For a couple of hours, it looked like a giant, fiery red salamander was stranded along the streets leading to Civic Centre, the headquarters for the city government. On closer inspection, however, it turned out that over a hundred employees of the city’s fire department, were sitting on top of fire trucks, to protest outside the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC) offices.
“We ask for our salaries to be paid on time, including withheld overtime allowances, as well as new uniforms and better healthcare options,” said one of the protesting firemen, Muhammad Nisar.
The firemen’s protest comes at a time when other city employees, such as the staff at KMC-controlled hospitals, including those at Abbasi Shaheed, are also making similar demands.
Karachi Administrator Muhammad Hussain Syed ridiculed this latest protest, which he said was not based on the ground realities. “Availability of funds is not a problem for us,” he said. “We have the money to pay salaries, but officials at these departments don’t have a clue about their jobs. How can we promptly pay salaries if these officials don’t send the bills on time?”
In the first place, he claimed, that many of the firemen did not deserve overtime allowances in the first place. “A fireman taking leave to go out of the city to see his mother does not deserve an overtime allowance.”
Firemen, unlike workers at other government departments, work 12-hour shifts, instead of the customary eight-hour ones, thus making them eligible for four hours of overtime.
There are 1,500 firefighters deputed across 22 fire stations in Karachi, who are supposed to manage 55 fire tenders. The average salary of a fireman is around Rs15,000. According to officials, the city currently owes the group a collective sum of over Rs50 million.
But problems facing the fire department have not arisen overnight; tempers have been boiling at the department for the past few years. Muhammad Fazal, a retired fire truck driver, lamented, “Every time I go to my bank, the teller tells me that no pension has been deposited into my account yet.”
Feroze Khan, a fire fighter, was proud of his colleagues, who, he said, could not dream of abandoning their duty, regardless of how they were being treated by the city administration. “We do not have protective uniforms or any other accessories. But each one of us is still willing to be the first to jump into a burning building.” He said that firemen get only Rs50 as risk allowance every month. “This is what we get for risking our lives.” The protest ended after the firefighters had a meeting with KMC officials, who assured them that their grievances would be addressed.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 15th, 2012.
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