Work place safety: No lessons learnt

Published November 29, 2015
Rescue work in progress at the collapsed factory in Sundar
Rescue work in progress at the collapsed factory in Sundar

The Nov 4 collapse of the polythene factory in Lahore’s Sundar Industrial Estate, that killed over 45 (including the factory owner and his son) and injuring over a hundred, has raised several uneasy questions not just about the workplace safety standards in the industrial sector but corruption that goes on unchecked in the government which leads to flouting of labour rights and laws as well as building codes.

Thirty-two-year-old Mohammad Javed passes by what is left of the garment factory every day where he worked till a month back and from under which his older brother Mohammad Iqbal’s body was found three days later.

And every time he passes by the factory rubble, memories of all that went inside the building begin to haunt him including the “measly salary which was never given on time, the continued sexual exploitation of the few women who worked, and sexual abuse of underage children employed there.”


As long as rules continue to be flouted accidents will happen again and again


“It’s not a country for the poor,” he said seething with rage. For now the future looks bleak. The fact that he now has to fend for a family of eight which includes his brother’s family of three, two unmarried sisters, his own wife and a son and an elderly father is weighing him down. He blames the factory owner for his family’s misfortune.

But for Fahim Zaman, former head of the Karachi Building and Construction Authority (KBCA), the buck does not stop with the owner who was building an additional storey and for which he was granted approval by the industrial estate.

He said many heads should roll. “God knows we have enough laws; the concerned person who is supposed to apply the law but didn’t should be held responsible,” he said and added, “Till the laws continue to be flouted and are not implemented fully, such tragedies will also continue.”

Rubble of the building that was
Rubble of the building that was

For the record, Pakistan has ratified 33 out of the 35 International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions on worker rights; the Factories Act 1934 provides a comprehensive strategy for combating all kinds of industrial hazards and forbids the employment of children under 14 (in the Lahore factory there were many underage workers, even as young as seven); then the Punjab Factories Rules 1978 lists procedures required to minimise workplace accidents. Apart from codes for workers safety, there are building codes and construction guidelines in industrial acts.

The provincial governments also have their labour and human resource departments that routinely inspect factories.

“In Sindh, there are just 25 inspectors,” said Sharafat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler), an organisation that works for labour rights. “Even if you double that number, it is very difficult to visit each and every factory physically,” he added. It was reported that three years ago the Sindh Chief Minister had ordered the labour minister from taking action against several factories for flouting safety regulations.

Fire at the garment factory in Karachi killed almost 250 people
Fire at the garment factory in Karachi killed almost 250 people

He said the office of the labour department, reflects the poor state of affairs. The place is dilapidated and of the 80 employees, only four or five come to the office as there is no place for others to even sit. “Till some 20 years back the inspectors got regular training by the ILO, but it has stopped since, so their capacity and qualification remains suspect,” said the Piler spokesperson.

But it’s not just Lahore, and it’s not just factories. There are flyovers and bridges; commercial and residential buildings too where there is a complete lack of safety checks.

Over three years ago, in September 2012, an inferno in a garment factory in Karachi’s Baldia Town killed over 250 people. The over 500 people working in the evening shift were trapped inside because there were no emergency escapes and the two-storey building had just one exit.

To top it all, neither the rescue workers nor the public are trained or geared towards minimising harm when a disaster happens.

In the Baldia factory fire, both the fire-fighters and ambulances lost precious time as they were unable to make their way through huge crowds of onlookers. The fire chief also admitted that at some point their engines ran out of water.

Moreover, factory workers are rarely trained for fire drills. But neither are hotels, schools, hospitals or any public places for that matter. Many newer buildings still don’t have fire escapes or sprinkler systems.

Syed Akeel Bilgrami, one of Pakistan’s most renowned architects and a former president of the Institute of Architects Pakistan (IAP) acknowledged the existence of “briefcase architects” who sign for builders who violate building bylaws. In Karachi, for example, the building authority (KBCA), “steeped in corruption” is in “cahoots” with these architects and used by unscrupulous builders to get their projects approved. 

Fire tenders at work at the Baldia factory in Karachi
Fire tenders at work at the Baldia factory in Karachi

“All that these architects do is to sign and stamp the design (often by builders) and get approval from the building authority. The asking rate, depending on the size of the project, would be from Rs100,000 to Rs1.0 million for a commercial building and from Rs25,000 to Rs75,000 for a residential building for each signature,” said Bilgrami. 

“In the past the Pakistan Council of Architects & Town Planners (PCATP) had repeatedly asked the KBCA to check the offices of the architects who sign drawings if they are in this nefarious business. The PCATP can revoke their registration if the authority complains, but as far as I know, not a single such name has been received,” he pointed out. 

In addition, he said people must understand, that not every illegally-built structure is unsafe and, at the same time, there may be structures built legally that may be unsafe.

“Margalla Towers’ structure was designed by one of Pakistan’s top engineers and there was nothing wrong with the design; it was the construction standard (including material) that was not right,” he explained.

According to Zaman, to understand why such accidents will continue to happen, it was necessary to understand the way factories work in Karachi.

“Designated cottage industrial zones have been encroached by land mafia and turned into residential areas, as a result the informal industry has found its way into the katchi abadis (low-income neighbourhoods) where building codes don’t apply,” he said.

Smaller factories often work seasonally and have little space for storage. “They may get one good order in a year where they have to send the product — towel, plastic, garments whatever, in say six weeks. During that period, to get the order ready, they employ more people than they have space to accommodate. The finished product is stacked in passages and walkways as temporary storage with a complete disregard for escape routes in case of a fire or an emergency. Often they keep fewer exits or keep windows locked to avoid goods from being stolen,” said Zaman.

The bigger question remains: will this disaster serve as a wakeup call for both the builders and the authorities? Experts say most factories can still add fire exits and structures can be checked for quality of concrete and steel, and if found unstable they can be strengthened.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 29th, 2015

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