“Do anything in life but don’t be a labourer!” These were the last words of Riaz Ahmed who lost his life while working in field on the construction of the Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT), as recalled by his son Zahid Ali.
Ever since the OLMT project kicked off later last year, there have been a number of casualties of workers at different construction sites in the city. In January, two labourers were killed when a crane hit an 11,000kv transmission line on a Raiwind Road construction site. Another two suffered severe burn injuries after they were electrocuted.
More recently, seven labourers lost their lives at the Quaid-e-Azam Interchange construction site, when the wall of a godown collapsed on their sleeping tents.
Such incidents aren’t specific to the OLMT, but when you are talking about a project as ambitious and ‘grand’ (in terms of the infrastructure involved), questions are bound to be raised.
Last month, a Lahore High Court division bench directed the Punjab government to inform it about the steps that were being taken (or not taken) for the protection of the workforce employed for the project. The court also took notice of the death of over 20 labourers at different construction sites of the OLMT.
For a common labourer in this country, injuries and ailments are the order of the day. But death is simply unforgiveable. Sadly, a majority of workforce in private and public sectors routinely succumbs to wounds, in the absence of a comprehensive law regarding occupational hazards and safety measures.
According to Khalid Mehmood, Director, Labour Education Foundation (LEF), a non-government organisation set up by renowned trade union leaders, human rights and women rights activists, “The road and construction sector, and even the chemical factories, marble crushing and grinding units, mining industry, cement manufacturing plants, tanneries, etc are not workplaces; these are death traps.
“The labourers go to work to earn their livelihood and come back with one medical issue or the other,” he adds. “Lung cancer, asthma, fatal skin allergies, tuberculosis, eyesight problems and heart-related diseases are common among this kind of workforce.”
Mehmood blames the employers for turning a blind eye to their workers’ safety and wellbeing “so as to save some pennies”.
“Forced shifts, lengthy work hours, and the fear of being laid off are some of the other factors that affect their health negatively,” he says.
Factories Act, 1934, which deals with the labour’s welfare to some extent, is also ineffective as it does not cover all relevant occupational risks. Besides, it is limited only to the factory domain. What about the workforce associated with infrastructure development and construction projects?
There are other laws such as Dock Labourers Act, 1934; Mines Act, 1923; Workmen Compensation Act, 1923; Provincial Employees Social Security Ordinance, 1965; West Pakistan Shops and Establishments Ordinance, 1969 and Boilers and Pressure Vessels Ordinance, 2002. But none of these addresses health and safety issues as occupational hazards.
In the absence of a comprehensive law regarding occupational hazards and safety measures, a majority of workforce in private and public sectors routinely succumbs to wounds.
The Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis & Human Resource Development (OPHRD) states that under the 36 ILO conventions, Pakistan has been following the Labour Inspection Convention 1947 (No. 81) since 1953, which binds the government to implement an effective labour inspection system. However, the situation is quite the other way round.
According to Shaukat Chaudhry, a leader of the Pakistan Workers’ Confederation (PWC), the labour force (both skilled and unskilled) is estimated at 60 million in the country. The number of unregistered and informal workers is even higher. With 15 percent increase in female workers over the last few decades, the strength of workforce has increased manifold.
In order to check the safety and health of such a mammoth size of employees, the Punjab has only 72 labour inspectors. Funnily, the Labour & Human Resource Department of the province is said to be without a female labour inspector.
Chaudhry denounces the government for playing with human lives. “Occupational risk swells many times with the induction of new technological advancements,” he says.
Talking about the method of inspection, he says it is “always below the mark as the labour inspectors are unqualified and untrained.”
It may be mentioned here that labour inspection was banned in 2003 by the then chief minister. The ban was lifted in 2012 when 26 people were killed in a boiler explosion in a medicine factory on Multan Road. Later, the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) issued a list of 459 small factories and industrial units that are running illegally and covertly. But no action was taken. In November 2015, Lahore was witness to another bloody incident in which 46 workers were buried alive in the wake of the collapse of a four-storey factory building at the Sundar Industrial Estate.
The Minister for Labour and Human Resource Raja Ashfaq Sarwar came out and spoke of enforcing a result-oriented inspection system to ensure the safety and health of the workforce.
Arshad Mehmood, a senior official of Centre for Improvement of Working Conditions & Environment (SAACIWCE), a subsidiary of the Punjab Labour Department, and project director for occupational health and safety, claims that the department is conducting a weekly training programme for contractors and workers. It’s a two-month contingency plan.
“A fresh law has also been drafted,” he says. “It shall come into effect once the PA approves it.”
Under the new legislation, only those with educational background in sciences shall be appointed as labour inspectors.
Dawood Abdullah, Director Headquarter, Labour Department, is of the view that all stakeholders including the ILO representatives have been taken on board in drafting the new bill. “It shall prove to be quite fruitful,” he claims.
Media Bites Editorial/ Courtesy: Yasir Habib Khan (for The News on Sunday)
Pakistan First Media And Brand Website.
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