At risk: International Workers’ Day no cause for celebration

Marble workers in Pindi continue to work in deplorable conditions

There is also no concept of using safety gloves near chemicals and cutting equipment. PHOTOS: SHAZIA MEHBOOB/EXPRESS

RAWALPINDI: Dust-coated faces of hundreds of labourers busy crafting marble pieces at workshops in Rawalpindi criticize government labour sector reforms and International Labour Organisation assertions of descent work environment on International Labour Day.

Labourers work at these workshops, spread over both sides of a road in Rawalpindi’s Westridge area, is known as the glass factory area. They use mere handkerchiefs to cover their mouths from dust particles while crafting marble, and do not have protection and safety equipment recommended by the ILO. The only safety equipment they use is a pair of long shoes.

There is no concept of uniforms and safety equipment for workers in this profession. Labourers at these workshops are themselves responsible to clean their equipment, which they do just once a week. There is also no concept of using safety gloves near chemicals and cutting equipment. In addition, they eat in these contaminated surroundings, often from vendors set up around this polluted area.

The repercussion of this hazardous environment has become visible in term of their declining health. Mubarak Ali*, 30, is one such worker. Ali has been hospitalised twice due to asthma-related problems since joining one of these workshops some 13 years ago. “I wasn’t an asthmatic patient before,” Ali said.

He is considered a ‘skilled worker’, yet his salary is Rs12,000 per month, equal to the minimum wage for unskilled labour. Ali said his asthma treatment is a major drain on his income, and often has to borrow money from his brother and relatives to make ends meet. Ali said he has no other option but to continue working in this hazardous environment.

Conditions of unskilled workers is worse, as they are often paid Rs6,000 a month. Imtiaz*, a 60-year-old tea boy, is among these workers.

Another perspective

“Our workers are provided with all necessary safety equipment, but they don’t use them,” said All Pakistan Marble Industry Association Zonal Committee Secretary Muhammad Arif. He said whenever they advise workers to wear masks, they refuse claiming it causes them an inconvenience while working.

He said the marble industry is already paying a heavy amount in terms of taxes, as well as educating labourers about their safety. He said making separate arrangements to make labourers aware is not possible for them. He added that a skilled worker’s package is Rs25,000 to Rs30,000 a month, in addition to overtime. He also said unskilled workers should be paid a stipulated range of Rs12,000 to Rs15,000 a month.

He said all labourers are registered with the Punjab Social Security Health Management Company, and in case of any health-related problems they are entitled to free treatment.

Official stats, rules

According to the LIO, a worker dies from a work-related accident or disease every 15 seconds. Around 6,300 people die as a result of occupational accidents ever day, and more than 2.3 million a year. The Factories Act, 1934, entails health and safety standards such as precautions against dangerous fumes, disposal of wastes, ventilation, clean drinking water, latrines, precautions against contagious or infectious disease, compulsory vaccination and inoculation, canteens and welfare officers.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2016.