Factory infernos

And lack of government oversight on industries

The basic facts about the two fires in Karachi and Lahore last week are now fairly well known. The measures that need to be taken to avoid the recurrence of the most devastating factory fire in Karachi’s history have also been debated in the media. What surprises many is the state of unconcern in the government quarters about the affair. The deaths of over 300 workers have been forgotten as a non-event. The federal, Punjab and Sindh governments are so absorbed in devising measures for their survival and continuation in power that they cannot simply afford to pay attention to the matter. The event has been filed after declaring it a national tragedy. The three administrations seem to believe that they have fulfilled their responsibility.

The facts brought out by the media amply indicate a callous indifference to the safety of workers by many factory owners. They also underscore acceptance on the part of the policy makers of the things as they are and gross negligence on the part of the government departments dealing with industry.

The garments factory in Karachi was a four-storey structure built in violation of building rules. It lacked the normal safety measures like emergency exits and fire fighting equipment. This was simply a case of wilful criminal neglect on the part of the factory owners. According to Nasir Mansoor of the National Trade Union Federation, “At Ali Enterprises there was only one exit point for more than 500 workers at the time of the emergency, all the windows had iron grills and doorways and stairs were stuffed with finished merchandise.” As SP Niaz Khosa put it, “The only exit from the building was through a door with an electronic lock that failed to work when the fire disrupted the power supply, leaving workers trapped at the mercy of the smoke and flames.” This explains why 289 men and women were burnt alive when the premises caught fire. Out of about 500 workers present only those managed to escaped who broke the iron grills with the help of the sewing machines. They had to jump down to the second or third floor breaking their limbs in the process. What factory employee Mohammad Pervez told the NBC News is an indictment of the factory management. To quote him, “The owners were more concerned with safeguarding the garments in the factory than the workers… If there were no metal grills on the windows a lot of people would have been saved. The factory was overflowing with garments and fabrics. Whoever complained was fired.”

A similar situation existed in the much smaller Lahore shoe factory where fire claimed 25 lives. The factory was an illegal structure unfit for industrial activity. There were no emergency exits and no fire fighting equipment. In this case too the factory owner had saved money on these items to enhance his earnings. In both cases greed on the part of the factory owners was responsible for the deaths of so many men and women.

The Karachi garments factory was established illegally without the necessary registration under the Factory Act 1938. The idea was to dodge rules and regulations and save money by denying the workers their basic rights. The majority of the workers were reportedly contracted through a third party and were not issued appointment letters. They were not registered with Social Security, the Employees Old Age Benefit Institute (EOBI), or with the Worker Welfare Board/Fund. They complained that while the factory was insured, the workers were not.

The neo-liberal free market practices under Musharraf were reminiscent of the 19th century laissez fair system where the state was required to play no regulatory role. This suited only the factory owners. The PPP government in Sindh and the PML-N government in Punjab continued to blindly follow the military ruler’s policy for nearly four years. Visits by labor inspectors to industrial units were stopped under Musharraf on the ground that these served as a disincentive for the investors. There were no visits by the City District Government officials to the factories either. Sindh Labor Minister Ameer Nawab, who had resigned days before the incident, claimed that Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah had stopped him from taking action against factories violating labor rules.

Labor visits were restored in Punjab only in March this year after the PML-N started pressing for early elections. The notification about the restoration of labor inspections however turned out to be a formality. As there was no follow up, none of the senior Labor and Human Resource Department officials paid attention to it. Even now the labor department officials can inspect the factories only with prior approval from the employers. Rampant corruption prevailing in concerned government departments deters officials from implementing regulations not liked by the factory owners.

The administration has taken the routine steps that it always does in such situations to divert public attention from the tragedy and gain time to push things under the carpet. Cases have been registered against the factory owners. The provincial government has appointed a retired judge to lead an investigation into the fire. The report, as it frequently happens in such cases, might either remain classified or filed after being made public. Meanwhile, government departments which are supposed to ensure minimum health and safety standards continue to ignore other factories of the type that can turn into death traps any time.

The garments factory owned by Ali Enterprises is not the only industrial unit which did not employ standard security safeguards. Reportedly there are thousands of illegal factories spread all over the country which do not follow the safety regulations. They violate building plans, do not provide emergency exits, lack basic ready-to-use fire fighting equipment or are built in residential areas difficult for fire fighters to access. Despite scores of factory fires in Karachi during the last few years, many factory owners continue to ignore the lessons. There is a dire need to take meaningful steps to stop the recurrence of the type of human tragedy witnessed on September 12.

The first thing that needs to be done is to rewrite the antediluvian Factory Act 1934. The Act badly needs to be brought up to date. A penalty of Rs 500 imposed on the factory owner over negligence in the protection of workers must have been a big deterrent in the pre WWII era. Now it is simply a joke.

While the mainstream parties prepare their election manifestos they must pay special attention to what they readily agreed to call “the national tragedy” at the Karachi garments factory. Health and safety measures prevailing in major industrial countries need to be included in the new law.

Equally important is to devise and strengthen a machinery which has to implement the laws The International Labor Organisation (ILO) has pointed to the lack of inspections as one of the main causes of the blaze in the Karachi garments factory. As ILO Country Director Francesco d’Ovidio put it, ratification of the law had never been a problem in Pakistan, and Pakistan was actually quite good at that – the problem was mostly in implementation. “I found it quite shocking that the labor department wasn’t sure of how many companies were actually registered.”

Measures have to be taken to curb corruption in government departments dealing with industry.

The revision of the Factory ACT 1934 to ensure the health and safety of the factory workers was never on the agenda of the PPP government during the last four years. This is ironical as the party claims to be the defender of the rights of the working class. The PPP allowed the Musharraf era restrictions on labor department visits to continue year after year ignoring protests by the trade unions. Will the PML-N and the PTI take up the issue in their election manifestos to force the PPP to follow suit?

The writer is a former academic and a political analyst.

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