At least 314 people died as fire swept through factories in two cities in Pakistan on Sept. 11, 2012, raising questions about industrial safety in the South Asian nation and prompting the International Labour Organization (ILO) to develop a plan to prevent a similar tragedy from happening in the future.
Flames raced through a garment factory in the commercial capital of Karachi, killing 289 people.
An Ali Enterprises factory caught fire when a boiler exploded and the flames ignited chemicals that were stored in the factory. Officials said that all the exit doors in the factory were locked and many of the windows of the factory were covered with iron bars; many of the deaths were caused by suffocation. Inadequate fire safety measures and lack of emergency exits were cited as the main reasons behind the hundreds of deaths. It was reported that the workers had never been through a fire drill, nor were there a sufficient number of fire extinguishers in the factory.
In the eastern city of Lahore, a fire raged in a shoe factory, killing at least 25 people. The factory caught fire when sparks from a faulty generator came into contact with chemicals. The generator was installed in the garage, which was also the factory’s only entry and exit point, officials said.
ILO Compelled to Act
ILO Pakistan Country Director Francesco d’Ovidio flew to Karachi to hold a meeting with Dr. Ishratul Ebad Khan, the governor of Sindh province.
According to news reports, D’Ovidio outlined how the ILO would help victims’ families and the Sindh Labour Department. “In this tragedy, the ILO stands ready to provide support to the victims’ families, help them recover from their loss and strengthen the Sindh Labour Department to prevent a re-occurrence of such incidents in the future,” D’Ovidio said in a statement.
“We will help enterprises put in place a safe work culture in workplaces through the rapid training of labor inspectors in Sindh,” he added.
D’Ovidio said working and safety conditions in Pakistan’s industrial sector are not adequate, and will take time to reach acceptable levels.
“The ILO is aware that there are a lot of factories in Pakistan that are scattered and many of them are not registered, so it is very difficult to implement the law,” he said. It is very important to ensure that all these factories are registered, he added.
The ILO country director also pointed out that unless authorities ensure effective inspections and monitor the situation in the factories, it is difficult to address the problems. He also acknowledged that shutting down illegal and unregistered enterprises could lead to massive unemployment.
The ILO is calling for the restoration of labor inspections in all factories and announced that it will help build the capacity of the Sindh Labour Department to improve inspections. It will also help employers and workers develop a code of conduct and will promote the idea of self-regulation by employers.
Sindh Province Labour Secretary Arif Elahi welcomed the ILO plan, according to the ILO.
“Presently, the labor inspection system has various challenges, including a limited mobility infrastructure. ILO’s technical and financial support is required to organize the labor inspection on modern lines,” Elahi said, according to the ILO.
Concerned Pakistani Group Heaps Criticism on Authorities
A group of civil society leaders organized by the Pakistan Medical Association held a press conference in which they strongly criticized the lack of occupational safety at Pakistani worksites. The group included representatives from the doctor’s association, the National Trade Union Federation, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and others.
“The entire state, including the government, the bureaucracy, the policymakers, the state departments, especially the authorities for enforcing the labor laws and building codes are responsible for these deaths as they silently and criminally allow violation of laws and regulations established to ensure health and safety provisions at work,” said Dr. Mirza Ali Azhar, the association’s general secretary, as reported in the International Herald Tribune.
The group observed that Article 37 of the national constitution guarantees the right to secure and humane working conditions and that Pakistan has ratified the ILO Labour Inspection Convention, under which the government is bound to ensure that employers and workers are educated and informed on their legal rights and obligations concerning all aspects of labor protection and labor laws, advised on compliance with the requirements of the law. Article 37 also stipulates that necessary provisions be made to enable inspectors to report to superiors on problems and defects that are not covered by laws and regulations.
“These and many other pro-workers laws are made redundant by the absence of an effective labor inspection system, a weak labor union structure and lack of interest of state institutions for capacity building of workers to protect their interests,” Azhar said in the Tribune.
The group noted that Sindh province had no functional labor inspection system. The system was banned on the orders of the previous provincial governments. Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital, had just restored its inspection system before the catastrophe.
“Employers have a legal compulsion to ensure that hazards in the workplace are eliminated, minimized or controlled in such a way that work accidents are avoided,” Azhar said. “In the absence of labor inspection, employers have a free hand to pursue commercial interests at the cost of labor rights and safety.”
The group also noted that the Pakistan government has not ratified ILO Convention 155, which provides for the adoption of a coherent national occupational safety and health policy, and ILO Convention 187, which aims to promote a safety and health culture based on prevention.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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