An ongoing public interest case at the Supreme Court (SC) has shed light on some vital issues regarding workers’ health and safety in industrial units.
The court had decided to investigate silicosis, an occupational lung disease, after an application was filed by Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) student Usama Khawar on behalf of 18 labourers employed at stone-crushing factories. All the workers have been suffering from the disease.
“…it has become apparent that the existing legislation may in important respects be inadequate to address the issues of occupational hazards, and also that existing legislation might not be extensive enough to cover workers other than those employed in factories governed by the Factories Act or mines covered by the Mines and Minerals Act or by the environment protection regimes currently in force within the country,” a Supreme Court order issued on June 8 stated. The order directed public departments to work on comprehensive legislation that provided an extensive monitoring and evaluation framework. Nasimur Rehman Shah of the Environment Department said a model draft of the law had been submitted to the SC Law and Justice Commission secretary. He said the draft would be presented to the court on July 14.
Arshad Mehmood of the Labour Department, an environmental hygienist, told The Express Tribune that the ban on labour inspections for 10 years had prevented officials from inspecting units. He said the Rs500 fine on units violating labour laws was inconsequential. Mehmood said the government had paid Rs300,000 each to the families of 52 workers who had died from the illness after the SC had taken up the case.
He said the department had also formulated the Punjab Hazardous Occupation Rules (Silicon) 2015. Mehmood said the rules had been approved by Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and had been forwarded to the law and parliamentary affairs committee for approval. He says the rules had been devised in consultation with owners of units, workers and the civil society. Mehmood said the rules had clearly outlined the working environment that had to be fostered, silica dust control mechanisms that needed to be put in place and the threshold value of the amount of dust that could be found at a unit. He said the rules also made it mandatory for units to undergo medical inspections.
Mehmood said the department had also been consulting owners of units to ensure that wages paid to workers brought them under the social security net. He said the department had also sent a PC-1 (project digest) seeking the government’s approval for the creation of model stone-crushing units in collaboration with the Environment Department.
Khawar told The Express Tribune that he had come across a silicosis patient for the first time in his village near Gujranwala. He said silicosis had often been misdiagnosed as tuberculosis. Khawar said he had initially concluded that nine people from his village had died of silicosis. He said the number had increased as more people started reaching out to him as the case progressed. “I found about 16 cases in Shorkot, 53 from a village near Dera Ghazi Khan and 14 from another village near Sheikhupura.” Khawar said he had travelled to the places to establish that the people were indeed suffering from the disease. He said the Labour Department happened to miss several silicosis fatalities as workers tended to leave their jobs and relocate back to their villages when they fell sick. “Employers have no record of workers’ illness and their eventual demise,” Khawar said.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2015.