Must the doors of escape routes be locked from outside and remain closed forever for the trapped factory workers of Pakistan? Are they destined to be burnt alive, inhaling smoke, carbon and chemicals, their lungs choked with soot and their bodies scorched with fire.
The 258 workers in Baldia Town and 17 in Korangi’s Mehran Town died screaming with pain and agony, unable to escape from the locked emergency exits. The truth is that they were murdered by the cluelessness and connivance of the Sindh Labour Department. Its disinterested Directors and Inspectors, drenched in years of ignorance and palm-greasing, have no capacity, knowledge or appetite for the task assigned to them.
Pakistan and its workers will continue to suffer these tragic consequences as long as we do not (a) change the mindless, archaic and compromised governance of the Labour Departments and (b) adopt scientific and digital processes to manage Occupational Health & Safety (OHS) at the national level. OHS is not about who all must be hanged after an occurrence but how to operate a system that prevents accidents from happening.
We could begin by building a professional OHS Department that reports directly to the Secretary of the Ministry of Labour. It must be mandated to work closely with stakeholders to promote and ensure workplace safety through legislation, policies and capability building. Today we know very little about the factories that exist in the province. We must therefore begin by preparing a database of all factories — may they be located in industrial zones, residential areas or homes. This can be easily done through media announcements asking all concerned to electronically register with the OHS Department by filling a form placed on the OHS Department’s website.
The next step is to ask all organisations to fill and submit a web-based questionnaire that should adequately identify the key processes, products, materials, hazards, controls, OHS system elements, safety equipment, safety responsibilities, safety audits and emergency procedures of each organisation. The role of the OHS Department is to analyse this data, seek clarifications and offer advice and help where needed. All this can be done electronically without anyone visiting a factory or an office.
A key responsibility of the Government’s OHS Department is to proactively provide OHS information, guidance, support and training to the industry. This is typically a web-based activity that provides guidelines on establishing an OHS system, appointing OHS teams, conducting risk assessment, complying with laws, handling emergency situations, having appropriate workplace facilities, training of workers, handling hazardous materials, applying operational controls, reporting of accidents and seeking further help on OHS issues.
The tasks described above are knowledge-based and can only be performed by competent and trained staff. Thus the staff of the newly formed OHS Department must be adequately trained on OHS systems, standards, risk assessment, controls and compliance, besides being well versed in working on computers. Knowledge and experience of OHS system audits must be an essential component of such training programmes.
The existing Sindh OHS Act 2017 needs to be simplified and rewritten. Loaded with 6 pages that dwell on offences and penalties, four on powers of inspectors, four on definitions and three on OHS Council (that never met), this document is too convoluted for any practical application. Interestingly it has no requirement of establishing an OHS system or to take ‘corrective actions’.
Pakistan’s 90 million workers deserve an escape from poverty, disease, hunger and exploitation. About 50% of them do not receive even the minimum legal wage while 90% are not registered with EOBI or SESSI. They deserve safe workplaces. They deserve employers that will build safety in their jobs and a government that will promote and ensure its compliance. It is not the workers’ fault to be trapped behind the locked escape routes. They are trapped by the closed minds and archaic processes of the clueless Labour Departments.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 5th, 2021.