Pakistani industrialists, mostly in the small and medium enterprises sector, usually do not give intense consideration to issues of occupational safety of workers, as well as the working place. This reflects a myopic approach that substantially puts the working environment in a damaging position. Moreover, the lack of proper layout of machinery, work stations and movement of logistics has created a difficult situation in the operations of industrial units. The Baldia Town inferno at SITE is a disturbing manifestation of what has been stated above.
Although the responsibility lies with the management of the factory, it is pertinent to mention that this particular unit was a victim of goods pilferage by workers, of threats by extortionists and the reliance on overtime due to time constraints (primarily due to power and gas shortages and frequent days off).
However, this does not absolve the factory management from all responsibility. A professional security expert should have planned a workable security system that should have been exclusive for that unit. Unfortunately, industrialists tend to ignore such investments and also tend to cut corners in achieving their production targets.
Karachi has seven industrial estates where about 10,000 industries are based. Moreover, there are at least 50,000 cottage and small industries in the informal sector that are based in residential areas. Many factories are like cauldrons waiting for their contents to overflow. It is also important to state that corruption, lax conformation of safety rules and regulations, ill-planned units, usage of shoddy material, etc. are prime reasons for such incidents.
The government agencies, whose role is to inspect industrial units, advise on the conditionalities of the rules, regulations, and statutory laws, and ensure strict compliance of the same have used these to pressure industrialists. The civil defence officials are least concerned with the fire safety measures and equipment installed in industries and, instead, are more keen to promote the sales of such equipment peddled by their own companies or supplied by companies that offer commissions to these officers. The labour inspectors usually sit in the director’s room, insert casual ‘warnings’ over innocuous violations, have tea and biscuits, collect their pound of flesh and vanish to prey on the next victim. The officials of SITE Ltd suffer from the ‘money makes the world go round’ syndrome. Every task here has a prescribed ‘price’. One has to pay to carry out every legal and not-so-legal activity.
The calamity may have a negative impact on Pakistan’s image in the global export market. There would be clarion calls from Western buyers for an immediate revisit of safety systems in industrial units that supply goods to them. Damage control measures are required on the part of the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan, the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry and from the prime minister so that this incident does not hurt our exports. Business associations and community-based organisations must create a fund to address the needs of the families of the over 300 victims. Citizens and workers have to play a decisive role in ensuring that sanity prevails in workplaces. Everyone is equally responsible.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2012.
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