Open all labour-related departments to monitor workers’ safety in Covid-19 crisis, say experts

Published April 21, 2020
Experts also pointed to the recent international studies to explain why it’s important not to ignore/lower environmental standards in this pandemic. —AP/File
Experts also pointed to the recent international studies to explain why it’s important not to ignore/lower environmental standards in this pandemic. —AP/File

KARACHI: As major industrial activities are resuming in the province following a recent home department notification, experts have demanded that the government immediately open all labour-related departments and develop a monitoring mechanism to ensure that workplace SOPs (standard operating procedures) being developed on Covid-19 are properly implemented in factories and at construction sites.

Pointing to the close link between health and environment, they said the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) must resume its function in the interest of public health.

“This epidemic is like a raging fire. Since we don’t have the capacity to put out the fire, we must protect ourselves from it. This is crucial especially in the case of a megacity like Karachi. Wrong decisions may nullify the gains we have made so far in the fight against the coronavirus,” cautioned Dr Abdul Ghafoor Shoro, a senior family physician representing the Pakistan Medical Association.

He suggested that the industries being opened should be directed to call only those employees to work who were less than 50 years of age with a good health record. This strategy, he said, would automatically reduce the workforce to 50 per cent and subsequently the chances of spreading the coronavirus.

‘Sepa must function in interest of public health’

“As a doctors’ representative, we are in favour of a complete lockdown as the global Covid-19 pattern has shown us that the infection in community reaches its peak between a period of 12 and 16 weeks. If we look at things from this perspective, only three weeks are left before we reach that stage,” he said, suggesting that independent health experts should be consulted on SOPs.

According to an April 14 notification of the home department, personnel and entities associated with certain services, including glass manufacturing, construction industry, energy sector (gas, LNG, refineries, exploration), export-oriented industries, industries with labour within premises, industries with low labour component (cement, chemicals and fertilisers, paper and packaging) to resume work, provided they abide by mandatory precautionary measures.

The notification adds that any business entity found violating the SOPs “shall have the permission given to them during Covid-19 emergency suspended immediately and such workplaces may be closed”.

Benefit to builders

Zulfiqar Shah, representing the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, urged the government to open all worker-related departments, including the department of labour and industries, Sindh Employees’ Social Security Institution and Sepa.

“Inefficiency and malpractices plague government departments. One wonders what would happen to workers’ rights and safety in a crisis like this,” he said.

The government, in his opinion, must not leave poor workers at the whims of their employers and develop a monitoring mechanism to ensure that its SOPs on Covid-19 were implemented and workers compensated and looked after well if they got infected.

Criticising the federal ordinance, he said it offered direct benefits for builders and developers but had nothing for workers.

“Builders/developers should have been asked to pay more to construction workers — one of the most vulnerable groups among manual workers in Pakistan — as they would be risking their safety at work. In addition, there should be a clause on how the state would penalise a builder if there is an outbreak,” he said.

‘Open Sepa’

Senior environmental lawyer Zubair Abro said permission to start the construction industry meant that the government had allowed at least 10 to15 allied businesses, including cement industry, steel mills, marble and tiles markets, sanitary markets etc to operate, most of which were major contributors to environmental pollution.

“Letting them operate while the environmental regulator (Sepa) is closed would result in more environmental degradation and risk a disease outbreak.”

Mr Abro also referred to Sepa’s functions and said the department was responsible for ensuring compliance with health/safety measures at construction sites and rules regarding industrial and hospital waste management.

“The department is empowered to take action against violators and any attempt to monitor/check these compliances through some other force would be without any lawful authority and expertise.”

In this respect, experts also pointed to the recent international studies to explain why it’s important not to ignore/lower environmental standards in this pandemic.

One of which is a Harvard University study suggesting that people living in highly polluted areas faced increased risk of premature death from Covid-19.

A few days back, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and environment had also appealed that countries must not use the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to weaken environmental protection.

“Such policy decisions are likely to result in accelerated deterioration of the environment and have negative impacts on a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, water, culture, and food, as well as the right to live in a healthy environment,” UN official David Boyd had said.

The rights expert added that some three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases were zoonoses, meaning they can be transmitted from animals to humans, with Ebola, Sars, Mers and now Covid-19 being examples.

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2020

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