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September 13, 2012

Catastrophic Pakistan Fires Prompt Calls for Tighter Safety Laws

by Ayaz Gul

Critics in Pakistan are blaming hazardous working conditions and the failure to implement labor laws for this week’s tragic deaths of about 300 workers in two separate factory fires. 

The fire at a shoe-making factory in the eastern city of Lahore killed about two dozen laborers.  But the blaze that struck a garment factory in the country’s commercial center, Karachi, is being described as Pakistan’s worst industrial disaster, leaving at least 264 workers dead.

The victims, along with many others, were trapped in the three-story building when the fire erupted Tuesday.

The civil administration’s delayed response to extinguish the massive fire using outdated equipment is also being harshly criticized.

The catastrophe has saddened and enraged the nation of 180 million, where questions are again being asked about non-implementation of safety standards in factories across Pakistan.  Critics also cite alleged massive corruption in government departments for the blatant violation of construction rules, particularly in the industrial sector.

Pakistan's parliament has unanimously passed a resolution asking provincial and federal authorities to fully investigate the accidents. Federal Law Minister Farooq Naek presented the resolution.

“This house calls upon and recommends to the provincial governments to immediately form a judicial commission to probe into the cause of incidents, fix responsibility on those responsible for the happening of tragic incidents, fix responsibility on government servants for not enforcing and implementing relevant rules and laws,” said Naek.

But critics are skeptical about the political resolve, saying a majority of lawmakers represent Pakistan's powerful business community.

Simply going after the owners of the factories in the wake of accidents will not solve the problem, said attorney Zia Ahmed Awan, a frontline labor and child-rights activist.

“We need to have a rule of law, we need to have a system for protecting the labor rights, children's rights, said Awan. "All these rights are the responsibility of the government. There are laws, there are rules of regulations, which are not being implemented."


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​Police say the building was illegally constructed and there was only one exit, with no safety measures or equipment in place to extinguish the fire before it engulfed the entire facility.  
Sultan Mohammad Khan, president of All Pakistan Labor Federation that organizes about half a million workers across the country, said production units in public and private sectors lack occupational safety as well as health measures.  He said most factory buildings, especially in the private sector, do not have enough emergency escape routes.

Khan added building structures are put in place in a way that when fires erupt workers, in most cases, are trapped inside the building, and by the time rescue teams arrive most of them have already burned to death.  He said no employer in Pakistan has ever been punished for providing insufficient safety measures, because the employer has the support of officials who influence the government inquiry to protect his interests.

International Labor Organization (ILO) country director Francesco d’Ovidio says just like many other developing nations in the world, working and safety conditions in Pakistan’s industrial sector are also not adequate.  His organization knows about the problems, but acknowledges they cannot be solved quickly.

“The ILO is aware that there are a lot of factories in Pakistan that are scattered [and] many of them are not registered, so it is very difficult to implement the law, he said. "It is very important to ensure that all these factories are registered so that it is possible to follow the situation in all these factories.”

The ILO country director also pointed out that unless authorities ensure effective inspection and monitor the situation in the factories, it is difficult to address the problems.  But he said shutting down illegal and unregistered units will not help either because it could lead to massive unemployment.

Pakistani newspaper editorials are urging the government to perform regular inspections of all factories in the country, and are condemning the workplaces as “concentration camps where workers are denied their basic and legal rights.”