In Adivasi Colony, a remote hamlet off the road from Vedaranyam to Kodikarai in Tamil Nadu, most of the adults in the 200-odd households work in salt manufacturing. Work in the salt pans involves hard physical labour; most workers are employed as casual labour on contract basis and are therefore not covered by health insurance or other safety schemes.
UNDERPAID & AILMENTS
Most salt pan workers earn Rs.50-Rs.100 a day, far below the minimum wage and that too after a hard day toiling under the harsh sun. They suffer from the ailments usually associated with poverty — malnutrition, anaemia, Vitamin B, A and D deficiencies, manifested by aches and pains, poor night vision and accelerated ageing. In addition, several occupational hazards have been documented in salt workers — the most common being chronic dermatitis (skin ulcers) caused by constant exposure to sharp salt crystals, especially on their hands and legs. Exposure to bright, white, reflected light and dust leads to premature loss of vision and growths in the cornea of the eyes called pterygia. They are also at higher risk for hypertension (high blood pressure), presumably because of the higher salt content in their blood from inhalation of salt aerosols – salt factory workers being most at risk. Almost all the workers we spoke to complained of body pain, especially in the back and shoulder region, which they attributed to hauling salt all day. We also saw a number of young women and girls with goitre — a swelling of the thyroid caused by iodine deficiency. Because the salt they panned was packed and shipped right away without iodisation, most people in the area consume non-iodised salt. Iodine deficiency is known to lead to poor thyroid function — if it happens during pregnancy, it can lead to congenital hypothyroidism with mental retardation.