At least 289 textile workers in Karachi and 25 shoe makers in Lahore died due to factory fires on Tuesday. This is the biggest loss of worker lives due to factory fires in Pakistan in some decades. The cruel negligence of governments in Sindh and Punjab and also of the federal government has resulted in such a huge loss of lives of the poorest of the poor.
Looking at the factories engulfed with fire on television, I could imagine the working conditions inside these factories, with very small work spaces for each worker, no proper ventilation system, only one exit, no fire safety equipment and an atmosphere full of chemicals. This is the horrifying situation that still exists in many thousand other small factories in Pakistan's largest cities. Sindh and Punjab are both provinces that have had a ban on the labour inspection of factories until last year. Even still, the labour department officials cannot inspect the factories without prior approval from the employer. In addition, rampant corruption within labour departments deprives workers of their basic rights.
The emergence of this type of small workplace has much to do the economic policies that our governments have adopted in the last few decades. The policies of neo-liberal globalization have reduced larger, safer workplaces into small factories through contractualisation and sub-contractualisation. Many large companies and multinational corporations are having their products made at these small factories which lack safe working conditions and freedom of association.
Labour Education Foundation and its member trade unions are expressing their grief and are showing solidarity with the families who lost their loved ones in these incidents. We demand that government immediately pay PKR one million (US$10,576) to the familly of each deceased worker and bring the responsible persons to justice. The government should also immediately start mapping other dangerous workplaces all across Pakistan and force employers to make working conditions safe. Government should also curb the mentality of employers who create hurdles to make it impossible for workers to form independent trade unions and to raise their voices against such dangerous working conditions.
Khalid Mahmood is the director of the Labour Education Foundation in Pakistan.