THE horrific images of the recent twin factory fire incidents in leading metropolitan cities — Karachi and Lahore — have turned spotlight on the poor working conditions in the country’s industrial units.
Many Western importers, fearing ire of their consumers for dealing with socially irresponsible suppliers, are believed to have cancelled their orders and put some fresh negotiations for new deals on hold. There are reports that these orders have been diverted to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
The real overall impact will become clear over the weeks and months ahead while many stress the need to vigorously counter the country’s adverse image created by the tragic incidents.
The garment exporters did try to brush two fires aside as unusual accidents, ignoring Ali Enterprise’s (in Karachi) Social Accountability ranking at 800th. It is a common knowledge that the bulk of garment business have been set up at even worse locations, having hazardous working environment.
Pakistan Readymade Garment Exporters Association suggested, through a press release, that they were considering introducing a system of self-monitoring for improving factory conditions to match international standards. “They will need to walk their talk before anyone notices them”, commented a labour economist.
It was not clear what would it take to earn back the confidence of foreign buyers. Analysts, however, felt that serious, consistent and concerted efforts by all stakeholders will be required to avoid human tragedies.
Unfortunately, the relevant people still treat the issue frivolously. They do not seem inclined to do what it takes to prevent recurrence of such tragedies under the current conditions. The tendency is to blame everyone but themselves for the situation.
The business leaders contacted were worried but blamed the media coverage more than the inappropriate safety conditions at the sites of fire for the expected loss to export business.
The repeated efforts to identify the government officers handling the issue in Islamabad failed. The federal ministry for inter-provincial coordination (IPC), that was supposed to be handling the issue after the devolution of the federal ministry of labour and manpower, refused to own it up.
“I can confirm that we have not discussed it at any level. I believe NDMA must be handling it”, a senior officer who wished anonymity told Dawn over phone from Islamabad.
No one was available at the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) including its Chairman Brig Sajid Naeem Khan for comments.
The trade union leaders blamed factory owners and the government for inappropriate safety provisions for the labour class.
“The private sector is driven by greed. You can not expect them to invest in improving working environment unless they are made to”, said a labour leader. Stating that the industrial accidents have increased over the last ten years, he blamed them partially on the government decision. ‘Musharraf government banned labour inspection to please the industrial class in 2003’ “The labour laws have extensive clauses covering safety requirements but they are not implemented. It would be naïve to expect factory-owners to care for workers on their own. It is the duty of the government to make them play by the rules”, Sharafat, manager advocacy, Pakistan Institute of Labour Research commented, talking to Dawn.
“We all share the blame. I believe no one can be absolved of the responsibility of the death of innocent workers in inferno in Lahore and Karachi”.
“The business community that flouts the health and safety standards at factories, the government that fails to ensure the implementation of laws governing industrial environment, and the trade unions that falter on their responsibility to educate and mobilise workers to press for safe working environment”, Shafeeq Ghani, Vice President, National Trade Union Federation commented.
On the question if enough efforts are being made from employers’ side to address the issue Ihsanullah Khan, chairman Workers Employers Bilateral Council of Pakistan (WEBCOP) said: “We submitted 17 drafts of consensus policies related to labour affairs to the relevant authorities. None has been implemented”.
“The perception that employers are socially irresponsible is not correct. Most exporters are required to get international standard certifications and they do. They invite foreign agencies for social audits”.
“Their standards are stringent and the export industry adheres to those standards. Using certain unfortunate incidents to paint the private sector black is not wise. It will hurt the private sector but not serve the interest of the country either”, Ihsan made his point.
Farhat Parveen, a labour right activist blamed insensitivity of the society towards the vulnerable sections for the tragedy. “There is race to amass wealth. No one seems to care for those left behind. Unless the society takes responsibility to ensure safety and security of all its members and punish those violating the social code, the danger to working people will persist”.
“I think there is need to cut the number of labour-related departments and reduce the number of relevant laws to two from 72. Beside there is need to strike down provincial labour departments that act more as corruption dens. The complexity of laws and duplicity of departments promote corruption and discourage industry”, she said.
The twin factory fires in the second week of last month highlighted the poor safety conditions in industry. The painful death of 300 workers horrified the nation. The disgraceful incident led to a rare occurrence in the country: Rauf Siddiqui, the provincial minister of industries, resigned.
The extensive coverage of the plight of affected workers families in the local media evoked public anger. The government responded by constituting committees to probe the causes and fix the responsibility.