The recent Bangladesh factory collapse was another grim reminder of South Asia’s appalling workplace safety standards. In Pakistan, health and safety standards for factory workers remain abysmal. In September last year, a fire in a garment factory in Karachi killed over 300 people, a harrowing consequence of the systematic neglect of employees. Without any adequate emergency exits, people were forced to jump from the high-rise building to escape being burnt alive. One of the deadliest industrial fires in Pakistan’s history, many bodies were charred beyond recognition. At the same time, over 25 workers were killed in a shoe factory blaze in Lahore.
This calls into question the effectiveness of safety standards certificates like the SA8000 issued by organisations like Social Accountability International, which the garment factory in Karachi possessed.
The Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), a non-governmental labour rights group, maintain that according to the Electrical Rules 1973, it is mandatory for every factory administration to regularly get its electronic appliances and other such equipment verified to ensure that hazards in the workplace are eliminated, minimised, or controlled. According to labour activists, workplace conditions in Pakistan have deteriorated over the recent years.
Pakistan’s textiles account for a significant proportion of the country’s exports, yet the men and women who play a critical role in turning the wheels of industry remain at the bottom of the rung in a low-pay, high-risk environment.
Such horrific tragedies serve as damning indictments against countries where industrialists are often the beneficiaries of extraordinary political patronage and power, yet their employees languish in hazardous working conditions.
As Pakistan continues to realise its aspirations for an open democratic system, the exploitation of labourers, factory workers and daily wage earners by a narrow and predatory elite must be addressed.
This is perhaps indicative of a wider attitude towards the poor, which despite the much-vaunted slogans of democracy, the poorest who make up the majority of Pakistan’s population, are still flagrantly disregarded.