An Elegy for the Victims of Factory Fire
Dr.Rasheed Hasan Khan
This dismal September, Karachi and Lahore saw the biggest industrial accidents to date when workers were incinerated live in work places which had turned into infernos. Due to the non-compliance with the basic rules for Workers Safety and Fire Prevention and Control by the Management of these industrial concerns nearly three hundred workers, men, women and children lost their lives in Karachi . The incident in Lahore was relatively small and the rescue and fire control operation was better managed, resulting in only twenty five casualties. The fire in the Karachi factory was dealt with in a way that was an epitome of inefficiency and callousness. The initial firefighting effort began two hours late, all the exits, including the fire exits remained locked during the blaze resulting in a horrendous loss of life. No effort was made to breach the outer walls and rescue the workers, even hours after the blaze started. To cover up the truth, a rumor was circulated that the accident was a result of terrorist / extortionist (bhatta) mafia who used incendiary devices to set the factory alight. However, this does not alter the basic issue, that is, absence of safety measures in the factory and the inefficient management of the rescue operation which resulted in such terrible loss of life.
As any sane person can see, there are two aspects of the issue, (a) Non-compliance of Labor Laws relating to Workers Safety as well as laws relating to recruitment, emolument, health facilities, and holidays, by the Proprietors of the said industrial concern. (b) The mismanagement of the Firefighting and Rescue operation by the Fire Department, the local administrative bureaucracy and the Government of Sindh. Considered from any angle, the culpability of the state and the present government is a manifest reality. Thousands of major and minor industrial accidents take place in every industrial area in Pakistan every year, but they are covered up and life goes on as before. This is a sad commentary on the human condition in Pakistan. Religious luminaries, political leaders, standard bearers of human rights and rule of law, all are blind to the plight of millions who toil and produce wealth for the handful of the ruling class at the risk of their life and health for a pittance.
A brief overview of the working conditions prevailing in Pakistan and the history of this inequity will be enlightening, The Project for the liquidation of trade unions in SITE and Landhi industrial areas, which was started in 1972 during the Bhutto regime, neared its fruitition during Gen. Zia’s rule. All organized trade unions were wiped out and the system of Contract Labor was introduced instead. Under the contract system, the workers were not considered to be the employees of the industrial unit they were working in, but treated as the employees of the contractor who supplied the labor to the industrial unit. Thus the owner of the industrial unit circumvented Labor Laws which stipulated mandatory payment of Health Insurance, Accident Insurance, and payment of wages for medical and casual leave. Through this process the owner of the industrial unit saved millions of rupees. The workers, under Labor Laws, also could not be fired without the due process of law. This was not to the liking of the owners who wanted to run their factories like feudal estates. Over and above the economic issues mentioned, the elimination of Trade Unions removed a powerful platform for political resistance to Imperialism, feudalism and authoritarian civil or military regimes. This was perhaps most attractive to the bureaucracy and the forces of exploitation.
The perpetuation of a system which is at variance with Pakistan’s Law, conventions of International Labor Organization (ILO) and the norms of natural justice is possible due to the silent acquiescence of the major political parties on the political scene in Pakistan. If the professions of these political parties about solving the problems of the downtrodden masses is to be treated as anything other than hypocritical cant, they must give a better account of themselves with regard to an issue affecting the very existence of millions of Pakistanis. There must be an immediate end to the contract system in all industries. Workers right to organize in Trade Unions must be recognized and implemented. A thorough survey of all industrial units throughout Pakistan must be undertaken and all violations of law taken cognizance of and penalized.