“I ran towards the stairs but they collapsed before I could reach them — and then the whole building collapsed,” said 16-year-old Mohammad Asghar, a worker at the Rajput Polyester factory in Lahore. The four-storey factory collapsed on Wednesday, crushing to death at least 23 workers and injuring many more. Asghar suffered a broken arm and a head injury.
According to another worker, Mohammad Navid, as many as 50 shift workers may have been sleeping in a section of the building that the rescuers have thus far been unable to reach. Some of them were children as young as 12, even though the Factories Act of 1934 prohibits the employment of children under 14 years in any factory.
According to press reports, the factory's owner was adding a new floor to the building. According to a worker talking to Reuters, as with the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 that killed more than 1,000, the owner ignored advice from the contractor and pleas from workers to stop the extension after cracks appeared in the walls following the earthquake on October 26. The workers even held a protest three days before the collapse, drawing attention to the cracks in the structure.
Pakistan has a notoriously poor record of protecting worker rights and ensuring factory safety.
Despite the long history of factory collapses and violations of workers’ rights in Pakistan’s garment industry, the last inspection of the factory by the labour department took place in December 2013. According to the Awami Workers Party, the daily wage register of the Rajput Polyester factory shows that its workers were paid less than the equivalent of $2 (Rs200) for 12 hours of work, far below the legal minimum monthly wage of $130 (Rs13,000). The majority of the workers were employed informally and thus denied social security, pension and other benefits.
This tragedy raises serious questions about Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s claims of focusing on improving the state regulatory regime and jumpstarting an economic development agenda. It’s not like his government hasn’t had warnings that stepped-up factory inspections were needed: at least six high-profile incidents of building collapses have occurred in Lahore since June 2014.
In Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and economic hub, at least 255 people were killed on September 11, 2012 in a fire at a garment factory owned by Ali Enterprises, one of the deadliest factory fires ever. Government and judicial investigations found a litany of violations: an absence of escape routes and fire alarms, no basic training of staff and workers in fire and safety measures, exit doors locked from the outside and illegal construction of a wooden mezzanine floor in the factory.
There were serious allegations that the owners tried to save their merchandise and equipment rather than rescue the workers. Victims and their families still await adequate compensation and criminal proceedings against the owners.
While the Sharif government spends billions of rupees on badly needed infrastructure development, workers risk injury and death due to incompetence, indifference and corruption. After the Ali Enterprises fire, Sharif callously expressed solidarity with the factory owners while addressing the powerful Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI): “Authorities should reinvestigate the case and provide justice to the employers of Ali Enterprises if a wrong case has been registered against the factory owners.”
The government should respond to this latest tragedy by taking urgent steps to protect workers.
Pakistani labour laws fall considerably short of international standards. The government should revise obsolete laws regulating the safety of workers and implement the existing labour inspection and minimum wages laws. Pakistan should ratify key international labour conventions, such as International Labour Organisation Convention No 155 on Occupational Safety and Health. The generational failure to curtail the practice of child labour is a scathing indictment of this and previous governments.
As part of their responsibilities under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other standards, companies sourcing from Pakistan should ensure respect for human rights and workers’ safety throughout their supply chains.
This is an opportunity for the Sharif government to show that it is serious about protecting and respecting the rights of ordinary Pakistanis. All those responsible, including labour department and other officials, should be held to account. Adequate compensation should be paid to the victims and their families.
If workers at Ali Enterprises and Rajput Polyester had more of a voice — and if the government had done more to ensure their rights — it is entirely possible that the circumstances that led to the hundreds of deaths and injuries could have been prevented. While far from perfect, the government, factory owners and international companies should undertake the kind of factory inspection regime, workers’ rights reforms and compensation programmes that have taken place in Bangladesh after the Rana Plaza disaster.
The alternative is that Pakistan is likely to have a disaster on the scale of Rana Plaza some day, and those in a position to prevent it will be responsible.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 8th, 2015.
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