Friday May 24, 2024

Mehran Town fire: A reminder of useless laws as they are never implemented

By Zubair Ashraf
August 29, 2021
Mehran Town fire: A reminder of useless laws as they are never implemented

So far, we have known that the BM Luggage Industry, where 17 workers were killed in a blaze on Friday morning, was unregistered, illegally located in a two-storey building in a residential area of Mehran Town, had only one entrance and one exit which was locked — just like the door to the roof that could have been used for escaping the fire.

The windows of the factory had grills of iron rods presumably to prevent theft. The factory produced bags for export.

What we, however, do not know are the numbers of similar workspaces having the risk to meet the same fate and the names of those who have been letting such factories operate against kickbacks. Azkar Ali is a young entrepreneur who has recently set up a knitting factory in an industrial neighbourhood in District Central. In an interview with The News, he said that soon after he registered his business with the Federal Board of Revenue, people from the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency, Employees Old Age Benefits Institution, labour department and other agencies started visiting him, asking for different kinds of registrations and certifications which he did not possess. But then, with the help of a neighbour, he struck a deal with those officials under which they agreed on a monthly amount to be paid by him to keep everything okay.

“The monthly payment may vary depending on the size of the business,” Ali said. “I have a workforce of 20 people and I pay a collective sum of Rs30,000 to keep all the government agencies happy. It’s among the running costs and you better not run away from it or you will be caught in a labyrinth of rules and regulations you had never heard or even thought of.”

Another factory owner, Ahmedur Rehman, who is running a family business of textile export in a different part of the city, said these government officials actually exploit the methods employed by the businesses to avoid taxes and fees. “Usually, the business owners don't share their audit reports with these departments because they want to hide their profits and they don’t put their contractual workers on their employees’ list because otherwise they will have to pay a premium for each one of them. So to prevent these recurring costs, they make under-the-table deals with the agencies.”

Rehman maintained that it was not necessary that these officials would visit you themselves. “They have their front-men for these purposes,” he said, sharing an encounter with a representative of the labour department. “A person came to my factory, holding a visiting card of an officer and said, ‘Sahb, is waiting in his car outside and wants to inspect your factory.’ As a businessperson, I understand that this Sahb should stay outside because once he is inside, he will find numerous reasons for himself to come again and again,” he recalled.

Majyd Aziz, former president of the Employers Federation of Pakistan, called this practice of businesses “penny-wise but pound-foolish”. He said, “The owner of this factory is not going to rehabilitate anytime soon. They lost manpower, machinery, everything, and now they have to face investigations and courts ahead. But the officials who colluded with them and let run such a workspace without any safety should also be held accountable. They come after business owners

like vultures but vanish whenever such an incident occurs.”

Aziz said that the health and safety situation at factories which exported directly under their names was considerably better because of the protocols they have to follow to trade internationally but most of the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) were like ticking time bombs which could play a havoc at any time. “These SMEs usually produce for the local market or serve as an outsource for an exporting company, thus, they don’t care about their international image and on the other hand, the labour department seems less interested in ensuring workers’ safety and is itself understaffed.”

The News contacted Sindh Labour Minister Saeed Ghani for his comments on the alleged corrupt practices of officials of his department but he was not available for comments on account of being ill.

The Sindh government’s secretary for labour and human resources department, Abdul Rasheed Solangi, however, was available for comments. He said that the initial investigation had found that the luggage factory was unregistered. He pledged to take action against any officer of the department found involved in the above-mentioned malpractices. “We have 125 officers, including inspectors, assistant, deputy and joint directors, who are responsible for labour inspection across Sindh but around 10,000 industrial units are registered only in Karachi so definitely, we need to hire more people.”

Former joint director of labour department Gulfam Nabi Memon, who now works as a labour consultant, said that in the case of the BM Luggage Industry, the responsibility lay with the Sindh Building Control Authority which allowed it to operate in a residential area. “This, however, does not mean that the labour department was not at fault in this. Unfortunately, yes, the corruption has spread too deep everywhere and no government agency did their job amicably.”

Nasir Mansoor, the secretary general of the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), lamented that if the state and government had learned a lesson from the 2012 Baldia factory fire, the situation of workers would have become better and perhaps this incident would never have happened. “Shame that the authorities handled the Baldia factory case politically and deliberately overlooked the corruption and incompetence of government departments.”

Mansoor said Pakistan was a signatory of 32 global conventions about decent work and occupational health and safety so there were a plethora of laws, rules and regulations but on the ground, their implementation was zero because of corrupt practices of the government and the employers.

“This system benefits them and to ensure that it does not change, they don’t let workers organise or unionise because once they do that, they will start demanding and campaigning for their due rights,” the NTUF secretary general remarked.

Saad Edhi of the Edhi Foundation, who participated in the rescue operation at the BM Luggage Industry, said he arrived at the factory at around 11am, an hour after the fire broke out but the rescue operation had not been started because an excavator was being awaited to come and break down a wall to make a passage for the rescuers to go inside. “The gate was locked and so was the door to the roof, due to which the workers were trapped to death inside.”

“I wish the factory owners had not grilled the windows to save their four to five thousand rupees because otherwise, the workers could have jumped from the upper floor. They would have suffered some fractures but not lost their lives,” he said, adding that three Edhi volunteers also suffered injuries during the rescue operation and one of them was still under treatment at Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre.