Sunday, November 15, 2015

Shortcut to disasters

Photo by Rahat Dar
by Shahzada Irfan Ahmed:

In the aftermath of the Sundar Industrial Estate tragedy, one wonders who is really responsible for ensuring that such man-made disasters do not recur

Immediately after the factory building collapsed in Sundar Industrial Estate, Lahore, on November 4, over 2,000 workers, engineers, army personnel, Rescue 1122, private sector developers and construction companies and others launched a joint rescue operation. More than 50 people including the owner of the factor lost their lives.

According to the Punjab Emergency Service Director General Dr Arshad Zia, around 17,200 tonnes of debris has been removed from the site.

Scale of this disaster apart, such tragedies happen after frequent intervals. In the last couple of years, several workers have died inside factories due to building collapses because of unsound structures, boiler explosions, industrial fires, lack of safety measures, absence of emergency exits, suffocation and so on.

During the coverage of this incident, it was identified that violation of building bylaws, lack of labour inspections, inactivity of labour unions, least priority to occupational health and safety and the reluctance of the association of industrial estate to open its units to inspections were the major reasons behind this disaster.

There are reports that on that fateful day some workers were on strike due their concerns about the fitness of the building. So, the owner came there and asked others to continue with their work. He told them that had there been any real danger to the building, he would not have been with them. But when the building collapsed, he died with the rest.

Farooq Tariq, Secretary, Awami Workers Party (AWP), says that under the Factories Act 1934, it is the primary responsibility of the labour department to inspect industrial buildings. But the problem, he says, is that the department is neither effective nor independent enough to take the industrialists’ mafia head on.

Tariq knows many labour inspectors who have been penalised for daring to question strong businessmen, who mostly have political connections.

He questions, why the government cannot empower its officers? “On one hand there is Ayesha Mumtaz who does not succumb to any pressure, and on the other there are hundreds of thousands working on the whims of ordinary political workers of the ruling party”.

He also holds the general disdain towards safety measures a reason behind these incidents. Citing the recent explosion at Waheed Steel Mills near India-Pakistan border area in Lahore, which killed five people, Tariq says it happened due to the irresponsible rather “idiotic” behaviour of the owner.

Apparently, the owner of the steel mill had asked workers to drill hole in a fuel container with the help of gas welding equipment to remove residue of combustible oil stored in it. The moment the flame was generated the container exploded — and killed five people. The owner, standing close to the site of explosion, luckily survived.

Khalid Mahmood, Director, Labour Education Foundation (LEF), says the tragedy at the Sundar Industrial Estate shows the level of governance and minimal political commitment of the rulers towards workers’ rights. According to him, all factories should be inspected regularly by the buildings’ department and also by the labour inspectors “but this hardly happens”.

This issue, he adds, is linked with freedom of association — “There are no unions in the Sundar Industrial Estate, which is clear violation of labour laws. If there had been a union in this factory this incident could have been avoided, surely. Unions are able to protect workers by raising their voice against unsafe working conditions.”

Mahmood says there were plates fixed on factory walls saying that government officers shall visit the association office before entering the premises. This is strange as nobody has the right to stop concerned officers from visiting industrial units without warning. He says it is now revealed that labour inspectors were entertained by the association staff and made to leave without inspecting units with the industrial estate’s premises. This was one reason why the factory employed child labour with impunity, giving less than minimum wages to workers and was running despite its structure in dangerous conditions. The complaints of workers were ignored when the cracks became prominent after the powerful earthquake that shook the region last month.

Mahmood cites section 33-H of the factories act that talks about powers to require specifications of defective parts or tests of stability. Under this section, “If it appears to the inspector that any building or any part of the ways, machinery or plant in a factory, is in such a condition that it may be dangerous to human life or safety, he may serve on the manager of the factory an order in writing, requiring him before a specified date – (a) to furnish such drawings, specifications and other particulars as may be necessary to determine whether such building, ways, machinery or plant can be used with safety, or (b) to carry out such tests as may be necessary to determine the strength or quality of any specified parts and to inform the Inspector of the results thereof. Had this recourse been taken, this tragedy would have been avoided,” he says.

Further, he adds, “It appears the Sundar Industrial Estate offers protection from labour inspections as an incentive to prospective buyers of plots or units on its premises”.

Sources in the labour department reveal that labour officers are duty-bound to issue stability fitness certificates after regular inspections but as a norm such certificates can be easily bought. Inspections shall be held at least once a year and there is no limit on the maximum number. There is a complaint mechanism as well under which the concerned labour officers receive complaints, for example from workers, and carry out inspections. It has been learnt that the Sundar Industrial Estate’s management had approved the construction of the factory on production of a certificate that later turned out to be bogus, one source adds.

Saad Muhammad, Chairman of Youth Committee of Pakistan Workers Federation believes that the lack of unions and the diminishing role of those who are already there have a lot to do with workplace disasters.

“Nobody else but the workers themselves can ensure their safety but unfortunately in Pakistan, the rate of unionisation is hardly three per cent,” he states. Even the existing unions are scattered and many of them serve the purpose of the owners who facilitate their leaders – “Had there been a genuine and fully represented trade union at this ill-fated factory, it would have gone for a complete strike and made the owner take the required measures. But in this case a few workers had refused to work while others kept on working in precarious conditions.”

Tahir Manzoor, Director Labour, Punjab says they are grief-stricken due to this tragedy and have started crash courses for the staff on how to ensure occupational health and safety of workers. Multiple training courses have been launched for labour officers of different ranks — “I assure you this will be a high priority area of our work.”

He adds they have developed a checklist which will be given out to labour inspectors so that they do not miss out anything. “Now it will not be a choice of the labour inspector to inspect this and leave that; he will have to meet all parameters mentioned in the checklist”.

Manzoor adds a project based on the use of android phones to take photographs  the inspected sites and their uploading in real time is in the planning phase. “Once it is launched, it will not be possible for anybody to give inspection certificate without visiting the site. Besides, it will not be possible to remove anything from record due its presence in the IT-based systems”.

So, who is responsible to fix things and ensure that such man-made disasters do not happen? What shall the Punjab government, too intoxicated with its claims of good governance and infrastructural development, do now and is there anybody who can even question its criteria of defining and setting its priorities?

Justice (retd) Ali Nawaz Chohan, Chairman, National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR) says they have asked for a report from the Punjab government regarding this deadly building collapse and the prevalence of widespread corruption in departments responsible for issuing fitness and approval certificates for buildings. He says the commission has a broad mandate and can hold the government responsible for failing to secure workers and implement the existing labour laws. The commission is also following the progress on the international conventions linked with the GSP Plus status and this incident calls for enhanced focus on fulfilment of obligations under these conventions, he concludes.
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