A tale of two tragedies
On that fateful day of September 11, 2012, over 1000 workers joined their duty at Karachi’s Baldia garment factory – most for the last time in their lives. Till today, neither do we know exactly how many of them were there at the start of the day nor do we know how many of them were burnt alive in the tragic inferno that kept on delivering scores of charred and unrecognisable bodies for the next many days. The counting stopped at a vague and insensitive official note stating “over 300 people died in the fire”. That there were more who were missing, never identified or never traced is hardly relevant to the capitalistic machinery that is interested solely in profits and deadlines.
Located on the outskirts of Dhaka, Rana Plaza an eight storey building, many of which were constructed illegally, housed five garment factories and some 4000 workers. On April 24, 2013, the employees were asked to resume their jobs despite imminent indications that the building was structurally unsafe. Coerced by the greedy factory owners and devoid of their right to refuse unsafe working conditions the workers reluctantly made their way into a fragile structure that would soon turn into a graveyard of squashed bodies, broken limbs, rubble and wreckage. The death toll, now counted as over 1000, continues to mount.
Perhaps the deadliest industrial disasters of Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Baldia Factory fire and the Rana Plaza collapse, share striking similarities. What can be spotted more easily is the commonality in inappropriate and unapproved structures, violation of building codes, absence of emergency response systems, use of labour not covered by social security schemes, corruption and incompetence of the labour departments, greedy and exploitative factory owners, absence of safety inspections, violation of health and safety laws, non-existing evacuation mechanisms, non-identification of hazards and lack of safety training. However what is not so obvious is the total absence of even a very rudimentary health and safety system in both these factories.
The worst case scenario would be if both countries fail to learn any lessons from these tragedies and simply hope that nature will be kinder next time. Pakistan seems to have already fallen into this trap. A number of politically correct statements, multiple compensation packages and promises for high level inquiries is all that is needed to conclude and forget a calamity born out of criminal negligence and immoral exploitation. One hopes that the Rana Plaza would be a different story and result in Bangladesh conducting a nation-wide re-engineering of its health and safety laws and systems.
It is a constitutional responsibility of the state to create and implement laws and systems that protect the health and safety of people at work. The employers too, at least in three different ways are responsible for the safety of their staff. They owe a vicarious liability if one employee injures another, a statutory liability imposed by the law of the land and a personal duty under the common law to take reasonable care to prevent harm or injury to employees at the work place. Finally it is for the state to develop mechanisms and to ensure that employers protect the health and safety of their employees – through safe working conditions, provision of training, developing emergency response systems, using safe machines and equipment, following defined procedures and practices and complying with other safety requirements specified by the law.
Pakistan and Bangladesh can move forward by recognizing that the Baldia Factory and the Rana Plazas will continue to happen unless they develop in their respective countries, statutory and administrative mechanisms to ensure health and safety at all work places. The existing requirements for safety are largely obsolete, inadequate and for most part non-existent. The existing safety enforcement mechanisms are corrupt, incompetent and dysfunctional. Hence there is a need for the two countries to create their respective national statutory bodies for establishing and enforcing Occupational Health and Safety standards and systems.
Typically a national Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Authority derives its legitimacy and support from three sources. An Occupational Health & Safety Statutory Act, OHS Operational Regulations and the supporting Reference Codes and Standards.
As an illustration, consider the example of the Canadian Labour Code (R.S.C., 1985) which is the primary statutory document for Occupational Health and Safety. It lays down requirements for OHS that must be complied by employers, employees and government functionaries. It makes it obligatory for employers to pro-actively identify hazards and institute preventive measures to eliminate or reduce risks. The operational details for application, installation, operation, maintenance, inspections and records required by the statutory requirements are described in Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations (SOR/86-304). The Regulations in turn refer to Standards and Codes (such as B51-97, Boiler, Pressure Vessel, and Pressure Piping Code) that provide specifications for the correct methods and materials used in products, buildings or processes. Most western countries have adopted this three tier system for establishing and managing their OHS systems.
As I write these lines, I see on my television screen at least five persons tumbling to their death after jumping from the seventh floor of the burning LDA plaza at Lahore. Clearly Pakistan learnt no lessons from the disaster that destroyed the Baldia factory. Can one hope that Bangladesh will lead the struggle for work place safety in this region?