How 300 Pakistani Workers Died Trapped Inside a Burning Factory

On Tuesday in Karachi, nearly 300 Pakistani workers died locked inside a factory on fire. With doors locked so that only one exit was open for the 600 workers trapped inside, some survived the 48-hour-long blaze by jumping out of windows several stories high.  The managers resonsible for the devastating death toll are on the run, facing murder charges for their egregious lack of concern for human life.

While it has been speculated that a recent break-in encouraged the locked doors, employees allege more sinister motives. They say the bosses forced them to stay and save the stock, stone-washed jeans intended for European consumers. Others speculate that the doors were locked to prevent workers from leaving early. 

With 289 employees dead, the tragedy has seen the most casualties in a single industiral incident in Pakistan's history.  Later that day, 25 more Pakistanis deid in a fire at an illegal shoe factory in Lahore.  

The Guardian reports that prioritizing profit over workers has created dire labor conditions in Pakistan, where the economy is heavily dependent on textile manufacturing:

...Although Pakistan's constitution guarantees the right to secure and humane working conditions, these twin tragedies have shown this right is meaningless. Ministers have been queuing up to offer their condolences and condemnation, with President Asif Ali Zardari announcing an investigation, and murder charges being filed against the factory owners for their "utter negligence".

But what exactly is the legal protection for workers in Pakistan? The only legislation on health and safety that exists is the Hazardous Occupation Rule 1963, under the 1934 Factories Act. The act also has a whole section, added in 1997, that is concerned with fire safety. Pakistan is a signatory to the International Labour Organisation's labour inspection convention, which commits the government to ensuring that workers are fully informed about their legal rights, and to enabling inspectors to report on problems that aren't covered by existing regulations.

So laws defending workers' rights do exist. But they are rendered redundant by a total failure of implementation. In fact, an executive order issued under the Punjab Industrial Policy 2003 actually abolished labour inspections, with the aim of "developing an industry and business-friendly environment" to attract fresh investment. The ban originated in Punjab (the province that is home to Lahore), and Sindh (where Karachi is situated), appears to have followed suit. Unsurpisingly, it was implemented under pressure from wealthy industrialists.

Read more about it here.

AlterNet / By Kristen Gwynne

Posted at September 14, 2012, 7:31am

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