“Sometimes it takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster.”— Jim Wallis
People matter in Pakistan only during polls or when they are killed in hundreds. On September 11, the death of 300 workers in Lahore and Karachi shook the country. Even those who had never mentioned a single word about the well-being of toiling workers are now trying to champion their cause. But soon, they will forget all that they have said. They will instead shelter those who are responsible for such tragedies. How many factory owners belong to ruling parties and how many political parties are controlled by industrialists, who not only violate labour laws but also safety and hygiene standards? They blatantly violate rights of the workers who generate profits for them. They neither allow independent unions to function in their factories, nor do they fulfill their legal duty on their own. I have had personal experience of working with the Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM), which has been fighting for the rights of powerloom workers in Faisalabad, Jhang and Toba Tek Singh since 2003. Most factories in these areas have poor safety and hygiene standards. In the last two months, 25 workers were reportedly electrocuted to death in these areas.
Despite the LQM’s campaigns, most factory owners refused to improve working conditions in their factories. They were not willing to issue social security cards to workers and old age benefit contribution to the Employees’ Old-Age Benefit Institute (EOBI). When the LQM built pressure on them, the Punjab government formed Industrial Police Liaison Committees in Faisalabad in order to scare-off workers. Since then, the unholy nexus of the police and industrialists has become very strong. On minor demands, workers are put in lock-ups and charged under anti-terrorism laws. Currently, seven LQM members are serving a combined sentence of 492 years under the anti-terrorism laws. They did not kill anyone.
Will the factory owners, criminal negligence on whose part has killed 300 innocent workers, be punished? Will the Punjab and Sindh governments be willing to lift the ban on factory inspections? Will the labour departments and labour unions be made members of the provincial and district disaster management committees? Will the provincial governments empower labour departments to punish those factory owners who fail to provide safety and hygiene to their workers? Will the governments punish those factory owners who refuse to pay the EOBI contribution and issue social security cards? I have no reason to be optimistic unless workers are considered stakeholders in our industrial and labour policies and in the affairs of factories. This is not possible as long as industrialists themselves rule the country.
Reading the National Disaster Management Framework reveals serious gaps. Interestingly, the tourism department is a member of its various committees but not the labour department. Labour unions or kissan committees are not even mentioned once as stakeholders in the whole framework. The framework is heavily reliant on local councils for both disaster risk reduction and relief distribution, but they have not existed since 2008, as all ruling parties refused to hold local council elections. The political elite knows very well that local councils will distribute power to the people and as a result, its control will be weakened.
Moreover, there appears a complete disconnect between this framework and provincial governments’ approach towards disaster management. While the National Disaster Management Auhtority’s mission statement strives to manage disasters “by adopting a disaster risk reduction perspective”, the provincial governments appear to be more interested in relief and response measures as this allows them to dole out favours to their clients in their constituencies in case of emergencies.
Three consecutive water-related calamities and two simultaneously occurring industrial disasters must be enough to shake the system and the mindset of the ruling elite. Unfortunately, its class interest prevents it from learning any lesson. Karl Marx’s quote explains this mockery: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Our farce today is a result of a social disaster, whereby the people have been marginalised to the extent that they cannot dare to talk about their miseries. As the next general elections are approaching fast, the electorate has an opportunity to convert it into an electoral disaster for the unscrupulous elite.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2012.