It is known that with regard to the factory in Karachi the building which housed the factory was not built to any reasonable standard and no fire safety arrangements were followed. There were more than 600 hundred workers in this unregistered factory and due to this only 200 were listed as employees of the company and the remaining were recruited by third party ‘contractors’. These people were therefore denied of all legal rights and paid daily wages. No workers were registered with social security or the Employee’s Old Age Benefits Institute (EOBI) and the Workers Welfare Board Public Fund.
The workers were banned from forming a trade union and whenever they attempted to do this they were forcibly retrenched. Many of them were arrested on false charges.
There is a total of 19 government departments responsible for ensuring that labour laws are followed. None of the departments ever wrote a report after ‘inspecting’ these factories for hygiene and safety conditions because as it is widely reported they are on the payroll of the factory.
The fires are a sad indictment of the state which has blatantly failed in its duty to ensure a safe working environment for the workers who bring in so much revenue for the country. The government has turned a blind eye to the repeated demands of the trade unions to upgrade safety and security in the factories while the factory owners and captains of industry live a life of luxury at the expense, and lives, of their workers.
Despite the terrible loss of life none of the provincial governments or the federation is taking serious steps to ensure that the labour and industry laws are followed strictly on an emergency basis. There is no indication whatsoever that improvements are being made across the country. In the factories and sweatshops, many of which are death traps, it is business as usual and the labourers dare not complain for fear of losing their employment.
For many amongst us, the deaths of some 300 workers caused by factory fires in Karachi and Lahore were the outcome of regulatory failure on part of various government departments, and of criminal complicity and negligence by the factory owners.
At one level, this particular way of looking at things is simply the logical outcome of a circumscribed worldview.
If labour inspectors were honest, we’d have better working conditions. If factory owners were less greedy, they’d actually make an effort to ensure worker safety. If politicians were pro-people, they’d hold negligent bureaucrats accountable. If everyone did their job, as they’re supposed to, as the law asks of them, tragedies like the ones in Lahore and Karachi would be completely avoidable.
The common strand running through all this post-disaster talk is how certain agents, i.e. factory owners, government officials, and politicians, dropped the ball at some stage.
Nobody, and I apologise for overlooking those who are, is talking about structural compulsions that not only make such tragedies inevitable, but also continue to push us towards greater levels of urban oppression.
The fact that the state failed to do its job is hardly surprising. The state fails in some of its designated tasks every day, in multiple domains, at multiple levels.
It fails every time someone dies of a water-borne disease; it fails every time a school-aged child ends up working at a mechanic’s shop; it fails every time a bomb explodes in a crowded market; it fails when students of the Government Girls Primary School, mauza Islampura, Deepalpur, sit on the muddy ground for their lessons because the roof of their classroom collapsed five years ago; and yes, it failed horribly when worker safety regulations were completely sidestepped by the owners of Ali Enterprises.
The thing is that discourse centred on state negligence and corrupt practices is automatically geared to miss out on other, equally important facets of such events.
For example, based on recent reports, it turns out none of the employees of the Karachi factory had employment letters, and according to one government official, the factory wasn’t even registered with the labour department.
Essentially, this means that the labour was informally contracted, probably through a parasitical jobber, and that the value of their work was being determined by the whims and constraints of the proprietors.
Given how sub-contracted garment producers have to compete with other third world countries in the international production chain, the primary consideration for any domestic capitalist would be to reduce costs to the bare minimum.
There are two ways of doing it: 1) reduce your own profit margin, or 2) do away with first-world luxuries like minimum wage standards, safety and health regulations, and humane working hours.
Needless to say, we all know how that story turns out.
Basically, we’re left with a context where regulation failure is an empirically provable fact, where greed and profit motive will trump any sense of compassion, and where a stagnant and non-competitive economy will push us towards greater informalisation.
The question of worker safety then becomes awkward. The question then cannot be answered by the language of ‘reform’ and ‘accountability’. The question then cannot be addressed through passionate appeals to factory owners, expedient state officials, and venal political party leaders.
If history is anything to go by, this question has been, and will only be answered by placing the worker at the centre of the political process. That is, without unionisation, without a representative form of labour politics, without organisational forums that can actually lobby for worker rights, working conditions in factories and sweatshops will never improve.
Many, especially those of the urban upper-middle class disposition, will scoff at this suggestion. Worker politics is a relic of the past, some would say. Others would argue that it creates barriers to ‘progress’ and ‘development’ and that unionisation is a nuisance (look at the railways) which prevents privatisation, and robs taxpaying citizens of efficient services.
Such dismissive reactions highlight a deep-seated belief that our existing political and economic processes can actually produce gains for everyone after some basic ‘tweaking’. What many miss out is that without collective action, in this case by urban labour, the existing incentive structure for business-owners, the state, and for political party leaders, is not geared towards worker welfare.
Recent studies by Lakshmi Iyer at Harvard, and by Ali Cheema at LUMS, show that incidence of public goods provision is significantly higher in areas where locals engage with the political process, and where there is a greater degree of collective action. Without taking too much liberty, one can easily see the inherent value of these studies for worker-related issues. If urban labour is organised in the shape of representative unions, which have traction in the mainstream political process, an incentive structure that places working class wellbeing as its end-goal can actually be created.
As far as I see it, and I could be completely mistaken here, our discourse on wages, safety, regulation, and working environments can go in two largely divergent directions.
We can either actively talk and work towards creating representative platforms that prioritise the welfare of hundreds of thousands of people, most of them like those who perished in the two fires, or we can sit back and pray that state officials, politicians, and factory owners magically grow a conscience and reform an inherently failing system.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
According to the Pakistani Textile Workers Union, the factory owner did not maintain international safety and working conditions standards. Unpaid overtime and employing child laborer were a norm.
There were no provisions for escape in case of fire and health and safety measures were entirely ignored inside the factory that employed 1,500 people. The factory had four doors for entry and exit. At the time of accident, three of the four doors were locked from outside. Windows were laced with strong wire gauzes.
The apparel sector accounts for 65 percent of the entire economy of the country and employs 60% of the total skilled workforce. The total number of Pakistan’s labour force is 58.4 million, making it the 10th largest country in terms of available human workforce. About 20.1% of the labour force is involved in garment industry.
The heirs of the victims are yet to receive any compensation. Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah had promised to give a plot of land and a government job to one member of each affected family. However, they have got nothing. PM Nawaz Sharif, whose party was then in power in Punjab, had promised, on behalf of the Punjab government, to give Rs. 300,000 as compensation to every affected family. However, that promise was also not fulfilled. The government had promised to take solid measures for safety of workers in all factories and at workplaces, but that promise too was not kept.
The KIK, a German label that ordered the manufacturing of garments from the ill-fated factory has already paid one part of the compensation, adding up to one million dollars. The label has exonerated itself from sharing further responsibility in providing the second phase of compensation for the families of the victims.
Three years on and three investigation reports later, the case is still directionless. The case took a dramatic turn just as the investigations were nearing completion. A report submitted in the Sindh High Court in February 2015 claimed that the fire was caused by an arsonist belonging to MQM to teach the owners of the factory a lesson for refusing to pay extortion money. According to the Joint Investigation Team report, the MQM worker revealed that a “well-known party high official” had demanded Rs. 200 million as extortion money from Ali Enterprises.
Interestingly, the person whose confession has been made the basis of the report didn’t commit the crime by himself; instead he heard from other people about the involvement of the MQM in the case. Though the suspect disclosed the information on June 2012, the Rangers didn’t share the report until February 6, 2015.
The delay cast a shadow of doubt as to the intentions of the Pakistan Rangers who are fighting for the control of the city with the MQM. The report was used to force the party to the negotiation table on Rangers terms and created political mire in provincial politics. The report also exonerated the owners of criminal culpability, jeopardizing the claims of compensation by the legal heirs of the victim.
Regardless of whether it was an act of sabotage or a short-circuit related fire, the factory owners cannot be absolved of their responsibility to protect their workers.
In Pakistan, industrial plants and factories, especially those in the private sector, except a few multinationals, lack any sort of fire extinguishing/fighting arrangements. Electric short-circuits are occasionally blamed for fires; proper measures should be taken to upgrade the electric wiring and connections.
After this tragedy, factories should ensure workers’ safety, get fire-fighting equipment, and make adequate emergency exits.