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KARACHI CHRONICLE: Reactions to Karachi factory tragedy: Betraying a lack of original thought

Over 300 workers were burnt to death in the inferno that gutted a multi-unit garment factory in Baldia on the Quaid's 64th death anniversary, September 11. It was the worst industrial accident in the history of the country. Listening to what is being said in the Press, in TV talk shows, by government officials and NGOs, by Police and Labour Department, by factory owners in the city's five industrial estates, by medicos and the public, you get the creepy feeling that you have heard it all before.

The statements are replay of similar statements in other horrible tragedies that have hit Karachi. And you know with certainty that nothing like real work will be done to prevent another tragedy in future. Fires have taken more lives than road accidents or murders. Short circuits, tyre burning and bus burning by angry mobs, fire bombs setting ablaze hotels and lawfirms, incendiary materials in shops and factories gutting the place, winter fires in hutments etc these are everyday occurrences in the city. Yet there are only 20 municipal fire trucks. There are hundreds of high-rise buildings but the KMC fire trucks do not have a snorkel to reach top stories. In the case of the Baldia factory inferno the Navy, Air Force and Karachi Port provided support with their fire trucks. Among them there was a single snorkel that managed to reach people stranded on the rooftop of the factory. The fire department endlessly complains of lack of proper fire-fighting equipment.

If fire-safety measures are made compulsory in every sphere of work, whether it is a factory, a shop, an office or the street where buses ply and generators stand, next to vendors of inflammable goods like cloth and plastic goods on pushcarts and by banning burning of effigies, flags and tyres at protest meetings of public and politicians, the city will be a safer place to live in. There is no fire drill even in schools and hospitals.

But instead we think in cliches, playing the blame game, holding government departments responsible, or the owner of the factory, the violation of building control codes, the lack of worker safety regulations and other ILO codes, criticising the politicians in the National and provincial assemblies etc-etc.

On their part the persons held responsible will offer the same old cliche excuses and solutions, such as setting up committees to know the cause of the fire, inquiry teams of police, announcing compensation setting up relief funds, setting up watchdog agencies or NGOs.

One of the pet cliches in the case of any incident involving industrial workers it to criticise the flouting of ILO rules about labour inspection to ensure safe working conditions and the employment of registered workers, with proper wages and insurance cover. Of course all this is fact, but what is wrong is how we read those facts.

For instance, many workers are daily recruited by agents and not permanent employees of any factory.

In the case of garment factory workers (one of the three units in the Baldia factory which included candle making and plastic goods manufacture) married females are not to be employed according to ILO regulations.

Yet those women need the work. If the factory owner or agent gives them work are they really all that wicked? Granted, it suits them to have unregistered workers, but it also suits the workers who have a job they badly need. I have had an opportunity to talk to many female garment factory workers and this is exactly what they said. Better work in any condition than starving by having no employment. The sole complaint I heard was the absence of separate toilets for men and women.

It is the done thing in case of a tragedy to demonise the employer and recruiting agent. Liaquat Hussain 29, one of the survivors of the Baldia factory inferno, who lost seven family members including his brother and uncle in the fire, said what surprised many media persons. He praised the factory owners, especially the two brothers Shahid and Arshad who managed the factory.

He said they always helped workers in times of need. This was no surprise to me as I had heard similar praise of employers.

Almost all employers of labour help workers in times of need. Although this is not a means of financial security that better wages, regular employment and insurance can give the worker, it is the only thing that workers feel they have a right to demand. They fear demanding benefits according to ILO rules will lead to loss of job.

The bottom line is that you cannot have ILO rules and codes in place by demanding them or enforcing them.

As long as there is shortage of jobs, poverty, grinding inflation, lack of will on the part of government, also corruption in corridors of every department and agency responsible for economic development of the country, including politicians, only then will sanity prevail. Only then will laws be enforced successfully.

Only then will be award dignity and human rights to the labour force. And I do not see any of it happening in my lifetime.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2012