Between death and starvation
15 Sept 2012
People do not go to work to be blown into smithereens by ill-maintained boilers or be burnt alive by chemical fires. ‘Take care’ and ‘be safe’ are often the last words exchanged with one’s family before leaving home for work each day. Little do the families know that their dear ones will be spending the next many hours in death chambers camouflaged as work places. The callous, incompetent and corrupt government departments in collusion with employers have never had the capacity or interest in the subject of health and safety at work place. The die is clearly and criminally cast against the much exploited industrial work force. A decree of collective death sentence perpetually awaits millions of workers who must choose between hazardous work or starvation. It is therefore not surprising to see major industrial accidents occurring almost on daily basis, consuming hundreds of precious lives. Considering that we are trapped in an unenviable situation where “Baney hain ahel-e-hawas muddai bhi, munsif bhi, Kise wakil karen, kis se munsifi chahen”, to quote Faiz – what could be done to bring sanity and safety to the work place in Pakistan.
Let us begin by understanding how other countries manage health and safety (H&S) at work place. The law in UK requires employers to undertake specific H&S responsibilities. The employer must establish a documented system with respect to the health and safety at work. It must include assessment of all risks, taking suitable preventive measures and providing training and equipment to employees on how to deal with hazards and emergency situations. The employers must also ensure that sufficient emergency exits are provided and they remain safe and free from obstructions. United States has a dedicated and independent organization, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for setting and enforcing OHS standards. Likewise in Canada the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety (CCOHS) promotes and supports workplace H&S while provincial labour departments ensure enforcement of law.
Health and Safety at the work place in Pakistan is essentially driven by the 1934 Factories Act – a document to which the Islamic Republic has been unable to add a single page of value or substance. But even the antique 1934 Act had the good sense of including eight specific fire related requirements, not one of which was enforced in the two factories that were gutted in Lahore and Karachi recently. Essentially the current H&S enforcement mechanisms can only be described as either non-existent or having totally collapsed. It is therefore best to neither expect nor invest any more in flogging the dead horse.
Pakistan needs to create a new and independent Occupational Health and Safety Commission for setting and enforcing Occupational Health and Safety standards throughout Pakistan. This must be done by an act of parliament. If our Parliament can make laws in a matter of hours to protect one individual from contempt, then it can certainly take a few days to pass a law that will protect millions of men and women from constant exposure to ill-health, injury and death. Provinces can have their own programs which must meet or exceed the standards set by the Commission. The Commission must be staffed by educated professionals who understand this subject and who have never been in close proximity to the labour inspectors of the Pakistan government. It must be governed by a tripartite Council – representing government, employers and labour. The commission must operate on the concept of Plan, Do, Check, Improve (PDCI) cycle and have the power to close down a factory not meeting the H&S requirements. Needless to say that a completely new and comprehensive H&S legislation needs to be defined to replace the 1934 Factories Act.
The essentials of H&S can be described in seven simple steps. To conduct risk assessment for each task, equipment and location. To apply controls to eliminate or reduce the risks. To comply with the H&S legislation. To provide protective equipment and train all workers on hazards and risks involved. To create and rehearse plans to manage emergency situations. To report and investigate incidents and finally to measure and monitor the entire H&S system. These are easy and completely implementable tasks, provided the employers understood that the safety needs of workers are the same as that of their own children.
The Karachi Baldia Factory fire that took away over 300 lives was an entirely preventable accident. Not a single minister or bureaucrat had the moral courage to tender his resignation. A refuge has been taken behind six investigation committees appointed by the Sindh High Court, Labour Department, Commissioner Karachi, Chief Minister, FIA and the Police Chief. These committees have little capacity to undertake this task and will only follow the footsteps of the Benazir Bhutto case, to demonstrate how not to do an investigation. The only silver lining will be the savings involved in not inviting the Scotland Yard and the 5 million dollar United Nations investigation team. After all the 300 “or so” dead were ordinary, unimportant and nameless citizens. A state is no longer relevant when it counts its dead in such approximate numbers. Perhaps there is a need to revisit our priorities in line with the famous words of Booker T Washington – “Dignify and glorify common labor. It is at the bottom of life that we must begin, not at the top.”