Factories of death

Published November 6, 2015
How many other industrial accidents will we experience before we realise the gravity of the issue.—AFP/File
How many other industrial accidents will we experience before we realise the gravity of the issue.—AFP/File

The collapse of a factory in Lahore’s Sunder Industrial Estate, which buried at least 21 workers and wounded many others, has revealed an important reality about the dilapidated state of Pakistan’s manufacturing economy.

While the search for survivors continues at the site of the tragedy, the equally grim search for answers will be a lot less focused. It is horrifying that the factory, which produced polythene bags, employed a workforce consisting largely of children, some as young as seven.

Also read: At least 25 dead as rescuers scrabble through Lahore factory rubble

Equally appalling is the ease with which factory owners can build structures that are dangerous structurally or vulnerable to fires, or which are characterised by lax safety standards that can cause boilers to explode.

In only four years, Lahore has seen all three: workers dying due to smoke inhalation during a factory fire because there was only one exit, and that was through the generator room where the fire began; a boiler exploding in a factory built illegally in a residential area; and now structural failure that caused the building to collapse and bury the young ones toiling within.

The more horrifying story yet is the even larger numbers of workers who continue toiling away in the thousands of factories across Pakistan under conditions that are dangerous and a threat to life and limb.

The principal fault clearly lies with the owners of these establishments, who build their premises without any regard for worker safety. But the blame must also be shared by government authorities who either give permits to such structures, or turn a blind eye to them.

The management of the industrial estates must also be held accountable, since they are in a position to ensure that safety standards are being implemented, and to either demand enforcement from errant owners or report them to government authorities.

All three segments failed in their duties, with the result that rescue teams are digging out our children from the rubble of a monstrous hulk. The tragedy is beyond words.

Pakistan’s manufacturing sector has been subjected to some enormous strains over the years, pushing much of it into the informal sector.

Over there, things are even worse, and industrial accidents and hazardous working conditions are the norm. Ultimately, this unchecked growth in informal manufacturing has created perverse incentives to compromise even further on worker safety.

Those in the formal sector find they become uncompetitive against their rivals in the informal space if they follow the letter of the law. Those in the informal space operate with impunity, setting up perilous manufacturing processes in residential areas, exposing their neighbours to dangers they may not even be aware of.

How many other industrial accidents will we experience before we realise that this laissez-faire approach towards manufacturing means we are signing the death warrant of our environment, our residential areas, and in the latest example, our children as well?

Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2015

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