Mehran Town: the cost of negligence

September 5, 2021

At least 16 factory workers died after being trapped in a multi-storey chemicals factory on August 27

Mehran Town: the cost of negligence

A massive blaze in a multi-storey chemicals factory killed 16 workers in Mehran Town, Karachi on August 27. The fire broke out due to a short circuit at the ground floor of the BM Luggage Industries. The factory was being run illegally on a residential plot.

More than 20 workers were in the compound when a highly flammable chemical caught fire. The fire spread had soon spread to the entire building.

At least 16 workers were trapped in the building and couldn’t find a way out, as exits and windows had been closed using iron bars. The gates leading to the roof were also locked.

“The factory had only one entry point, which was also being used as an exit. The exit to the roof was blocked. This hampered the rescue efforts,” Mubeen Ahmed, chief fire officer of the Fire Department said.

Sindh has passed several progressive labour laws in the last few years. The fire is a sharp reminder that without implementation, protective laws are useless.

Afzal, who narrowly escaped the deadly fire and lost his three brothers in the blaze, said, “I escaped the fire only because I had gone downstairs to fetch tea for some colleagues when I heard screams for help from upstairs. I dropped everything to rush back upstairs, but there was no way I could do that. The fire spread within seconds. It had entirely engulfed the stairs.”

Despite government policies on health and safety, many factories fail to maintain a safe working environment. Many don’t provide personal protective equipment to the workers. The violation of occupational safety and health laws is a reflection on the failure of the provincial government and its Labour Department.

The workers exposed to the hazardous and flammable materials had not received the mandatory occupational safety and health training.

Pakistan has ratified 36 global conventions under the International Labour Organisatrion (ILO) including conventions on decent work and occupational safety and health.

The ILO conventions guarantee labour rights including occupational safety and health but implementation of the conventions has been inconsistent. Massive corruption in the Labour Department is an important barrier in the implementation of the national and international labour standards.

Sindh has passed several progressive labour laws in the last few years but the recent fire incident is a sharp reminder that without enforcement, protective laws are useless.

Theoretically, workers have the right to know about the hazards at their workplace and to be trained in how they can protect themselves from potential accidents.

The horrific fire at the Ali Enterprise garments factory in Baldia in 2012 was the worst ever incident of a factory fire in the world and a national wakeup call on workplace safety standards. Nine years later, the BM Luggage fire is a powerful reminder of the importance of policies to protect workers and enforcement of international labour standards.

Despite the new safety precautions and policies on the statute, factory owners and corporations have found ways to maximise their profits at the cost of workers.

The violators need to be held accountable for the safety and security of all workers. Nasir Mansoor, the National Trade Union Federation secretary, says: “If lessons had been learnt from the Baldia Factory fire incident in 2012, maybe this incident would not have happened. The authorities handled the Baldia factory case politically and deliberately overlooked the corruption and incompetence in government departments.”

Farhat Parveen, a labour leader and director of NOW communities, says: “Pakistan has ratified many ILO conventions that guarantee various labour rights but many conventions related to work involving chemicals, fire and safety still need to be ratified.

She says enforcement remains a challenge for the provincial government. Mehran Town factory fire is a wakeup call for the government. It is a cause of concern for all citizens that a factory was being run on a residential plot. Hardly surprising as the Sindh Building Control Authority is considered by many to be one of the most corrupt departments. Meanwhile, the labour inspection process has been eroded so that Labour Department officers are getting salaries from the government but serving the industrialists.

The unofficial ban on factory inspections slapped by the Zia martial law is still there despite the passage of 45 years, in spite of the fact that under the Factory Act 1934 the inspectors have to submit inspection reports on every factory.

The Sindh Health and Safety Act was passed in the year 2016, but enforcement has been lacking. The council established under this law has yet to be convened. The Labour Department secretary is the chairman of the council by virtue of his office.

The writer is a   freelance journalist

Mehran Town: the cost of negligence