KARACHI: “The second anniversary of the Baldia factory fire is coming up. What happened on Sept 11, 2012, carried an uncanny resemblance to America’s 9/11,” said Karamat Ali, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Research and Education.

He was speaking at a discussion on ‘Promoting labour compliance in Pakistan, a sourcing perspective’ organised by the US consulate and the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan. “The workers were locked inside the burning factory.

They just couldn’t escape. And there were more than 1,500 there but only 160 of them were registered employees. All kinds of laws, including building control laws were violated and the labour department didn’t even know of the factory’s existence,” he said. “We should list what had happened and what was done and what needs to be done in order to avert such a tragedy.”

US consul general in Karachi Brian Heath said: “US businesses face strong pressure from domestic consumers to source from safe factories that treat their workers fairly.”

Explaining the benefits of a healthy, safe, well-trained work force, he said: “Workers stay at your company longer; they are absent less often; and they produce more.” When labour rights are honoured, said Mr Heath, supply chains are more robust, reliable, and resilient. “Denying workers their universal rights costs society dearly in lost productivity, innovation, and growth, as well as undermining the rule of law and creating instability.”

Qamar Raza Baloch, additional secretary of the Sindh Labour Department, said that enforcing labour laws had been an issue in Pakistan. But after the Baldia factory fire they introduced several practices to reduce risks at factories besides helping the family members of the victims. They also introduced several administrative measures while coordinating with the International Labour Organisation.

Joining the discussion from Islamabad via Skype, country director of the ILO Francesco d’ Ovidio through his presentation showed how Pakistan lost good business due to not following international standards. Giving the example of Walt Disney Corporation’s withdrawal from Pakistan in March 2013, he said other big names might also follow suit.

About the things that needed to be looked into to promote labour compliance, he said the working environment should be such that promoted opportunity for women workers while giving them freedom, security and dignity. “The wages should be market-based, the working time should be monitored and be reasonable. Vocational training should be provided, too. And safety standards should be promoted,” he said.

Later, SGS Pakistan director Abdul Razzak Lakhani held two panel discussions, one to get the perspective of American and international sourcing companies and the other to know the perspective of the suppliers. “Labour compliance is no longer an option, it is a requirement,” he said during the first panel discussion.

“If you have a company of good repute but which is not compliant, that’s when sourcing has to make the call to leave it or advice and train it on how to increase labour compliance,” said vice president of Li and Fung Pakistan Umar Bin Asad, one of the panelists.

Business development manager at IKEA Sourcing Rehan Ahmedani said: “We start by sharing with a company here the legal and environmental requirements of a new buyer but the biggest challenge there is mental deadlock when some people don’t get it. Compliance is the way to being competitive.”

Director of the CRC, Matrix Sourcing, Hammad Rasheed Khan, raised the issue of working overtime. “There is no match between the living wage and the minimum wage. All the workers have to work overtime to make ends meet as here in Pakistan each household usually has just one earning member with several dependants,” he said.

The second panel discussion to understand the suppliers’ perspective also brought up the issue. “Minimum wage can work in countries where the employees have other benefits such as health benefits being offered to them not here though where they get nothing but the salary. But then overtime is not just the employees’ need but the employers’ need as well what with the law and order situation, strike calls, gas and power shortages, and too many commitments to fulfil,” Asim Bilwani, director of JB Industries, said.

“It’s all about how factories follow the rules and regulations now,” commented the director of Rajby Industries.

The executive director of Gul Ahmed Textile Mills, Ziad Bashir, questioned the use of cutting corners. “What’s the use of buying good machines when you are going to use hazardous chemicals or dyes in them? What kind of human resource do you expect to be attracted to the jobs at your factory when people are falling sick there because you are using cheap and dangerous material?”

Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2014