The Baldia Town inferno, described as the most tragic industrial disaster incident in the country, has brought into glaring focus not only a lingering obliviousness to occupational safety but a range of underlying labour right issues. In a tribunal hearing, the owners of the factory have denied allegations of inadequate safety measures and are instead blaming the fire department for being unable to effectively control the flames. The fire department has in turn blamed short-circuiting due to power fluctuations for causing the fire in the first place. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Karachi incident, the Sindh labour minister even pointed a finger at the chief minister of Sindh for preventing action against those factories violating labour rights.
Such blame-shifting is not only confusing but also indicative of the continuing tendency to keep ignoring the underlying causes of problems until they explode into full-scale tragedies.
Merely giving cheques to the distraught families of victims of this gross neglect is not enough to change the ground realities. Unless this issue is recognised and addressed, a repeat of a similar tragedy cannot be discounted. A significant proportion of employers in our country continue to blatantly ignore workplace safety in their preoccupation to cut corners on cost and to maximise profits. One hopes that relevant decision-makers will show a bit more foresight this time and become less willing to entertain the request of industrialists to keep labour inspectors at bay on the pretext that this interferes with their production capabilities. Labour departments around the country, however, also need to demonstrate that they can make labour inspections more effective and less prone to corruption by ignoring the existing violations.
Besides enforcing occupational safety standards in factories, there is also a need to address a range of other infringements, such as the ongoing fudging of employment records by factories to avoid providing social security cards to their workers and prevent making contributions to the Employees’ Old-Age Benefits Institution. At a broader level, it is necessary to rethink how labour conditions can be improved in the unregulated informal sector, which is where the most blatant forms of labour exploitation occur. There are thousands of cottage and small industries in the informal sector, based in congested residential areas, where similar accidents can cause even more damage. It is also in the informal sector where child labour is being used with impunity.
The International Labour Organisation has been quick to urge Pakistan to do more to protect workers’ health and safety and offered its services to provide tokenistic help in this regard. Instead of offering band-aid solutions, this multilateral development agency should aim to reform the global production processes which tacitly encourages contract labour and exploitative working conditions such as sweatshops and labour rights infringements across the developing world, not only in Pakistan.
At the domestic front, it is not only government officials but also employers who must realise that workplace safety, capacity building and adequate remuneration need to be given precedence instead of tolerating hazardous work environments and other forms of labour exploitation. Otherwise, achieving higher levels of productivity will continue to remain an elusive goal for our country.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 1st, 2012.