KARACHI - The two factory fires in Karachi and Lahore claimed over 250 lives in a single day and the counting is a part of a chain of events taking place every day as a result of the state’s criminal negligence to pursue its constitutional responsibility to protect and safeguard citizens’ lives.
At least 151 other workers also lost their lives at work during the course of ongoing year. This was observed by a group of civil society members that visited the factory fire site in Baldia in Karachi and held a press conference afterwards to share details with the media.
“The entire state, including the government, the bureaucracy, the policy-makers, the state departments, especially the authorities for enforcing the labour laws and building codes are responsible for these deaths as they silently and criminally allow violation of laws and regulations established to ensure health and safety provisions at work.”
The group 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 will have single storied buildings as small scale production enterprises.
There were three separate production units at the site which further endangered 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 three production units at 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.
The statement observed that the Article 37 of the constitution guarantees right to secure and humane working conditions while in Pakistan the situation of occupational health and safety is fast deteriorating. There is no independent legislation on health and safety except the Hazardous Occupation Rule 1963 under the Factories Act 1934. The concerned laws too are obsolete and do not conform to international practices.
The civil society group also emphasized that Pakistan has 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 is a key contributor to the loss of life and property as establishments and employers violate labour laws, health and safety provisions with impunity. Besides, the laws relating to health and safety at work requires the appropriate 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 Lahore incident 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, the number of industrial accidents increased from 354 to 419 during 2000 to 2008. In year 2011 alone, the reported number of fatal accidents went up to 101. This year, the two factory fires in Karachi and Lahore alone have reportedly caused a loss of around 250 lives.
The government has also not ratified ILO Convention 155 on Occupational Safety and Health and Convention 187 of promotional framework for Occupational Safety and Health.