Rulers learnt no lesson: Workplaces still lack safety mechanisms

Karachi: The rulers have not learnt any lesson from the tragic factory fire incident of Ali Enterprises in Baldia Karachi and even today after the passage of three years majority of workplaces and factories lack safety and health mechanisms for their workers, while the promises made to the heirs of factory fire victims are still to be fulfilled, said labour leaders of National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) and Association of the Affectees of Baldia Tragedy here addressing a press conference in connection with the third anniversary of Baldia factory fire incident.

They said on 11st September 2012 a huge fire caught the Ali Enterprises in Baldia area of Karachi which is the biggest fire incident in the industrial history in the country. This tragic incident took place due to inadequate safety measure and violation of labour laws, and resultantly 259 workers were martyred and later a woman worker Nadia died in hospital and hence the death toll reached 260. However, hundreds of other workers were injured. This tragedy is the proof itself of inhuman treatment meted out to workers in our factories and workplaces.

They said sadly after the incident no step was taken at the government level to improve the working conditions of these industries and workplaces despite many tall claims at the government level. Today more 90 percent factories are unregistered, and working illegally. Despite the decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan the infamous contract system of labour is fully there, forcing millions of workers to toil on paltry wages like modern day slaves. In violation of labour laws, workers are not given appointment letters at the time of their recruitment. They are also not being registered with social security and pension institutions. An evil nexus of corrupt government officials and factory is behind this scam. However, innocent workers are bearing the brunt.

The system of labour inspection that is a key to get the labour laws implemented is deliberately put in limbo. The government instead of improving labour inspection system has left workers at the mercy of factory owners and private institutions that issue ISO certificates. The factory owners using these certificates as alternate to labour laws have turned their factories and workplaces into death traps for labours.

They said many famous international brands and companies are earning billions of dollars annually by getting manufactured their goods in Pakistan on cheap labour, but they are avoiding to implement the accepted labour standard in these factories and workplaces. A prominent example of this exploitation is the German company KIK that used to get its good manufactured in the Ali Enterprises and due to violation of international labour laws by it the Baldia factory fire incident took place. Therefore, the international brand of KIK is equally responsible for these deaths. Many other brands are also involved in violation of labour laws in order to get their goods manufactured in Pakistan on dirt cheap rates and some international social audit companies are helping them in this grave crime. Italian social audit company, RINA, is a shameful example of this scam that had issued the social audit certificate to Ali Enterprises. This certificate had claimed that the factory was following all local and international labour laws, while the ground reality was just opposite. This social audit company and many other companies like it issue fake social audit certificates to factories like the Ali Enterprises, which are in fact licenses to kill innocent workers. However, the government is ignoring this sensitive issue with utmost cruelty.

They said the prime minister, chief minister of Sindh and business tycoon Malik Riaz had promised to give compensation, plots and jobs to the heirs of Baldia factory fire victims, but sadly their promises were not fulfilled.

Ideally the government and owners of factories and workplaces should have learnt a lesson from this tragedy and taken efforts to ensure workplace safety, but instead some circles tried to dub it as a terrorism bid or result of extortion to create a smoke screen. However, the fact is that the majority of workers died of suffocation as the emergency gates were closed and windows were also shut with iron bars. Inside the factory there were illegally made wooden shelves that also resulted in blockage of smooth movement.

The precautionary and safety steps were not taken inside the factory that resulted in the death of workers. Sadly, the same situation could be witnessed even today in majority of textile, garment, hosiery and dyeing factories. This is why the Pakistani workers are right when they say that the responsibility of the deaths of Baldia factory workers falls on the shoulders of government, factory owners, labour related departments, international brands and social audit companies.

Pakistan has ratified more than 37 conventions of International Labour Organization (ILO), and the government of Pakistan is constitutionally obliged to implement local and international labour laws. Recently, Pakistan has got special privileges under GSP+ under which the Pakistani products have got access to the European countries with concession in duty and hence Pakistan has got a new market of billions of dollars. For getting this special status, the government of Pakistan and the owners of factories promised that they would not only uphold the labour laws and rights, but also take solid measures for their implement ion. However, the government and the owners of factories are not only violating the ILO conventions and local labour laws but also not fulfilling their promises under the GPS+ and it could cast negative effects on our economy. In this regard the international companies have also failed to discharge their accepted responsibilities.

After the Baldia factory fire incident, on the pressure of National Trade Union Federation Pakistan and other local and international labour and human rights organizations, the German brand KIK gave initial compensation to the heirs of victims, but later backtracked from its promise and refused to pay them more compensation and hold talks with them. Later the association of the heirs after consultation with their members decided to sue the KIK and four heirs including Saeeda Begum, Mohammad Jabir, Abdul Aziz and Hanif lodged a pain and suffering case in a German court through a noted German legal expert, which is expected to be heard next month. However, more than 500 heirs of 170 Baldia factory victims have completed documents to lodge case against RINA in an Italian court for payment of compensation.

The lawyers who are representing legal cases in Germany against KIK is Professor Dr Remo Klinger and Marco Bona, Stefano Bertone and other Lawyers are representing in Italy against RINA.

Moreover, the legal expert of NTUF had filed individual cases on behalf of the heirs for group insurance and gratuity in the Commissionerate of Compensation of the Labour Department, government of Pakistan. NTUF Pakistan, ECCHR, CCC, Uni Global, Industrial Global Union, Medico International and other local and international organizations are set to launch a movement for the rights of the heirs of Baldia factory fire victims.

The NTUF on the third anniversary of the Baldia factory fire tragedy would hold their central gathering in front of Ali Enterprises, Baldia Karachi on Friday, September 11, in which the heirs of the martyrs and workers representing different industries would participate and pay homage to the martyrs. The third anniversary of the Baldia factory fire would also be observed by the NTUF in Hyderabad, Sanghar, Tando Mohammad Khan, Thatta, Faisalabad, Multan and Hab.

They demanded that serious steps should be taken to save lives of workers at factories and workplaces. The heirs of the victims of Baldia factory fire should be given lifetime pension cards, group insurance and gratuity. DNA certificates of the victims that are yet to be identified should be issued. Prime minister, Sindh chief minister and Malik Riaz should fulfil their promises with the heirs of the victims.

They asked that KIK and RINA should accept their responsibilities and meet the demands of the heirs. Implementation on all labour laws and standards of ILO and GSP+ should be ensured. Illegal contract system of labour should be done away with. At the time of recruitment appointment letters should be given to workers. All factories should be registered under the Factories Act.

All workers should be given right to make their labour unions. Local and international audit companies should include consultation with the labour unions when issuing audit certificates. The wages of labours should be increased proportionately with price hike and these wages should be paid through banks. A monument in the memory of the martyrs should be erected at the affected factory.

Those spoke included NTUF deputy general secretary Nasir Mansoor, president NTUF Rafiq Baloch, Association of the Affectees of Baldia Tragedy leaders Mohammad Jabir and Saeeda Khatoon, general secretary of home-based women workers federation (HBWWF) Zahra Khan and Workers Rights Movement leader Gul Rahman.