On blazes, mudslinging and resignations


ZoneAsia-Pk

Hell paid Karachi a haunting visit on September 11 and claimed approximately 258 factory workers for its own. Deadly industrial fires sparked almost simultaneously in twin incidents in Lahore and Karachi. At least 25 died as fire erupted in a shoe factory, killing the owner, his son and workers in the factory. The incident in Karachi was much more devastating in scale: up to 258 workers were suffocated or burnt alive at the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Karachi, which made ready-to-wear clothing for export to Western firms. These tragic events throw Pakistan’s shoddy business practices, rampant corruption and piddling law enforcement in a harsh spotlight that will hopefully linger for longer this time.

Karachi has a sprawling industrial base with tens of thousands of factories, like Ali Enterprises, in industrial estates. Adding to that are more than 50,000 cottage and small industrial units exist, altogether they employ hundreds of thousands of people, on fixed wages, piece-rated, casual basis and daily wage workers. Casual employees are usually hired through third party contracts and do not enjoy the same wages or benefits as fixed wage workers, or piece-rated workers represented by the Labor Unions. Ali Enterprises, like thousands of factories like it, employed a mix of these employees to minimize cost of extending additional benefits, like safety, holidays, etc. They were hired through third party contractors and were paid Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 a month; with indefinite working hours per day, no ventilation, proper storage, fire extinguishing facilities, windows, and the prison-like factory had one exit only. There is not a single factory in Karachi, which is different in shape and facilities as the one gutted by the fire. Everyone, including our rulers, could see similar factories nearby the gutted one but avoid to take action,” a former administrative official is reported to have said. Karachi’s municipal head conceded that very few establishments in Karachi had been built according to proper building plans. “Safety exits are duly mentioned in the plans approved by the authorities but the owners got away with it only to save money and extra land thus risking precious lives,” he said. He failed to mention however that it is officials like himself, who allow corruption and political maneuvering to go unchecked. Shady business practices and cutting corners is what makes business lucrative for textile export companies like Ali Enterprises. Garment exporters in Pakistan face grave competition from India and Bangladesh, which drives them to lower production costs to the limit, subsequently compromising on ‘drivel’ like security or labor protection practices. Trade unions do not represent third party contract workers and thus cannot lobby or enforce these laws on the workers’ behalf.

A trade unionist informed media that most of the workers at Ali Enterprises were on third party contracts and none had appointment letters, so they were not entitled to social security benefits. Workers who survived the blaze reported that rule-breaking was a norm at the plant, where many worked 12-hour shifts and were paid as little as $58 per month – one-third less than the statutory minimum. One could argue that these wages are still better than nothing, however further witness accounts told even chilling tales. “They prevented people from leaving, so they could save the clothes,” said Shahzad, a stone-faced man in sweat-drenched clothes, standing in the blacked corridors of the factory.

The tragedy stands testament to lack of compliance of factory owners to laws and regulations in the Factory Act. It also whispers of corruption in the highest echelons. The Sindh Labor Minister Ameer Nawab resigned from his post, saying that the Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah had stopped him from taking action against factories violating labor rules. Prior to Musharaf’s era, factories were supposed to be inspected once a year. During Arbab Ghulam Rahim’s period serving as chief minister, labor officials had to serve an employer a month’s notice about when they would be coming prior to inspection. “This refutes the actual purpose of an inspection,” Nawab said. Nawab’s resignation was shortly followed by Sindh Minister for Industries and Commerce, Abdul Rauf Siddiqui’s resignation, as it is easier to resign than to pay for ones negligence.

Inspections and audits are mandatory in every organization all over the world, except for Pakistan’s manufacturing factories that boast conditions similar to those in the Industrial Revolution.

All government officials jumped to pay lip-service condemning the lax attitude of people responsible. Sindh Governor Ishratul Ebad said that not only would action be taken against factory owners, but officials of SITE, the labor department and civil defense would not be spared either. “The negligent officers of these departments are equally responsible,” he said.

The rest of our national command followed shortly doing what it does best, stall for time and make committees. The provincial government appointed a retired Justice, Zahid Qurban Alvi, to head an investigation into the fire that broke out.

The National Assembly broke all previous records of efficacy and took swift action (sarcasm intended) by passing a resolution saying judicial commissions for investigation should be formed. The Opposition professed solidarity with the bereaved, with Nawaz Sharif blaming Musharaf completely for the fire. He claimed that the former dictator had changed the Labor and Industries Act and even though laws did exist, their enforcement was lacking, perhaps implying that ensuring law enforcement in provinces was Musharaf’s responsibility and not perhaps the chief minister’s who happens to be his brother.

Blame games, mudslinging and resignations are no way to deal with this matter that has come to represent Pakistan’s unsafe industrial practices, an issue we had successfully avoided ever since Nike stopped outsourcing production in Pakistan. The immediate aftermath looks grave for the export industry of Pakistan. The textiles industry contributed 7.4 per cent to Pakistan’s GDP in 2011 and employed 38 per cent of the manufacturing workforce. But it accounted for 55.6 per cent of total exports – around $11 billion. Once international buyers get wind of unsafe labor practices in Pakistan, pressure groups and ethical restraints will force them to shift outsourcing to India or Bangladesh, two extremely price competitive alternatives. Pakistan’s textile factories must immediately counter this negative publicity by complying with safety standards and inviting international inspection firms to clear their names. Even if this means higher production costs, it will only serve to increase business in flow to Pakistan with the passage of time. Safety measures – fire hydrants, sprinkler systems, better escape routes are the barest of all rights factory workers are entitled to, the Sindh government must stop resigning one after the other and make sure that strict regulation and enforcement takes place. At this point Pakistan does not need another feather in its already full cap, it needs damage control. And fast.

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