The fire at Ali Enterprises in Karachi, one of the worst ever industrial accidents in Pakistan that led tothe death of more than 350 workers on 11 September 2012 along with the other accident on the same day in asimilar garment factory in Lahore has brought into focus the critical issue of lack of workplace safety. This horrific incident shows the complete lack of safety regulation even in the organised manufacturing sector for which both the employer and government must be held criminally culpable.
The fire at Ali Enterprises, a five-storey garment factory located in Sindh Industrial Trading Estate (SITE), at Karachi’s prestigious industrial area which is home to several global firms, killed more than 289 workers while the one in the shoe factory in Lahore claimed lives of more than 25 workers. Most of these workers were unable to escape due to inadequate access and the complete lack of emergency and fire exits. The building flouted all fire-safety norms and hence workers died due to asphyxiation and burns, unable to leave the building.
The Government is equally criminally liable for this negligence as the employer as it allowed flouting of all labour legislations and building safety norms.
Pakistan had ratified the ILO Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No 81) in 1953 under which, the government is bound to maintain a system of labour inspection in industrial workplaces. This Convention contains binding legal provisions relating to conditions of work and the protection of workers, including industrial safety and health that is enforceable by labour inspectors. The working conditions in the industry in Punjab worsened after the abolition of labour inspections following an Executive Order issued under the provisions of the Punjab Industrial Policy 2003, which aimed at “developing an industry and business-friendly environment” to attract fresh investment. The routine physical inspection of factories was stopped by the then Provincial Government through an amendment to the Punjab Factories Rules, 1978 which replaced physical inspection of the workplace by labour inspectors with a self-declaration statement by the employers on compliance with labour laws in their units. There is no law to even check or take action against those employers, who do not submit this self-declaration.
NTUI condoles the death of over three hundred workers in the two separate incidents of fire and joins the Pakistani trade unions in their immediate demand for payment compensation of Rs. 50 lakhs to the families of the workers who were killed, and Rs. 20 lakhs to the injured workers and further that the workers should receive their wages until such time as safe and secure production resumes. We also support the demand that the Government hold the employer criminally liable of homicide and take action against the Labour Department and government authorities that failed to ensure the safety and health of these workers.
The NTUI also joins the call for the Ratification of the ILO Convention 155 on Occupational Safety and Health and Convention 187 of Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health by all countries in the sub-continent that have seen several such incidents of fire at workplaces leading to innumerable loss of lives. Factory fires have alone claimed hundreds of lives in factories in India, Bangladesh, and now Pakistan in recent years – many of which are in the garment industry that are part of the global supply chain. This is not coincidental but is closely linked to the nature of the supply chain of this industry wherein capital is continually searching for areas of low labour costs for shifting production in order to keep the profit margins soaring. Hence lax implementation of even basic labour laws is critical for location of industry.
Trade unions across the subcontinent must come together to ensure that governments in South Asia arrive at a common minimum framework for labour laws including industrial safety and wages so as to prevent the movement of capital across borders in search of cheap labour and lax regulation.
We stand in solidarity with the call of the National Trade Union Federation for a Black Day on 15 September against the dreadful incident.
We will together build a safe and secure South Asian Work place!
An injury to one is an injury to all!
New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI)
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