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This article was originally published on December 5, 2015.

A serious physical injury could put an enormous financial burden on a labourer and his family — which is exacerbated if he is the sole breadwinner of his household.

This damage has a three-fold effect; it translates into financial losses for a corporation, undermines a family's capacity to earn their bread and butter, and negatively impacts a nation’s gross productivity levels.

Pakistan has seen some of the most horrific industrial disasters in recent history.

The tragic factory collapse in Lahore that killed more than 45 workers is proof that occupational safety and health is not a top priority in Pakistan.

A fire that consumed a factory in Baldia Town, Karachi, in September 2012, resulted in the death of over 260 workers. It also generated international awareness about the distressing working conditions in Pakistan.

After the incidents, short and medium term plans were drafted which are yet to be implemented. Meanwhile, illegal and dangerous practices continue to take place with brash indifference in factories.

Also read: Factories of death

Often, injuries can be prevented, or their severity minimised to a large degree, if certain safety checks and procedures are put in place.

Driving across Karachi, one can easily testify to the gross negligence of small and large corporations towards the safety of their workers.

Billboard advertising companies are one of the many businesses that ignore worker safety. Labourers can be seen without any safety gear, such as a harness, ropes and helmets, climbing over fifty feet high.

Ironically, the ropes they do use are only thick enough to hang instruments. The authority turns a blind eye towards these blatant safety compromises.

Workers can be seen at the top of a tall billboard. —Photo by author
Workers can be seen at the top of a tall billboard. —Photo by author

Construction workers are at a higher risk of potential falls and severe injuries. The daily wage labourer or mazdoor, hired by a construction company, or a private contractor, are seen atop high rise buildings and houses cementing roofs, carrying bricks or pushing wheelbarrows.

Eye injuries caused by dust and gravel are common, as there is no concept of wearing eye shields. Recently, some companies have started providing helmets to their workers to protect them from falling objects at construction sites.

Painters can be seen painting the library building at the JPMC without any safety gear, ironically risking their lives painting the walls of a hospital. —Photo by author
Painters can be seen painting the library building at the JPMC without any safety gear, ironically risking their lives painting the walls of a hospital. —Photo by author

Wall painters can be seen painting roofs and walls of tall buildings. Often, a simple plank of wood is the only support used, while painting several feet above the ground.

Shackles of slavery

I asked one painter, Salim, why he risked his life every day.

He replied, “Dr. Sahab, it is easy for you to talk about prevention and safety. You think I can afford a harness and rope on my meagre daily wage? I have to support a family of nine and my mother is suffering from a liver disease. If I start thinking about my safety, we’ll be living on the road, eating leaves.”

It is difficult to argue with labourers who all have the same reasons; earning less than Rs. 800 a day for over 12 hours of work.

Labourers cannot and will not demand a safe working environment because they have been made to believe that they simply do not deserve it, while well-connected, corrupt employers can bribe policemen, medico-legal officers, and slip away from the grip of law.

The cost of life is cheap in Pakistan. Lack of education, awareness and extreme poverty are other factors that are responsible for this malpractice.

While pointing out the flaws in our system, it is also important to give appreciation where its due. A few years ago, I witnessed employees of the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC) climbing electricity poles without protection.

Since last year, I have seen some positive change. Karachi Electric (KE) field workers are now seen wearing harnesses, helmets and other safety gear. It is a wonderful initiative by the corporation to give due attention to the security and safety of their employees. I have also learned that the company is offering regular basic life support training to its employees.

The most significant labour safety legislation in Pakistan is the ‘Factories Act of 1934’. This Act underlines the importance of safety and health of workers in detail and discusses its violations. However, as with other legislations in the country, it fails to be implemented in letter and spirit.

With the recent boost in infrastructure investments in Pakistan, it is high time the government started giving importance to the safety of its construction workers.

Below are some basic measures that could save live:

  • ‘Work zone’ warnings must start at least two miles ahead of construction zones.
  • Cones must be placed more than a mile ahead to encourage drivers to shift lanes.
  • A reduced speed limit must be enforced around construction sites.
  • Periodic flashers and speed detectors must be placed to warn drivers of the construction area ahead.
  • Fines must be doubled in these designated areas.
  • A strict enforcement of occupation health and safety laws must be seen at construction sites.
  • Workers should be required to wear helmets, fluorescent jackets, gloves and thick boots to protect them from injury.

Trauma and injuries at work are not the only concerns. Many other health problems are commonly encountered and under-reported; such as skin conditions of workers in the carpet weaving industry and chemical factories, lung diseases in miners, and hearing difficulties among others.

The general well-being of employees, as well as their regular health and fitness checkups, mental health and performance evaluations are basic rights that should be offered by employers.

For Pakistan’s 56 million labourers, it appears the future is shaky.