LAHORE: Lahore-based factory worker Asif Ali* went to work one day, never knowing that he would not return home the same again.
The building he worked in caught fire, taking the lives of two of his colleagues and injuring several others. The scene haunts him even today.
The case is just one example of the life-threatening situations the workers mostly work in, having not much choice in the matter.
Such incidents are so common that now the media does not give them much coverage until the death toll is heavy.
Labour Education Foundation Executive Director Khalid Mehmood says on the same day when the Ali Enterprises incident occurred Karachi, six workers died of a factory fire in Lahore. But the incident is not remembered by many.
“Usually in smaller factories, incidents like boiler blasts, and short circuits take place while it is seen that larger factories have other issues. But at the end of the day, whatever the incident is, the owners never spend much on the safety measures and even if they do, they don’t bother maintaining these systems.”
Such matters are interlinked with labour inspection – a place where the government seems to be in murky waters. The labour inspectors are supposed to monitor the working conditions and health and safety of the workers.
Tariq Awan, who has worked for around 30 years with the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) as a provincial coordinator, says all around the world the major issue of any worker is occupational health and safety but it’s not happening in Pakistan despite the presence of the law making it mandatory.
“The prime minister promised industrialists that they will soon get ‘ease of business’ and there might soon be an inspection-free system,” he apprehends.
“This is unheard of anywhere else in the world. On the one side, there are accidents happening due to neglect while on the other, the owners are asking for a ban on labour inspection.”
Mehmood says the ban on inspection was in place during the Parvez Elahi government also until a factory in Lahore collapsed and later the Shehbaz Sharif government revoked it.
Zaigham Abbas Mazhar from the Punjab Labour Department says the provincial government has not completely agreed with the idea and after meeting with trade unions and labour rights activists, the department has even said that step would go against the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions as well as the GSP-Plus and other international treaties that Pakistan has ratified.
“Steps are being taken to improve surveillance and make it technology-based. Under this system, the surveillance will be done in real-time inspection under the foreign strategy of ‘Zero Vision’, which means that if adopted, the accidents will go down to zero. The inspectors will be trained before implementation of the system.”
Abbas says it would be a complaint-based system with ‘super monitoring’, a field inspector would be randomly checked by the deputy director and s/he would, in turn, be checked by the director and so on.
If a worker dies or gets injured and he/she is not registered under social security, the family won’t get anything.
A provincial government source says no initiative has been taken since the current government came to power. He says the employers are ‘scared of paying the EOBI and social security’ and the government has allowed relaxation of inspection of the Punjab Employees Social Security Institution (PESSI), otherwise the workers would continue getting their social security and other benefits.
Health and safety directives are given in the Factory Act 1934 and also the POSA, (Punjab Occupational Safety Act, 2019), however, the rules of the latter have not been made as yet.
Meanwhile, the Rescue 1122 spokesperson Farooq Ahmed told Dawn that most of the factory fires occurred because of a short circuit.
“Factory owners are always seen cutting costs on quality wire and equipment,” he says and adds that mostly there was an absence of safety measures like fire extinguishers, a sprinkler system, smoke detectors, hydrants and above all unavailability of trained staff and awareness.
Tariq Awan says in Faisalabad power looms, there are no buttons in the right place, wires are bare and ventilators are full of dust. But none of these reasons are reported as owners strike deals with workers who don’t even have social security cards.
There is also little organised data collected of such accidents, affecting a total labour population of 75,862,533 across Pakistan (World Bank, 2020).
Singer Jawad Ahmad, the chairperson of the Barabri Party, says that meetings with families of the Baldia Town victims had left an everlasting impact on him.
“It is appalling to see the circumstances in which working class lives. It is about five people in the only room in the house, including women.”
“Pakistani law must be respected and the provincial labour departments must enhance its capacity,” suggests Mehmood as a solution.
Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2021