LAST week the 13th Akhtar Hameed Khan Development Forum came as a timely reminder of the injustice befalling the workers in a country where it is a crime to be poor. The forum focused on the Baldia fire tragedy, which has almost faded from public memory.

Now an annual Karachi landmark, the forum commemorates the philosophy and work of that iconic development theorist-cum-activist, whose insight into human nature and society was profound. Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan’s message of self-reliance and a participatory approach to development is most relevant today and has been kept alive by the Orangi Pilot Project, Research and Training Institute (OPP-RTI) under the able stewardship of its director Parveen Rahman.

The Baldia factory fire took place three-and-a-half months ago and a lot of information hitherto unknown has now surfaced. Hence the forum’s move to focus on the anti-workers’ dimension of the incident. Faisal Siddiqi, a lawyer with a conscience who is known for the pro bono work he does taking up cases on behalf of the poor, shed light on the catastrophic details of the events of Sept 11, 2012 when 260 plus people perished in a fire in a garment factory.

The massive loss of life was shocking. But what hit one like a ton of bricks was the blatant violation of safety regulations and the utter lack of concern for human welfare. Compensation has been announced and some families have also been paid. But will that undo the damage inflicted on thousands who were left without their breadwinner? Will they be able to pick up the pieces of their lives again?

What emerged from Faisal Siddiqi’s talk was that the capitalists (the high profit-making manufacturers) have been consolidating their exploitative hold over the working class and the state has proved to be a shameless partner in their corruption. It was not just the fire that killed the workers. More lethal was the brutality of the owners. All exits, with the exception of one, were locked and were not opened even after the fire had started. Why? As Faisal Siddiqi sarcastically put it, because even at that critical time the industrialists like their ilk elsewhere believed that the poor are thieves and would steal the goods they produce if not prevented from doing so.

Even basic safety measures were missing. The entire enterprise reeked of corruption, including the dubious SA 8000 certification it had obtained a month earlier from an Italian company RINA.

This door-locking syndrome seems to be a universal phenomenon. It was present in the New York factory fire of 1911 and in the Bangladesh fire of November 2012. Profits and earthly goods seem to be more valuable for the factory owners than the human hands that produce these goods.

What causes dismay is the silence that has followed the event causing it to be virtually erased from our collective memories. The New York fire a century ago had shaken the conscience of the authorities and a spate of 36 labour laws were adopted in the coming years changing the face of American industry.

We, on the contrary, have been moving in reverse gear. Initially, there was an indignant outcry, provoked by a sense of shock, but there has been no impact on the state of labour as a result of that. The deliberate abdication by the authorities of their regulatory responsibility — thanks to corruption or political expediency — has increased the oppression of the working classes.

Since 2003, no surprise inspections by the labour department have taken place in Karachi’s industrial areas on orders from government high-ups. Small wonder, the multi-billion rupee Ali Enterprises could get away with malpractices such as:

— The factory reportedly had over 1,500 workers but only 190 were registered with the Employees’ Old-Age Benefits Institution and there was no record for the others. Nearly 650 were said to have been present at the time of the fire.

— The workers had, in the words of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), “limited access to rights, compromised wages, stretched working hours and contract employment where the contractor is responsible for handling the labour and for delivering output”.

— The presence of chemicals and inflammable material in the crammed spaces made free movement of workers impossible while serving as fuel.

All this betrays a vulgar concern for maximising profits at the expense of the safety of the underpaid workers.

What is more disconcerting is the general absence of concern for the victims. With the tragedy fading from public memory it has been left to a few caring sections of society, notably PILER, to fight the case of the aggrieved families. With people drowned in despair, one can hardly hope for a reaction that will jolt the government out of its apathy and culture of corruption to produce changes in labour conditions.

Although those who were very vocal on the electronic media at the time of the tragedy posing as the champions of workers’ rights have fallen silent, institutions like PILER and OPP-RTI and people like Faisal Siddiqi and Jawad Ahmad, the popular singer, hope to create public awareness about the deteriorating labour conditions in Pakistan. It is time people were told about the widening rich-poor gap that has created insensitivity among the privileged classes to the plight of the poor.

Jawad is spot on when he sings: “Jaan lo ke hum mazdoor hain / Saari duniya humaray hee dum se hai” (We are the workers / The whole world is functioning because of us).

www.zubeidamustafa.com

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