Workplace Safety

Published in Dawn on January 12, 2016

‘Let the sky fall, when it crumbles, we will stand tall and face it all together.’ — Skyfall, Adele

Natural disasters aside, white-collar workers can’t even imagine the sky falling down on us, literally, while we are at work. Neither can they imagine what happens in that flicker of a second, and thereafter, to the body and soul of the workers on whom the roof crumbles as they toil for a pittance, or to the families when their dear ones die or are injured. ‘Standing tall and facing it all together’ seemingly is not in our collective ethos. Hence, incidents of factory collapse hardly make a ripple in the power corridor or in society’s consciousness.

In recent months, there has been a string of factory roof collapses: on Jan 6, the roof of a ceramic factory in Gujranwala, Sheikhu­pura Road, collapsed after the boiler exploded. The incident killed five workers and injured 60. In November 2015, a four storey building collapsed in Lahore’s Sunder Industrial Estate killing 46 and injuring over 100 workers; in September 2015, seven workers were killed and 30 injured when a factory caved in after a boiler explosion in Khakar Mandi, Gujranwala.

These industrial disasters, including the 2012 Baldia factory fire in Karachi, that caused the deaths of 258 workers, should have compelled the state to overhaul the country’s occupational safety and health system and related laws, ensuring strict implementation in each and every workplace. Instead, nothing much has happened on the ground commensurate with the magnitude of the issue.

The accidents reveal grave violations of building rules and of machinery and equipment standards. Boiler explosions are caused due to defects in design, bad workmanship, and deterioration from use or mismanagement. The danger of this equipment, if not properly maintained, is well known. In developed countries, there are separate national boards, or statutory bodies for oversight of boilers and pressure vessels in industrial establishments. The data on industrial accidents in Pakistan, gathered through media coverage, indicate that boiler explosions top the list. Yet the authorities fail to take any notice of the situation.

According to the latest data, there are 327,706 factories, shops and establishments in the country and only 547 labour inspectors. These numbers indicate an almost total lack of inspection of workplaces. Pakistan ratified the ILO Labour Inspection Conven­tion way back in 1953 and committed to place labour inspection under “… the supervision and control of a central [federal] authority”. It has been 62 years since the state ratified this convention but it did not create a central authority. This establishes that the government’s ratification of international covenants, treaties and conventions means nothing except to serve as a face-saving tactic in front of the international community.

Even after the passage of the 18th Amendment and devolution of labour, the federal government cannot be absolved of its responsibility for putting in place a unified, national legislative framework on labour. For now, it requires two or more provincial parliaments to request the federal government to come up with a federal authority for labour inspection, or a uniform law on any matter, for all the four provinces. The province of Punjab, playing the big brother, must take the lead. For the provincial parliaments, it is a doable thing if parliamentarians understand the gravity of the issue and accord it top priority.

Labour inspection relating to physical infrastructure, machinery and equipment, and working environment is covered under the Factories Act, 1934, Shops and Estab­lishments Ordinance, 1969 and the Mines Act, 1923. Inspection of other matters is mandated under other labour laws. In an unwise move favouring industrialists, labour inspection was halted in 2003 in Punjab. Sadly, Sindh followed suit through a notification. The step wreaked havoc on an already weak inspection system, not only in Punjab but also in Sindh. Though labour inspection was revived in 2012 by the Punjab government, the power of labour inspectors was curtailed.

After the Baldia factory fire, the Sindh labour department, with assistance from ILO-Pakistan, devised a Joint Action Plan for Promoting Workplace Safety and Health in Sindh (2013-2016). The government has not shared the ‘achievements’ of the plan with the stakeholders. In September 2015, the Sindh government announced it had prepared the draft Health and Safety Act 2015 and forwarded it to the Law and Justice Commission for assessment. The draft Sindh Health and Safety Policy 2015 was also mentioned. But the drafts have not been shared with the stakeholders so far and neither is there any follow-up.

According to the ILO “every worker has the right to return from work unharmed every day”. It is high time the state ensures this fundamental human right.

View the link on Dawn‘s website:

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