Northampton House, an eleven-storey office block where I worked for over 20 years, was built at the end of the 1960s. Ugly but functional, and with some spectacular views out to the River Nene from the upper floors, it has now been converted into luxury flats, and no more local government officers walk its corridors – or descend the fire-escape.
Most Mondays there would be a fire-drill. We would all leave our desks and hurry, but not rush, down the stairs. Every floor had fire wardens whose job it was to make sure the evacuation proceeded smoothly. Occasionally, there were unannounced practice drills when we descended more quickly than usual, unsure if it was for real or a practice; and we never had to evacuate as a result of an actual fire.
Karachi, September 2012: a building I sometimes work from when in town. Having lived here almost as long as I worked in Northampton House, I have come to expect wildly differing standards when it comes to little things like health and safety at work. Thus I notice that there are no fire extinguishers, nor fire hoses, nor signage in any language directing me to an emergency exit. I have never heard of there being a practice evacuation, and frankly wonder how many would die in the panic if there ever was. In the event of a major fire on the lower floors, the chances of getting out from above the fire would be slim. A lot of people could die.
This is not atypical of multi-storey office buildings that I have visited or worked in. Fire exits, where they exist, are routinely blocked or locked and chained. There is no firefighting equipment to tackle a small fire and perhaps prevent a larger one. Employees are not briefed on appointment as to emergency procedures. This is an entire nation of very nasty accidents waiting to happen – which they do with numbing frequency.
Despite the above, there are exceptions, the interesting point being that the majority of the exceptions are to be found in the offices of multi-nationals that are headquartered outside the country but bring their global health and safety practices here. I discovered this in a completely unscientific poll of my Facebook friends in Pakistan, who gave me a snapshot that spoke of local businesses and government departments that had scant regard for the lives of their employees. Juxtaposed to this were reports by those who worked for foreign banks or international NGOs, most of which had a developed culture of health and safety in the workplace and actively promoted employee safety.
Many of the deaths in the fires in Karachi and Lahore last week were probably avoidable. Not all of them admittedly, but more should have survived than did. But life is cheap in Pakistan. In a disposable throwaway culture, people are no less disposable than industrial waste or domestic garbage. There are always going to be more people to fill the jobs of those recently deceased; and there are regiments of people looking the other way when they are supposed to be monitoring factories and offices across the land. The governments of Sindh and Punjab actually suspended factory inspections, presumably on grounds of political inconvenience.
Almost 300 people died in two fires last week. The real tragedy, aside from the purely personal, is that nothing – nothing whatsoever – is going to change as a result. There will be a powerless committee of enquiry, endless finger pointing and in the end a ringing silence – a silence that will again be broken by the screams of more hundreds as they claw at barred windows and locked doors.
The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email: email@example.com