Burning Questions: The Karachi Factory Fire
There is no independent legislation on health and safety at the work place, except the Hazardous Occupations Rule of 1963 which comes under the Factory Act and is, unsurprisingly, obsolete and outdated. In 2001, the Labour and Manpower Division had proposed the Occupational Health and Safety Ordinance, but it had been put on hold and is yet to be approved. The government has also not ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 155 on Occupational Safety and Health, and Convention 187 of promotional framework for Occupational Safety and Health.
Even if better laws were in place, factory owners are well-versed in the art of circumventing them. One common practice which is helping factory owners violate laws is the system of hiring workers through contractors. Workers hired through contractors cost less, because the employer is not obligated to provide benefits to contract workers. Factory owners do not have to pay for social security, group insurance and other workers’ welfare funds for the workers who are hired through contractors. This system also helps factory owners get away with paying these workers far less than the legal minimum wage and forcing them to work in inhuman conditions. An additional incentive for factory owners to subcontract is that the fragmentation of contract workers into small, self-contained units prevents contract workers from forming unions and fighting for their rights.
In an ongoing survey by PILER, it has been found that most of the workers of the Ali Enterprises factory, despite working there for an average of over five years, were still designated as “temporary workers.” None of the workers had been issued any appointment letter and they had no documentary proof that they worked there. This isn’t just true for this factory. In most cases, factory owners simply do not report the employment of workers through contractors to any government agency. Therefore, in effect, such workers simply do not exist on paper and hence cannot be entitled to any protection. In 2005, PILER investigated five factories in Karachi producing garments for global retailers and found that 95 percent of the workers were not given any written contract, most of the factories did not allow unionisation and the workers had no knowledge of the companies’ codes of conduct.
The owners of Ali Enterprises had not registered most of their workers with the Sindh Employees’ Social Security Institution (SESSI) or the Employees’ Old-Age Benefits Institution (EOBI). These are government-run workers’ welfare institutions which provide old-age pensions and other benefits to registered workers, and after they die, their next-of-kin are given a survivors’ pension. Most factory owners do not register their workers with these institutions in an attempt to lower their production costs, because if they do register their workers, they have to pay a monthly sum on the workers’ behalf. EOBI representatives say that they even approach the workers directly and ask them to register on their own, but the workers are too afraid of losing their jobs – if their employers were to find out, they would get fired. According to EOBI chief Javed Iqbal, out of 23 million workers in Pakistan, only 6 million are registered with EOBI and there is no record of the remaining 17 million.
“We have a record of 200 people employed with Ali Enterprises, whose monthly contribution was made by the company for pension and post-retirement benefits,” said Saeed Ahmed Jumani, the regional director of the EOBI, in his testimony to the tribunal. “We were very doubtful about the labour strength on the record of Ali Enterprises and that’s why we sent them letters as reminders asking them to update that number, but to no avail. In fact, the employers never allowed us to visit the factory and ascertain the number of employees.”
However, despite the fact that only 200 workers of Ali Enterprises were registered (out of a total of 3000 workers employed in the factory), EOBI has announced that it is giving all of them – the victims and survivors – a monthly pension of RS 3,600. The national database authority is providing them with the DNA matches of the survivors and victims so they can draw up a list.
Labour legislation in recent decades has also become increasingly restrictive when it comes to workers forming their own unions. The four industrial relations laws currently adopted by the provinces have restricted workers’ right to form unions. This is in direct contravention of the right to exercise freedom of association and the right to form unions, which is enshrined in Article 17 of the Constitution. Unionisation is important because it gives workers the power to negotiate with the industries’ management, through collective bargaining, for better working conditions. Laws restricting unionisation have adversely affected many industrial sectors of Pakistan, and this has been especially detrimental to the textile sector. In one of its reports, PILER says, “According to an estimate, less than five percent of workers in the formal sector are unionised, and a decrease in unionisation is particularly prevalent in the textile sector.”
Besides blatant bans on unionisation, the state often employs subtle tactics to curb union activities, such as transfer of union members from one place to another, and arrests and detentions on various pretexts. Employers also commonly dismiss workers who are active in unions, a practice which also acts as a deterrent for other workers to join the unions. PILER reports that 55 workers of a textile factory in Korangi were dismissed from their services in 2004 when they formed a union and registered it. Such incidents are very common but rarely get any media attention. “We are afraid to talk about unions because we know we will be fired immediately and we cannot afford to lose this meager income,” a worker confided to a PILER researcher. Where factory owners do not resort to termination, they use other means to intimidate and harass workers to discourage them from forming unions. In the case of Ali Enterprises, PILER reports that there was no trade union in existence, although some workers were members of the Sindh Hosiery, Garment and General Workers Union, a general union of textile workers.
The government has been heavily criticised by the civil society about its failure to keep a check on Ali Enterprises, and on Pakistan’s industrial sector in general. There are around 18 government departments and agencies who are responsible for monitoring the country’s factories, including the civil defence and labour departments and the SITE Association, which is the final authority on factory building designs.
According to officials of the SITE Association, it is not within their jurisdiction to check whether health and safety regulations have been followed when approving building plans. The existing by-laws are silent on such issues, and these officials say that it is the responsibility of the civil defence and labour departments to make sure that safety regulations are being followed. Meanwhile, the civil defence officials told the tribunal, that Ali Enterprises was not registered with them. The department’s deputy controller, Altaf Hussain, said that the department is responsible for installing safety equipment, but since the factory was not registered with the labour department, they had not visited it.
Labour inspections, which are required under the Factory Act, had been banned in Sindh since 2003, after the Punjab government did the same. Former Sindh Labour Minister, Ameer Nawab, who had resigned from his post just days before the fire occurred, said that the Chief Minister, Syed Qaim Ali Shah had given him orders to stop taking action against factories in Sindh which were violating labour laws. This point was corroborated by Sharafat Ali of PILER, who said that the chief minister had given verbal directives to officials to stop inspections. The inspection system, even when it was in place, was disorganised and lax at best. In one of its reports, PILER calls the labour inspection system “a weakened and crumbling system.” The appointment of the Wage Board chairman is often based on political considerations rather than on the criteria spelled out in the law. Members are similarly nominated.
Even when the system was in place, factory owners found several ways of working around it. Workers were told to lie to both local and international inspection teams about their wages, work conditions and other details, and were threatened with termination if they did not comply. Rumours of factory owners paying off local inspectors are also quite common.
The state departments also lack the means to carry out a proper investigation. “Neither do we have the expertise nor do the laboratories carry out a forensic examination of the affected place. The cause of the fire we have mentioned in the report is based on our assessment and experience, but not as a result of a technical analysis,” the chief fire officer Ehtashamuddin told the tribunal.
It is clear that the whole system needs to be evaluated and changed. This tragedy did spark a media outrage, and led Sindh Minister for Industries, Abdul Rauf Siddiqui to resign from his post. But as the media, and with it most of the nation, moves on to the other tragedies that are perpetually befalling the country, it remains to be seen whether any
corrective measures will be taken to change the lives of the millions of workers across Pakistan.
This article was originally published in the October issue under the headline “Burning Questions.”
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