not improved in the absence of a union or joint health and safety body representing workers’ interests. Eventually, the company managers were convicted by the Bangalore court and fined, following state inspections in 2009 and 2016. The inspection report referenced Jayaraj’s case and confirmed that excessive levels of cadmium were found in the blood of many workers in the cadmium processing department.

The national Atomic Energy Regulatory Board inspector noticed that workers were handling sealed lead containers of radioactive materials with their bare hands, and recommended the use of forceps. Jayaraj reports that during the inspection only safety conditions related to the radiation sources were checked. These had recently been improved, based on his earlier complaint. The inspector did not visit the quality control department to see the poor safety conditions there.

In their General Principles of Conduct and Action, Saint-Gobain commits “to take particular care to adopt all measures necessary to ensure the best possible protection against health and safety risks in the workplace”. Saint-Gobain Group companies “must scrupulously ensure that employees’ rights are respected. They must promote an active dialogue with their employees.” None of these principles were applied at Saint-Gobain Crystals and Detectors in Bangalore.

IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches issued a letter to the group demanding a proper investigation into the problems identified and adequate measures to repair and improve the situation, including but not limited to:

  • reinstatement of Jayaraj Mathangi with payment of lost income including all due increments, arrears, bonuses and other benefits since July 2016,
  • payment of adequate medical compensation to Jayaraj Mathangi.
  • investigation of the situation to eliminate health hazards related to exposure to cadmium and radioactive materials.
  • allowing workers to freely organize, form and join the union of their choice.