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Govt departments blamed for Baldia blaze tragedy

September 12, 2012

KARACHI, Sept 12: The heart-rending fire incidents in the provincial capitals of Sindh and Punjab claiming hundreds of lives speak volumes about criminal negligence of the state towards enforcement of labour inspection system, building control laws and industrial regulations, said a group of civil society members on Tuesday.

The group members representing the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, Pakistan Workers’ Federation and NOW Communities were speaking at a press conference at the Karachi Press Club to brief the media about the situation after visiting the factory in Baldia.

They said the entire state, including the government, the bureaucracy, policy-makers, the departments especially those concerning enforcement of labour laws and building codes were responsible for these deaths as they silently and criminally allowed violation of laws and regulations established to ensure health and safety provisions at work.The rights activists noted that Karachi factory did not have emergency exits, forcing the workers to jump out of the windows when the fire erupted. The building itself stood as a gross violation of building control laws that had clearly stated that the area would have single-storeyed buildings as small-scale production enterprises.

“There were three separate production units at the site further endangering the safety of workers as all the items being produced at the factory — candles, plastic and garments — were highly combustible. The question arises why the factory establishment was allowed to set up three production units on the premises without any safety provisions in the form of fire exits and training of staff on rescue and emergency that was essentially the responsibility of the state through the labour department.”

They observed that Article 37 of the constitution guarantees right to secure and humane working conditions, but the situation of occupational health and safety was fast deteriorating, with no independent legislation on health and safety other than the Hazardous Occupation Rule 1963 under the Factories Act 1934. The relevant laws, too, were obsolete and did not conform to international practices, they noted.

The civil society group also emphasised that Pakistan had ratified the ILO Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No 81) in 1953. Under this convention, the government through the labour department is bound to ensure that employers and workers are educated and informed on their legal rights and obligations concerning all aspects of labour protection and labour laws; and advised on compliance with the requirements of the law; and necessary provisions are made to enable inspectors to report to superiors on problems and defects that are not covered by laws and regulations. These and many other pro-workers laws are made redundant by the absence of an effective labour inspection system and a tripartite consultation on labour, a weak labour union structure and lack of interest of state institutions for capacity building of workers to protect their interests.

It was also observed that the ban on labour inspection was a key contributor to the loss of life and property, as both establishments and employers violate labour laws and health and safety provisions with impunity. Besides, the laws related to health and safety at work required the government (federal or provincial) to appoint qualified individuals as inspectors to enforce these laws.

“The provinces of Punjab and Sindh have no functional labour inspection system. In fact the system was banned on the orders of the previous provincial governments. The Punjab government just restored the inspection system but its ineffectiveness is evident from the incident in Lahore where the concerned shoe factory was located in a residential area offering limited provision for emergency exits.”

Employers have a legal compulsion to ensure that hazards in the workplace are eliminated, minimized, or controlled in such a way that work accidents are avoided. In the absence of labour inspection, employers have a free hand to pursue commercial interests at the cost of labour rights and safety.

According to the Pakistan labour and human resource statistics of the past decade, the number of industrial accidents increased from 354 in the year 2000 to 419 in 2008. Last year alone, the reported number of fatal accidents went up to 101. This year, the two factory fires in Karachi and Lahore have caused a loss of hundreds of lives.

The civil society representatives demanded stringent action against the factory owners for operating the establishment in a non-protected fashion. Besides, they demanded the labour departments of Sindh and Punjab be taken to task for turning a blind eye to the violation of health and safety provisions in the two factories.

They also criticised the provincial and national assemblies for ignoring the ban on labour inspection, and the building control departments for allowing violation of building control codes in the two cities.

The group also urged the government to ratify ILO Convention 155 and 187 that provides for the formulation of a comprehensive labour protection and inspection policy in Pakistan. Conventions 155 and 187 will also provide a baseline to address the issue of health and safety at national, industrial and enterprise level.

The speakers included Noor Mohammad of the Port Workers’ Federation, Asad Butt of the HRCP, Sharafat Ali of Piler, Ayoub Qureshi of the Pakistan Workers’ Federation and Mir Zulfiqar Ali of NOW Communities.—PPI