LAHORE: Zahid Ali lies on his bed, smoking a cigarette with his good hand. The other one is just a stump now. It is aligned beside him limply, reminding him of that awful day at the factory where he worked, when it got clean cut off by a machine.
Other than the fact that he was laid off from the factory, Zahid was not even given compensation for his injury – not even medical bills – and now he has resolved to fight a court case to get his right.
But Zahid is only a drop of water in an ocean. When it comes to risks and health hazards workers in most of the factories across the country are highly endangered and lead a working life of uncertainty where ‘anything can happen’.
Despite several conventions of International Labour Organisation (ILO) and ratifications, factories in Pakistan do not follow any rules when it comes to protecting their workers.
“We work for long hours and many of us die deaths which are not even get noticed,” says Zahid. “For example, someone who dies of a respiratory illness is never going to be given media attention, although these deaths are not really caused by ‘natural illnesses’ as they say. There is always a long-term effect of where you have been working.”
Only large-scale incidents like factory building collapse or a massive fire or an industrial explosion get the government or media attention, says Zahid. And in most of these incidents the lack of safety becomes apparent.
In May 2013, a fire erupted at the Lahore Development Authority offices resulting in the death of 25 workers. Investigations showed the building’s staircase was over 30 years old and did not adhere to safety regulations.
ILO’s Core Labour Standards ask factory owners to follow a list of minimum criteria, including building emergency exits and secure drinking water for workers. But inside the dingy suffocating rooms of factories the case is completely different.
Comrade Nasir Ali, as he is known within his union circles, reveals a dark picture with little hope. “Most of the machinery in use is second-hand and in poor condition. A simple slip up can cause a fatal injury. And when a worker is injured, which happens quite often, he has to reach hospital on his own as the management does not provide any help," he says.A few years ago an acquaintance of his had his finger cut off by a machine at the workplace. He was paid Rs150,000. “That is the average rate of compensation. But the injured worker must be paid separately by the factory owner and the insurance company.” This is unimaginable for an unregistered worker in an unregistered factory. Nasir claims more than half the factories are in fact unregistered.
In many working class areas of Lahore, small-scale factories have mushroomed over time, most of them unregistered. Nasir, who is also part of the All Pakistan Trade Unions Federation (APTUF), says at least 90pc of the embroidery factories operate illegally but nothing is done about this.
In one of the narrow lanes of Bund Road there are factories where workers fill liquid pesticides in bottles and other containers. The effect is so potent that even in the workers’ retreating room where they go for a break, insects are seen lying scattered on the floor. Breathing the fumes all day long results in early deaths but nothing is done to investigate the cause. Again many are not even compensated when dead.
Asif, a worker, narrates an anecdote where his factory colleague died because of respiratory illness. But for this worker of 25 years, the family is yet to receive any grant.Textile factories have women and children who work with thread and inhale the very fine dust rising during the industrial procedure. No body bothers to look into their health issues that are definitely related to their nature of job.
In a DG Khan village there were deaths of many young people from TB and cancer, but only after a long time it was realised that the ailments were being caused by a stone crushing unit operating nearby.
In other incidents factory buildings have collapsed killing workers under the debris. These buildings seldom have any emergency exit. By law they are supposed to have more than one gate but most workers in different factories say only one exist is kept open, and in cases of an emergency it is no surprise that there are stampedes or people get trapped inside.
THE LABOUR DEPARTMENT
Article 37-E of the Constitution guarantees right to secure and humane working conditions, while in Pakistan the situation of occupational health and safety is fast deteriorating. There is no independent legislation on workers’ health and safety except the Hazardous Occupation Rules-1963 under the Factories Act 1934. The concerned laws too are obsolete and do not conform to international practices.
Pakistan has ratified the ILO’s Labour Inspection Convention-1947 (No 81) in 1953, under which the labour department is bound to ensure that employers and workers are educated and informed of their legal rights and necessary provisions are made to enable inspectors to report to their superiors on problems and defects that are not covered by laws and regulations.
Labour Party Pakistan leader Farooq Tariq says these and many other pro-worker laws are made redundant by the absence of an effective labour inspection system.
“There is a weak labour union structure and lack of interest on part of state institutions in the real problems,” he says. “What we need are inspectors who are not bribed by the owners and a committee where the labour department, union and the owner can have a tripartite agreement over things.”
While Shahbaz Sharif’s government has reopened labour inspections banned during Chaudhry Parvez Elahi’s tenure, the step is almost useless because many security issues seem to have been ignored.
“Its ineffectiveness is evident from so many Lahore-based incidents only,” says Labour Education Foundation (LEF) Director Khalid Mehmood. “Defenders of the labour department officials say that inspectors are paid a meager amount (as little as Rs5,000) and face too much red tape. But I say justice delayed is simply justice denied. The culture of corruption and lax implementation of laws allow existing labour regulations to be easily flouted.”
Oftentimes workers are not even allowed to drink clean water and in one of the factories located on Kala Shah Kaku when they formed a line to drink water they were laid off for “forming a union”. Trade unionists say that till unions are not allowed to operate freely inside factories the problems of workers will never be highlighted.
“We have to forgo so many things, including spittoons, urinals and bathrooms, contagious and infectious diseases, working under extreme heat and duress for long and tedious hours, either standing or sitting in the same position leading to serious health problems,” says Meeran who works in a textile factory. “There is dust and fume, overcrowding, there is dumping of waste in residential areas and so many other issues that we have to deal with. We can only hope for unions to become stronger to tackle these problems.”
Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2014