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October 3, 2017

Workers in danger

Editorial

 
October 3, 2017

Workplace safety has remained a low priority across Pakistan despite the occurrence of major industrial accidents every year, the most brutal being the Baldia Town factory fire in Karachi in 2012. Activists and workers had hoped that the death of over 250 workers in a single incident would be the moment when the government makes the pledge: never again! The facts on the ground remained different. The incident occurred at a time when industrial inspections had been effectively stopped for around a decade. However terrible the labour department may be perceived to be, the drastic increase in the number and seriousness of industrial accidents has increased since inspections were halted. Over a hundred workers were killed in both the Gadani ship-breaking yard and the Sundar Estate factory collapse in Lahore. These were further wake-up calls for authorities who could have chosen to declare public and open labour inspections throughout the country as a response to fact that the next big industrial disaster always appears a matter of when, not if. Such wake-up calls are served every other day, but no one seems to be listening. In the last few weeks, there were four industrial mishaps in Karachi alone in which four workers died. Three of the incidents were fire-related while one involved three workers falling to their death into a fish-processing tank. Over a dozen workers have been killed in accidents since September.

The fish tank incident is particularly gruesome as once again workers had been working on a tight deadline with the required equipment to conduct their work simply not working. Here, there is a need for legal reform. If any workers suffer injuries or die in the workplace in the absence of basic safety equipment, criminal liability should be imposed on the factory owners. Without the threat of jail time and heavy fines, there is little chance that change will initiated by the owners. The irony of the lack of fireproofing is that it is factory owners themselves who share in the losses incurred. The recent incidents are not an anomaly. Similar numbers could be obtained from any other week about the number of industrial accidents. Workers at the Gadani ship-breaking yard still report that at least one worker suffers serious injuries every day. The most underreported part of worker injuries is in the agrarian sector where at least 48 percent of workers are exposed to occupational injury or disease each year. Almost 16 percent of the industrial workers in the country also remain at risk of accidents. Many promises have been made to strengthen labour inspections in Pakistan – but this is not an issue that can be tackled without a public campaign led by the highest officials in the country.