The fire at Ali Enterprises in SITE, which caused deaths of more than 250 workers, was a wake-up call for all the departments tasked with looking after the implementation of labour and fire safety laws in factories. It appears, however, that the impact was not enough as factories in the area are still operating in violation of the parameters laid down by the law, The Express Tribune has learnt.
According to an official of the fire department, hundreds of factories in SITE were still operating in worse conditions that Ali Enterprises in terms of fire safety and other emergency measures. “Different types of highly inflammable chemicals are kept together while no visible measures for fire safety are taken in these factories, which could lead to more casualties in case a fire breaks out,” said the official on the condition of anonymity. He added that experts of the fire department are not authorised to enter the factories without cause. “Most of the factories have no fire exits, ventilation, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, fire alarms, and no concept of training their workers for emergencies. There aren’t even water storages for the fire tenders of the fire brigade to douse fire.”
In his opinion, there should be fire drills every month similar to those conducted by reputed textile companies. “If you can install a factory worth Rs500 million then why can’t you spend Rs500,000 on a good fire safety system which can save the whole structure as well as lives of the employees?”
Step 1: Registration of factories
Under the Factory Act 1934, it is mandatory for every establishment which qualifies as a factory to be registered with the labour department and the task of making sure that every factory follows the law of registration, lies with the labour department’s inspector. The penalty, however, for not registering the factory is very nominal - it starts from Rs500 and goes up to Rs1,000.
According to the labour department’s joint director, around 900 factories in SITE are registered with the department while small units are registered under the Shop and Establishment Ordinance. “Usually, factory owners do no come forward to register. Instead, the labour department has to approach them,” said the director. “After the fire engulfed Ali Enterprises, around 700 factories registered with the department. Our inspectors make annual visits to these factories and in case of any violation, we can fine them Rs500.”
Step 2: Inspecting the factories
“We are ready to train factory workers in firefighting, first aid and responding to emergencies but the managements do not appear interested as none of the factory owners have contacted us for training in the past one year,” said the Civil Defense’s deputy controller for Karachi (West), Altaf Hussain. “We are supposed to conduct inspections of factories according to the lists provided by the labour directorate but often we are not even allowed to enter the gates.”
An official of the Civil Defense told The Express Tribune that after the fire at Ali Enterprises, all concerned departments geared into action - meetings were conducted at the Karachi Commissioner’s office and a comprehensive plan regarding safety measures for each type of factory was prepared with the consent of the industrial associations. The plan, however, went to cold storage, he said.
On the other hand, Karachi Commissioner Shoaib Ahmed Siddiqui said that the plan was ready. “The industries department has to approve and implement the plan after which it will be mandatory for each factory.”
Step 3: Measures for fire safety
The SITE fire brigade with its four fire tenders covers the whole town which has 2,500 unites of small, medium and large factories. When asked about the problems of the fire brigade, the station officer of SITE Fire Brigade Tahseen Ahmed Siddiqui said that they have been facing acute shortage of water for the last two years. “The other major problem is the rough and bumpy roads because of which we have to take alternate routes that causes delay in reaching the site,” he said, adding that their vehicles often breakdown due to the conditions of the roads.
Siddiqui confirmed that majority of the factories have flaws in their designs which affect their work during rescue and firefighting.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2013.