PAKISTAN: Over 300 labourers killed in fires — a total collapse of the state 

AHRC-STM-186-2012.jpgMore than 300 labourers were burned alive in two separate incidents when factories caught fire in Karachi, the capital of Sindh and Lahore, the capital of Punjab. In Karachi alone 280 workers were trapped in the fire and in Punjab 25 were killed in similar conditions. These incidents happened on September 11 and will go down in history as Pakistan’s 9/11 for the downtrodden working class people. (photo courtesy of Daily The News)

It is known that with regard to the factory in Karachi the building which housed the factory was not built to any reasonable standard and no fire safety arrangements were followed. There were more than 600 hundred workers in this unregistered factory and due to this only 200 were listed as employees of the company and the remaining were recruited by third party ‘contractors’. These people were therefore denied of all legal rights and paid daily wages. No workers were registered with social security or the Employee’s Old Age Benefits Institute (EOBI) and the Workers Welfare Board Public Fund.

The workers were banned from forming a trade union and whenever they attempted to do this they were forcibly retrenched. Many of them were arrested on false charges. There is a total of 19 government departments responsible for ensuring that labour laws are followed. None of the departments ever wrote a report after ‘inspecting’ these factories for hygiene and safety conditions because as it is widely reported they are on the payroll of the factory.

Fires in factories are a common occurrence and it is well established that they happen because the owners want to hide their wrong doings and illegal acts. They are quick to claim insurance for the loss of their properties and it can be no coincidence that the owners of the Karachi factory have done so on two previous occasions. Huge amounts of compensation were paid out to them. The surviving workers allege that on this occasion again, the owners tried to completely destroy the material stock and records by closing off all access to the factory. Again, they hope to obtain huge amounts of compensation. However, on this occasion things went out of control and there was a terrible loss of human life.

The fires are a sad indictment of the state which has blatantly failed in its duty to ensure a safe working environment for the workers who bring in so much revenue for the country. The government has turned a blind eye to the repeated demands of the trade unions to upgrade safety and security in the factories while the factory owners and captains of industry live a life of luxury at the expense, and lives, of their workers.

Despite the terrible loss of life none of the provincial governments or the federation is taking serious steps to ensure that the labour and industry laws are followed strictly on an emergency basis. There is no indication whatsoever that improvements are being made across the country. In the factories and sweatshops, many of which are death traps, it is business as usual and the labourers dare not complain for fear of losing their employment.

The only people that are listening to the labourers are the trade unions and they do not have the ear of the government. Their pleas for improvements go nowhere. It is like trying to get through a vertical brick wall; nothing penetrates up to the government levels. Is this due to the negligence of the relevant departments or the blatant corruption that seeps through every section of the civil service?  It is nothing less than a total breakdown of the state in that it does nothing to provide any kind of security for the workers.

Instead of conducting a credible investigation into the cause of the fires the government ministers and authorities are shifting their responsibility by putting forward the theory that the fires were not accidental but caused by terrorist elements to mark 9/11. This is very much like the comments of the police officers who investigate bomb blasts throughout the country. Instead of conducting serious investigations to identify those responsible they simply report that the bomber was killed in the blast and that no further investigation is required.

This is tantamount to a criminal act on the part of the government by their failure to take responsibility for such incidents which happened because they failed in their duties in the first place. This in turn will leave room for further fires and other similar accidents because, rather than ensure that fire safety regulations are strictly, and immediately enforced, by blaming terrorist elements they are saying that this would have happened regardless. By shifting the blame and suggestions of terrorism they are completely ignoring the tragic loss of lives and the consequences which follow. Families have lost loved one and bread winners. Will there be adequate compensation for these people; indeed, will there be any compensation at all? All this shows that the human loss is of no importance to the authorities, the very people who have the mandate to protect them.

The Asian Human Rights Commission conveys its sincere condolences to the families who lost loved ones and friends in these fires and calls on the government of Pakistan to ensure a credible and transparent investigation into their cause. The government departments responsible for the safety and welfare of, not only the deceased workers but, more importantly, those still living, must be taken to task. If there is any indication of negligence the department heads must be prosecuted. These departments were created for a specific purpose, to ensure safety for the workers, instead they appear to more concerned with feathering their own nests. The question then must be asked, what is the purpose of these departments? The ministers of labour and industry of these two provinces must be investigated for their hand in allowing these factory owners to operate without any control.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-186-2012
Countries : Pakistan,
Issues : Labour rights,