Dispensable objects

20 Jan 2020


OCCUPATIONAL safety and health practices in the country are either poor or non-existent, leaving a large number of workers sick or dead before time. The environment is generally hostile but people working in the construction, mining, storage, agriculture and transport sectors are the most vulnerable.

Many labour experts, engaged in the consultative and training business, concur that the work environment in Pakistan is far from satisfactory. According to them, the factors responsible for lack of progress in this crucial area include people’s desperation for a job, lack of awareness on safety standards, rudimentary legal framework, insufficient and inefficient inspectorates, government and employers’ apathy towards the plight of workforce, and lack of societal oversight.

Meek efforts have been made to gauge the status of occupational health and safety situation in the country by the relevant ministry of the federal government and to upgrade the relevant legal framework by provincial governments.

However, realistically speaking, the fate of sick, maimed and workers on the verge of a physical or mental breakdown is not expected to change much any time soon. Pakistan has not even ratified International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) conventions concerning occupational safety.

In a transformational society where an archaic mindset and old structures coexist with modern-day mounting demands of the market, the stress level for people is already high and often becomes unbearable, driving them to act irrationally and destructively. A hostile work environment acts as the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Suicides and fatal accidents in occupational sites routinely make headlines, but the silent suffering of hundreds and thousands of workers toiling in farms, factories and the service sector goes unreported. The public tendency to internalise blame and accept it as fait accompli doesn’t help either.

When media owners get their expensive cameras insured and leave the cameraman uncovered, it speaks volumes about the mindset regarding occupational safety and health in the country

The fact is that complying with international standards of occupational health and safety can bring about a quantitative change in the lives of people who keep the wheels of the economy moving.

Dr Iftikhar Ahmed, the founder of Centre for Labour Research, shared his take on the issue with Dawn. In a written response, he said: “The compliance and ensuring safe working conditions for workers is not dependent on the ratification of ILO conventions. It is neither a necessary not a sufficient condition. The government sorely needs to declare an emergency in the field of occupational safety and health (OSH), enact necessary legislation where needed (Sindh and Punjab already have laws), implement them (by framing rules as a start) and ensure that workers’ employment is secure when they file a complaint on the ground of dilapidated working conditions.”

Mr Ahmed supervised the report titled ‘Occupational Safety and Health: Legal Framework and Statistical Trend Analysis (2010-15), which is the only structured countrywide report on the subject. It was commissioned by the International Labour Standards unit of the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development.

Dr Lubna Shehnaz, a labour economist, felt that the bigger challenge is to extend the workers’ protection legislation in the country to cover workers outside the fold of the formal economy.

“Hardly eight per cent of the workforce is engaged in the formal sector in Pakistan. The bulk of working masses falls outside the formal confines and has no legal standing to challenge any wrongdoing at the workplace in a court of law. We are pushing to at least start with the registration of all workers to gain a better insight and provide for their protection,” she said over the phone from Islamabad. She mentioned ‘Mazdoor Ka Ehsaas’ programme at works in this regard.

The study mentioned above (OSH Legal Framework and Statistical Trend and Analysis), which draws on Labour Force Survey data and newspaper clippings during 2010-15, says: “Ensuring due rights of the workforce is intrinsically linked to development goals set by the country…OSH, recognised as a human right and an integral part of people-centred agenda for sustainable development, its scope is undergoing evolution in response to a myriad of social, political, technological and economic changes. …GOP [the government of Pakistan] is cognisant of the importance of OSH, especially in the wake of tragic workplace incidents.”

The report found that the highest incidences of accidents/injuries are among plant and machine operators, followed by craft- and trade-related workers. The sectoral analysis places construction, mining, transport and storage sectors to be the most risky. The law and applicability was found to be lacking. Over two-thirds of labour force lacks any legal protection and dependable data on occupational accidents and injuries is not available. Besides, the level of awareness on the issue was found to be low.

The report made 12 recommendations for addressing gaps and challenges including the enactment of a modern law, protection of complainants, broadening the coverage of the relevant laws to include agriculture, improving labour inspection legislation, encouragement of unions, preparation of the OSH country profile at regular intervals, prioritising OSH in terms of allocation of finances at government and company levels (The related data and key findings can be seen in the illustration given with this article).

Tahir Barlas, CEO of Barlas HSE Solutions observed that OSH standards are better in multinational companies that conform to the requirement of their principals and in the export-oriented companies.

Source: Data drawn from the study ‘Occupational Safety and Health: Legal Framework and Statistical Trend Analysis (2010-15)’
Source: Data drawn from the study ‘Occupational Safety and Health: Legal Framework and Statistical Trend Analysis (2010-15)’

“The international consumer is very sensitive on the issue of labour exploitation. Local companies are required by their overseas trade partners to confirm to OSH standards. The situation is not good, as there is little or no government oversight,” he said.

He believed that compliance with standards was better in oil and textile companies. In the capital-intensive oil sector, it is necessary as an accident can cost the company dearly, whereas in the textile sector 20pc export companies are required to be OSH standards complaint because of trade partners’ demand. Besides leading multinational companies, he mentioned Engro Corporation, Fauji Fertiliser, Pak Refinery, National Refinery, Attock Refinery, Mari Petroleum and Interloop as star companies in this context.

He believed that Sindh was ahead of the rest of the provinces, as it was the first province to enact a law in this regard and is hoped to notify the rules shortly. On the flip side, he mentioned a labour centre set up earlier with ILO’s support has been dysfunctional for the past decade with testing machines reduced to scrap.

Ali Ashraf Naqvi, the director of Sindh’s labour department, told Dawn that the government is working on the issue and activated a tripartite consultative process to gradually move in the right direction.

Rao Nasir Mehmood, project director at the SAA Centre for the Improvement of Working Conditions and Environment, mentioned Punjab Safety and Health Law 2019 that extends the Chapter 3 of the Factories Act 1934. It has been broadened the definition of worker to include those who work in the agriculture sector and brick kilns. “Rules are in the works and yet to be passed by the provincial cabinet,” he told Dawn.

Punjab Labour Welfare Department’s DG Faisal Nisar Chaudhry said the intention is to maximise the coverage.

Atifa Riffat, a senior officer of the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development and who has been involved in the labour welfare consultative process, insisted her ministry’s role is limited to providing guidelines to the federating units and advisory services to the government in this regard.

“Our domain is limited but we do try to engage experts and other stakeholders to provide evidence-based policy and legal reforms. The burden of inspection to enforce implementation of OSH standards rest with the provincial governments,” she said over telephone from Islamabad.

Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Overseas Pakistanis Zulfiqar Abbas Bukhari — better known as Zulfi Bukhari — was travelling and could not be approached for comments. The federal secretary, Eng Amir Hasan, deflected questions and chose not to comment on the issue.

“Both the corporate sector and the government are negligent towards workers,” said an expert requesting anonymity. “Companies treat workers as dispensable objects for they know that the replacement is readily available in a labour-abundant country like Pakistan. When media owners get their expensive cameras insured and leave the camera man filming the events uncovered, it speaks volumes about the mindset that dominates.”

Majyd Aziz, the president of Employers’ Federation of Pakistan, agreed that the situation of safety and health is unsatisfactory, but he advocated selling the idea of OSH as a productivity-enhancing measure to entrepreneurs for greater acceptability and compliance.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 20th, 2020