Ameer Nawab, who has just resigned from his post as Sindh labour minister, has said that Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah had stopped him from taking action against factories violating labour rules.
This point was corroborated by Sharafat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, an organisation that works for labour rights. He alleged on Wednesday that the CM had verbally issued directives to government officials to stop the inspections of factories in Sindh.
It appears that Sindh was following in Punjab’s footsteps. In 2003, the Punjab government banned labour inspections, following which the Sindh CM did the same.
Ameer Nawab says he was told to drop cases. He told The Express Tribune that officials from his department had raided some areas in Karachi and registered cases against a few factories, which were not registered with the labour department. Action was taken against the factories after a number of complaints were received that they were violating the labour law.
But he was told to withdraw the cases. “We tried to persuade the CM that the cases have been referred to court, and cannot be withdrawn,” he said, adding that the CM expressed his anger over the operation. “Since then we stopped the inspections. How can we continue with them when the chief executive of a province asks us to stop an inquiry and withdraw the cases?” Before Musharraf came to power, factories were supposed to be inspected once a year. During chief minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim’s time under the Musharraf set-up, the rule was that before an inspection, labour officials had to serve an employer one month’s notice about when they would be coming. “This refutes the actual purpose of an inspection,” Nawab said. He had asked CM Qaim Ali Shah to revisit the cabinet’s decision but nothing happened.
Piler’s Sharafat Ali had a similar story to tell. He told The Express Tribune that a former deputy director of the labour department, who was also in charge of the health and safety department with the government of Sindh, had raided a factory in SITE soon after the PPP government came to power. He said that the officials not only fined the factory owner, but in a detailed inquiry report held the factory employer responsible for violating labour laws.
Ali alleged that since the factory owner was influential, the CM’s adviser, Zubair Motiwala, not only got involved in the matter but had the case transferred from an honest official and declared the investigation report “null and void”.
“Soon after the incident, the chief minister issued a verbal order directing officials to suspend the inspection of factories in the province,” Piler’s Ali alleged. At that time, trade union leaders had fought back and brought the issue up with Labour Minister Ameer Nawab. Nothing happened.
For his part, adviser Motiwala has disputed this information and said that he had never ever helped any employer violate labour laws. “I accept that the rules are not properly implemented, but it is totally wrong to say that the chief minister had issued verbal orders to suspend the inspection of factories and that I helped a factory owner,” he said. He added that there was rampant corruption in the labour department, which has dented its performance and inspections are not conducted properly.
Regardless of these cases, trade unionists and labour rights defenders held the state responsible for the loss of lives in the factories of Karachi and Lahore. Speaking at a press conference at the Karachi Press Club on Wednesday, Noor Muhammad of the Pakistan Workers Confederation said that the entire state, including the government, its departments, policymakers and all those concerned with the enforcement of labour laws were responsible for the deaths of the labourers.
“The state and its machinery is responsible because they silently allow the violation of laws and regulations established to ensure health and safety at work,” said Muhammad.
The National Trade Union Federation held a protest outside the press club and demanded Rs700,000 for those who died in the fire and Rs300,000 for the injured.
“If inspections are allowed in jails where people serve time for their crimes then why is this right denied to labourers who strive to earn by lawful means?” asked Ayub Qureshi of the Pakistan Trade Union Federation. “Industrialists and entrepreneurs have been allowed to treat their labourers even worse than animals.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 13th, 2012.