The state of water in Sindh
April 1, 2019
CAA and minimum wages
April 2, 2019

LAST month, the tragic death of six workers at an under-construction site in Karachi raised alarm bells about the prevalence of inhumane labour practices in the construction industry, which employs around eight per cent of Pakistan’s 65 million strong labour force.

According to the FIR lodged on behalf of the state, the workers were onboard a trolley and were setting up the glass panes on the 13th floor of the building when one of the two iron ropes suddenly snapped, causing all six workers to fall to their deaths. The trolley was fixed with two iron ropes instead of four, and anchored to the ground with heavy stones, instead of any proper machinery.

None of the workers were wearing safety harnesses or helmets. They had complained to the contractor and owner about the safety risks and requested personal protective equipment, but no attention was paid to their words. The poor workers continued to risk their lives, earning just Rs1,000 a day, until they finally met their untimely end.

Qualified labour inspectors are needed to check working conditions.

A visit to the site of the 24-story building at the last stages of its completion confirms that the owner, contracting firm, and two subcontractors completely ignored the safety of the workers they engaged in hazardous work. The arrested labour contractor told the police that he had asked the main contractor and owner to provide belts and helmets, a warning that was not heeded.

The others accused have taken pre-arrest bail — a legal trick used by the influential to avoid police investigations and arrests. Legal experts believe that the accused in such cases easily get away by paying small amounts to the heirs of poor workers and taking advantage of loopholes in the justice system.

Such tragedies are not uncommon. It was only in November last year that seven workers were burnt to death while working in an auto-manufacturing factory in Karachi’s Landhi area. However, there seems to be complete official apathy towards poor workers who are made to risk their lives to earn a square meal.

Sindh’s department of Labour and Human Resources believes they are only responsible for checking health and safety in factories, shops and commercial establishments as stipulated under the Sindh Factories Act 2015 and the Shops and Commercial Establishment Act 2015, and not at construction sites.

The most they can do is to process compensation for the victim’s family under the Sindh Workers Compensation Act 2015. On the other hand, the Sindh Occupational Safety and Health Act 2017 is a comprehensive piece of legislation which exclusively deals with occupational safety and labour inspections at all workplaces.

However, the Sindh government is yet to approve the rules of business of the law and notify an occupational safety and health council to monitor its implementation. This provides the labour department an excuse to get away with its responsibilities of monitoring and inspection at all workplaces.

Leaving aside the technicalities that the government departments use as an excuse to avoid their responsibilities, the labour department’s capacity itself is a separate story. The province has only 22 occupational safety and health inspectors for a labour force of 14.43m, and none of them have a civil engineering degree, a qualification required to monitor construction sites. The number of factory inspectors is equally dismal at 80 in total for the entire province, which hosts 70pc of the country’s industry and commercial activity. These too have additional tasks and responsibilities.

The department was established in 1970, but its capacity remains nearly the same as it was 48 years ago. This clearly indicates that the safety and health of workers is not the priority of the provincial government, which claims to represent the interests of the working class.

Governments are not judged by tall claims, but by the actions they take and laws and policies they create and implement in the interest of citizens. The Sindh government’s budgetary and administrative powers have increased as result of the seventh NCF award and 18th Amendment passed in 2010, but it has failed to deliver on many accounts. There can be no remedy for inefficiency and bad governance. Instead of making cheap popularity visits, the chief minister should have paid serious attention to policy measures such as enhancing the capacity of the labour department and bringing reforms in the labour inspection system to ensure workers safety at work place.

Of course, nothing can be done to bring back the workers who lost their lives and no one can heal the wounds of those who lost their near and dear ones. But it is imperative to bring those responsible for the deaths of the workers to justice and sufficiently compensate the victims’ heirs.

Zulfiqar Shah
The writer works at Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research.

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2019