Pakistan: Workplaces or workers’ death chambers?

Factory fire kills 300 workers, hundreds injured

The garment factory inferno in Karachi’s Baldia Town, which took the lives of at least 275 workers, including a number of women and teenage workers, once again exposed the horrific conditions in which labour works in Pakistan. This incident is not an exception but a norm for the working class and especially for industrial workers in Pakistan. It lays bare the conditions in which they are forced to work. On the same day, in another shoe factory in Lahore, more than 25 workers were burnt to death and scores maimed. Such incidents are a daily routine across the country. The only reason that the media had to highlight this tragedy was the enormity of the calamity and the relatively large numbers of victims from just one incident. In Lahore alone there are 8,000 factories that are vulnerable to such catastrophes. There are thousands more in Karachi and other cities of Pakistan that are susceptible to such a fate. The plight of the workers was described by one of the survivors of the Lahore factory inferno: “Everyone has to die one day. People like me will die of starvation if they don’t work.”

No rules, No laws

Sindh Industrial Trading Estate (SITE), the factory area where Ali Enterprises is located, is said to be under the complete control of the MQM, which also controls the Ministry of Industries. A senior officer of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) told the TNS news agency, on conditions of anonymity, that the factory’s “plot was actually allotted for a ground-floor, small-industry unit only. Its approved capacity of workers was 250, but the factory owner expanded the hosiery unit into a leather garment and denim factory and constructed two extra floors illegally and hired 1,500 workers.”

Although the contractors clearly evaded the labour laws, no department of Sindh government or the city government took notice. A map was prepared illegally by the SITE, rather than the Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA), and the factory owners changed the design to their own convenience. In order to avoid any incidence of theft, they barred all exit points which, again, was an illegal act. There were no emergency stairs for the upper floors and no fire units whatsoever.

Interestingly, the officials of Civil Defence have issued a clearance certificate to the factory every year. Some fire extinguishers were installed but the management of Ali Enterprises did not bother to refill them once used.

At least 90 per cent of factories in Karachi are working illegally under the Factories Act 1934, yet no action has been taken against them because of the political support enjoyed by their owners. These owners allegedly pay billions of rupees as extortion money to their ‘supporters’. Certain sources claim the fire occurred at Ali Enterprises because the demand for more extortion money was not fulfilled.

For many years, the inspection of factories has been suspended in the country. Punjab allowed labour inspection in factories after certain accidents occurred but in Sindh, it remains suspended to this day, as per the instructions of the PPP Chief Minister, Syed Qaim Ali Shah.

In Pakistan, there are more than thirty million factory workers but in welfare departments, like the EOBI and the Sindh Employees’ Social Security Institution (SESSI), less than 15% per cent of workers are registered. The factory owners hire contractors that not only provide them with cheap labour but also afford them freedom from all legal hassles regarding the welfare of workers.

The 1973 Constitution of Pakistan also ‘ensures’ the economic and social well-being of the people and prohibits slavery and forced labour as well as allowing the right to form associations or unions. The Constitution also supports the progress of labour legislation for the benefit of the working people. Most of the rights and privileges secured under labour laws are protected under fundamental rights. Interestingly, Pakistan is among the countries that have ratified maximum conventions of the ILO. It has ratified 34 conventions including all the Core Labour Standards (CLSs) of the ILO and also the international instruments on the rights of children and the elimination of discrimination against women.

Pakistan’s labour laws go back to British India, though many of them were modified later. The number of labour-related laws (Acts and Ordinances) is more than 73 and there are more than 85 rules and regulations made under this legislation. These laws cover almost all aspects of labour and industry related subjects such as wages, labour environment, labour inspection, control of employment, rehabilitation of disabled persons, social security, social protection and workers’ welfare.

Most of these laws are complex and overlap in scope and content, besides providing coverage and protection to the workforce engaged in formal economic activities.

As many as 16 government departments, including Labour, Industry, Environment, Civil Defence as well as local governments, are involved in the implementation of these laws.

The overwhelming majority of officials of the departments catering to different aspects of labour regulations are corrupt and incapable. Most of them are not even aware of the basic issues and laws. 90% of workers do not have appointment letters because they are not registered as workers. Ironically, more than 90 per cent of industry is not registered under the Factories Act, which means the government departments do not even have a basic database on the concentration of industry in different parts of the country, let alone labour.

According to official estimates, Pakistan’s total workforce exceeds 57 million but only 2.1 million of them are registered with provincial social security departments. The amount of registered labour in Punjab is just 745,000 while in Sindh it is 600,000.

One major reason on the non-compliance with labour laws in factories is the absence of labour inspection. Both Sindh and Punjab banned labour inspection completely during the Musharraf regime, It is interesting to note that Pakistan ratified the ILO Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81) in 1953. Under this convention, the government 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.

Although Punjab has restarted labour inspection after a recent fire in a factory which claimed 28 lives, very little progress has been made on the issue so far. In all these years, even Civil Defence officials were barred from entering factories. Factories in Pakistan have become death traps more than workplaces, and labour is treated more like slaves!

Most factories lack basic facilities like drinking water, washrooms, fire extinguishers, first-aid kits, let alone emergency exits! The Factories Act 1934 is applicable to all factories where 10 or more persons are employed. The law has clear provisions on the inspection of factories, health and safety measures, restriction of working hours for adults, holidays with pay and penalties for violation of clauses of the Act. Both factories – in Karachi and Lahore – where fires broke out recently were not registered under this Act. In the Karachi factory, the majority of the workers were working on a third-party contract and none of them had an appointment letter. No worker was registered with the Employees’ Old-age Benefit Institute (EOBI) and the Workers’ Welfare Board/Fund. In Lahore, the factory had been set up in a building meant for residential purposes.

“Earlier this year, a joint committee of different government departments was set up to find out about illegal and hazardous factories in residential areas of the city,” said a high official of Punjab government, on condition of anonymity. “That the committee never met more than twice this year shows the ‘serious’ attitude of the government towards the implementation of laws related to labour and industry.”

He further says: “There are more than 3,000 such factories in different areas of Lahore. More than 50,000 labourers work in these factories. The district government has tried several times to relocate these factories outside the city but the owners, having close links with politically influential people, sabotaged all such efforts.”

According to the Pakistan Labour and Human Resource Statistics, the number of industrial accidents increased from 354 to 419 during 2000 to 2008. In the year 2011 alone, the reported number of fatal accidents went up to 101.

A labour officer based in Lahore says it is true that labour inspection of the factories has started only recently, but still the inspectors have not been given the powers to prosecute the owner on illegal practices. So the effectiveness of labour inspection is yet to be seen. “We have only 13 labour inspectors and 16 labour officers in Lahore. The government does not provide official transportation or conveyance allowance to them. None of us is given job training.”

Capitalist greed and corruption

The actual question this harrowing incident poses is can the capitalists sustain the rates of profits they are extracting from the workers by imparting liveable wages, pensions, health benefits, proper safety conditions such as fire proofing the shop floors, building a modern infrastructure for industrial production and decent conditions of work? The answer is a big no!

To attain their rates of profits they had to exploit labour to the level of drudgery. But even that was not enough, they had to steal the resources, evade taxes and plunder the state to fulfil their insatiable lust for money. The state in return became a beneficiary of all this extortion and involved itself in business. It is not an accident that the subsidiary of the Pakistan army is the largest entrepreneur with an investment of $27 billion in the economy. And this is just the formal economy which is only about two thirds of Pakistan’s total economy. Even the lowest tiers of the state indulged in this orgy of bribery and corruption of this system. Hence, to blame the inspectors of industrial safety, police and other departments of negligence in reality is a cynical farce to absolve the top criminal elite and a system based on corruption. These lower ranks of state officials cannot survive if they try to be ‘honest’. The method of individual blame is to conceal the bigger picture. Concentrating on a single tree can hide the forest.

Fires in factories are a common occurrence and it is well established that they happen because the owners want to hide their wrongdoings and illegal acts. They are quick to claim insurance for the loss of their properties and it can be no coincidence that the owners of the Karachi factory have done so on two previous occasions. Huge amounts of compensation were paid out to them. The surviving workers allege that, on this occasion again, the owners tried to completely destroy the material stock and records by closing off all access to the factory. Again, they hope to obtain huge amounts of compensation. However, on this occasion things went out of control and there was terrible loss of human life.

The fires are a sad indictment of the state, which has blatantly failed in its duty to ensure safe working environments for the workers. The government has turned a blind eye to the repeated demands of the trade unions to upgrade safety and security in the factories while the factory owners and captains of industry live a life of luxury at the expense and lives of their workers.

In the garment factory when the fire broke, workers tried to rush out through the windows because there were no safety measures taken in the building design. There was no emergency exit. All the people got trapped and a large number of workers died from suffocation.

These horrific slave-like conditions are created by the rotten capitalist system. Workers will be forced to continue working under these conditions until the working class overthrows this rotten and repressive system through united struggle. Workers and youth have no other option but to fight against this corrupt and parasitic system of greed. The beginning of the formation of new trade unions and workers’ committees in all the workplaces is the need of the hour. The struggle for workers’ rights, decent wages and better working conditions is linked with the struggle to overthrow the capitalist system and to replace it with socialism.

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