On September 11, 2012, a ghastly fire caught up a garment factory in Baldia Town Karachi that claimed the lives of 259 indigent workers and left more than 50 workers seriously injured. On November 4, 2015, another accident, in which a depleting factory roof collapsed in Sundar Industrial Estate Lahore, killed dozens of labourers and left several workers permanently impaired. Incessantly, a fire that erupted in Gadani shipbreaking yard on the first day of November last year killed at least 11 out of 59 badly burnt workers while they were dismantling an oil tanker.
The tragedies of this ferocious nature and sizable scale make almost everyday news items in the Pakistani media. However, the frequency of small scale accidents, cruelly impairing individual workers, is far higher than what is reported and further appalling too. The number of workplace accidents is ostensibly higher mostly within the clusters of industrial establishments but the occurrence of accidents is quite indiscriminate in geographical terms.
The ensuing melancholy that prevails after every tragedy of horrifying nature and humongous scale could easily leave any sensitive soul incarcerated in Iqbal’s lament on harsh labour terms [hain talkh buhat banda-e mazdoor keY auqAt] or Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence and question “why is it here that we have to be living by all means in compromise with this menace as if ordained”.
Our nationally recognised statistics on Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) enumerate to a terrific scale of accidents, injuries and occupational diseases that are pervasive across each and every quarter of industrial, agricultural, informal and whatsoever economic sector of the country. A recent report compiled by a federal ministry highlights that out of 61 million labour force population of Pakistan, 57 million (94 per cent) are employed in agriculture, construction, manufacturing and other elementary occupations. The data on occupational accidents reveals that the people employed in informal economic sectors are the largest victims of OSH related hazards. The formal industrial and construction sectors are not a significant exception too.
The price of unmatched calamity that individuals, their families and dependents bear and keep paying for their entire lives deserves our due attention. This surely demands us to fulfill our responsibilities related to Fundamental Principles and Rights at Workplace (FPRW) and safer working conditions. FPRW is a set of three statuary principles and one right that any member state of International Labour Organisation (ILO) that recognises ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work is obliged to ensure at the respective workplaces.
These include; i) Effective abolition of child labour, ii) Elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation, iii) Elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour, and iv) Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.
A number of other ILO’s conventions also demands from the signatory states to ensure that decent working conditions pertaining to minimum wages, working hours and maternity protection etc., must be ensured at the workplaces. Pakistan, being an active member of ILO, is signatory to all those conventions that demand the compliance of International Labour Standards to ensure FPRW and decent working conditions.
Studies run worldwide have long been making strong case for the economies to consider that denying fundamental rights contribute to several elements that are detrimental to the state of human rights, wellbeing, growth and development of labour force, thereby substantially harming industrial peace and national productivity. It is now flash evident that any economy that fails in fulfilling its duties pertaining to basic human rights is bound to experience, among others a) higher rates of physical, psychological or sexual abuse of the worker by the employer; b) higher chances of kidnapping, trafficking or other illegal activities including organ trade; c) deepening poverty, social discrimination and marginalisation of bonded labourers and their families; d) higher incidents where persons work very long hours in hazardous and unhygienic conditions; e) violation of children’s’ basic rights to education and healthy childhood; f) harassment, sexual harassment, bullying, stereotyping and mobbing among workers; g) confining women within traditional work-role occupations; h) higher incidences of glass ceiling within professional career fields, and i) higher rates of labour turnover that further escalates the transactional labour costs.
Whereas, compliance to the statuary standards as stipulated within ILO’s conventions could make meaningful contribution towards creating a harmonious industrial climate leading to industrial peace and thereby promoting economic and social development in the country. ILO’s conventions, if applied in spirit, provide immense opportunities and frameworks that help i) strengthening of workforces’ collective bargaining capacity, ii) regulate employers arbitrary actions, iii) yield low hanging fruits of trade unionism, iv) put in place a prompt and fair mechanism of settlements and grievance redressal, v) monitor implementation of laws pertaining to wages and employment conditions, vi) promote a sense of job security amongst employees and thereby reducing the transactional cost of frequent and abrupt labour turnover and vii) supervise discrimination amongst and exploitation of workers.
The need of a strong labour administration system that safeguards basic human rights of workers by ensuring application of International Labour Standards for provision of decent OSH and working conditions cannot be overemphasised hence.
Labour administration is one of the key governance functions that owes the mandate to promote social justice and industrial peace in any given geographical entity. The labour administration system ensures this by application of statuary laws of the land that are enforced through the means of an efficient labour inspection system and workers accidental compensation and welfare mechanisms.
It is the efficiency of labour administration system that determines the extent to which the laws are developed and enforced. The need of stringent laws that effectively cover the desired elements of social justice and industrial peace in the economy is very essential but the efficient enforcement of laws remains greatly crucial to the subject.
In Pakistan, the function of Labour Administration has been devolved to the provinces with enactment of 18th constitutional amendment, that fully empowers the provinces with prerogative to legislate and enforce laws related to labour administration. Nonetheless, the provinces have shown great activism to upgrade and customise laws as per respective provincial realities. The situation now calls for a swift and committed action to enforce those laws with their utmost sanctity. This will require a robust planning to make-up the human, financial and technical capability gap within the government’s law enforcement machinery.
A labour administration system that is empowered with a) capable and clean handed leadership, b) incentivised performance-based human resource management and monitoring system, c) believes in preventive labour inspection system and d) responsive compensation and redressal mechanisms could refuge us from the vicious contemplation of events that consolidate in to dreadful accidents.
Many think that Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, decent working conditions and labour standards promote a westernised capitalist agenda instead of being a moral code. This belief could only prevent us from connecting with larger human identity and resolving the menace of labour rights violations. This leaves us no more than continue living in a state of compromise with ferocious incidents that we choose to believe as happening to people of lesser fate only and that too under the will of supreme deity.
Let’s change that mindset for a change and resolve to the commitment towards a greater moral approach. The law enforcement is for sure an exclusive prerogative of the ‘government functionaries’ and no challenge to that. We however could approach any situation like this with a broader approach where all the subjects concerned fulfill their responsibilities ordained by the law. As in this case the ‘employers’ for sure owe greatest responsibility to ensure that all legal standards are adhered to in fullest spirit.
And the ‘workers’ are also responsible to know about hazards around and claim their right to work in an environment that is safe and decent. It is their very right for which only they could raise a stronger voice instead of anyone else.