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November 16, 2016

Unnamed, unsung, invisible


November 16, 2016


You lock them up inside the factory where they work and then burn them down alive. They are in hundreds – women, men and young people. Scores of them get trapped in a burning ship after a huge blast rips through that ship full of oil and inflammables. Their bodies get charred beyond identification, some of them even being completely dissolved perhaps in that fire that rages for at least four days.

These were two major accidents of scandalous proportions in recent times, one an example of deliberate criminality and the other of criminal negligence.

But they die regularly when walls, roofs and semi-finished building structures collapse upon them due to substandard construction material or incorrect technical designs used by builders and contractors. Even if that is not the case, they simply die due to a complete lack of safety and extremely hazardous working conditions in fields, factories, workshops and on building sites.

If they die alone or in small numbers, they make no news. They die when loading or unloading crop harvests. They die when tractor trolleys go astray in the middle of foggy nights on farm-to-market or intercity roads. They die due to electric shocks when they have no choice but to get exposed to bare wires during their work. They die when mines collapse. They get swept away with their animals and belongings every other year by flooding waters.

Who are they? They are the working class of Pakistan, farmers, factory workers on assembly lines, mechanics and turners, weavers and tailors, loaders and unloaders, skilled and unskilled labour of various types, miners and stone crushers, masons and construction workers, brick kiln workers and cart pullers, etc. Those women and men who were burnt alive or died of suffocation in the Baldia Town textile factory fire in Karachi in 2012 left behind not only many to mourn their deaths but thousands to suffer in poverty. The men who have been burnt in the ship in Gaddani, which is near Karachi but a part of Balochistan, have parents and siblings, wives and children, whom they provided for.

There is a tradition that some financial compensation is offered by the powers that be to the survivors of those who are killed in large numbers collectively. However, this compensation for a worker’s life never ever equals the amount of money spent on one small evening party thrown in one of the affluent neighbourhoods of metropolitan Pakistan every day.

But if you are a worker and you die alone or with only a few of your colleagues in an industrial or building accident, the maximum your survivors get will make them pay for your funeral and for the food to be served with the prayers for your departed soul on the third day of your death. That money is usually given by the immediate employer, as benevolent as he can get. The other blessing can be that your job is offered to your brother, son or nephew in case you are a man or your sister, daughter or niece if you are a woman – instead of the employer hiring someone who is not from your kin.

Most, if not all, of these accidents are preventable. And, as said above, some are not accidents in the first place but deliberate acts of violence against workers. Our laws, by-laws, regulations and standards are not up to the mark. A lot more is needed for better industrial relations as well as workers’ rights. Nevertheless, regulations, basic safety standards, mandatory minimum wage, the Employees Old Age Benefit Scheme etc all exist on paper. There is no denying that some employers, international and national, pay heed to the laws of the land besides providing some health and life coverage. But an overwhelming majority of our workers and peasants have no care or coverage from any accidents, hazards, man-made disasters or natural calamities.

They live a life without enough food, without basic healthcare, without proper education, without safety and security, without any capital or assets and, above all, without dignity. When they die, they die without being noticed. Even if a major industrial accident in Karachi or Lahore or Gaddani or Peshawar makes news, and the media covers the collective tragedy for a couple of days, there is no individual worker who is ever mourned. There are no tweets or Facebook status updates about the man or a woman who has died. There is no memorial reference organised. There is no obituary published.

Why? Simply because those belonging to the affluent or the middle class wouldn’t know any one of them personally as we live in a completely class-based society. There is a one in a million chance that we know someone personally because the gentleman or lady had worked for us at some point. But the sociology of the two classes in question is so distinctly dissimilar that none of the commemorative gestures made by one have any meaning for the other. The raging flames from the burning oil in Gadani melted the faces of the workers.

The workers of Pakistan remain faceless in their lives and faceless in their deaths. They occupy little space in the imagination of the elite or the intelligentsia or the middle-class dominated media or civil society.

As far as the state is concerned, even if there is this official recognition of a life lost, there is no real recognition of the grief it caused or the social and economic repercussion it will have on those left behind. The elite-captured state does not decorate the fallen worker with medallions or present shields to the family. They silently pass into oblivion.

Let me now come to those who are at least decorated or recognised, their dead bodies are wrapped in the national flag and their families are saluted for having produced martyrs. The seven men we lost to Indian firing earlier this week were young, energetic, dynamic and full of life. They were sepoys, havaldars and lance naiks – all foot soldiers who are in the frontline to take the brunt of any bullets or cannonballs fired.

Our media and commentators, politicians and military officers, will continue to congratulate their old mothers and young widows, aggrieved brothers and crying sisters, clueless children and quiet fathers. Their families will be slightly better off in financial terms, perhaps because the military will take care of them to an extent but they will remain disadvantaged and marginalised in the longer run. Officers sacrifice their lives as well but both their pictures and the pain of their families are shared in the public space for long and their deaths are mourned. But a soldier’s martyrdom disappears in the evening mist of the graveyard of his village in Chakwal or Mardan.

There is no strong political platform in Pakistan today that sufficiently understands the world around us and is able to manoeuvre space for us within an increasingly unjust and exclusive global political economy and its imperatives for a developing country like Pakistan. There are small political entities on the sidelines whose positions need to be appreciated and supported but there is no singular mainstream political party in Pakistan that offers a viable economic alternative, proposes a new social order and can negotiate between growth and redistribution, infrastructure development and social service provision.

Above all, at a personal level among the majority of the affluent, there is stark insensitivity towards the weak and the dispossessed. I do not want to be confused with the ideas of self-serving maverick politicians who are as much a part of the system as those they challenge when I say that the whole economic, social and political order prevalent today will come to a violent end if politics and society in Pakistan are unable to include the working classes and common people.

The laws of nature do not change for a single country or society. It was Hazrat Ali who said that a Godless state can survive and flourish but a cruel state can never.

The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]