An Open Letter to Nawaz Sharif: Lift Ban on Factory Inspection and Ensure Compliance with Core Labour

By Ismat Shahjehan:

Dear Mr. Sharif,

At least 23 people died after fire broke out today in a shoe factory, illegally located in the residential area of Gulshan-e-Ravi area, Lahore. The fire engulfed the factory while full shift of 45 was at work. Prior to this brutal industrial hazard in Lahore, many other hazards are on record. In February this year, of 50 employees, 30 bodies (16 of them were women and 5 were boys below 16) were recovered from the rubble of a pharmaceutical factory (Orient Labs (Pvt) Ltd.) in Lahore, which collapsed after a huge blast. The blast was caused  by the boiler of this veterinary injections making factory. The building collapsed trapping over 50 workers, most of them young women and child labor.  The factory was also illegally located in a residential area and the blast also destroyed adjacent buildings. The residents had filed a case in a civil court seeking closure of the factory but no action was taken.

There are hundreds of such small factories operating illegally in residential areas and violating all the labour laws. The  workers of these factories report that  they are paid Rs.3000, to 5000 and they work for 12 hours/day with no proper toilets facility and occupational safety measures.

The working conditions in the industry in Punjab have generally deteriorated ever since the abolition of labour inspections almost seven years ago.  Inspections were stopped following an executive order issued under the provisions of the Punjab Industrial Policy 2003, which aimed at “developing an industry and business-friendly environment” to attract fresh investment.

The routine physical inspection of factories was stopped by the then provincial government through an amendment to the Punjab Factories Rules, 1978. Physical inspection of the workplace by labour inspectors was replaced with a self-declaration statement  by the employers on compliance with labour laws in their units. There is no law to check or take action against those employers, who do not submit self-declaration. Labour unions allege that the government decision has drastic consequences for the industrial workers in the province. They note that not a single industry complies with the labour laws since labour inspections were stopped. Even Director Labour, Punjab said in a telephonic conversation with me in February this year that “compliance with labour laws is extremely low in Punjab and almost 80% of workers do not get minimum wage of Rs.7000”.

The abolition of labour inspections is a violation of the constitution and amounts to violation of fundamental rights of the industrial workers. It is also a violation of the International Labour Organization’s C-81 Labour Inspection Convention that provides for labour inspection for effective implementation of the national labour laws. Labour inspections are central to enforcing labour laws and regulations effectively and universally at the workplace and protecting the workers from any kind of exploitation by employers.

Moreover, the subject of labour has been devolved to provinces after  18th amendment to the Constitution. However, provinces have not yet fully legislated new labour laws.   Constitutional experts say that the recent constitutional reforms have affected at least 130 laws pertaining to labour and no serious work was done before this vital amendment to the constitution. Punjab was the first province, which passed  Industrial Relations Ordinance but had cut down on rights of unionization through increasing the number of employees from 10 to 50 in a unit to qualify for organizing a trade union.

The restoration of the legal and constitutional rights guaranteed to the workers under various  labour laws have been taken away from them through executive orders and policies in the name of economic development, could be the first step towards scaling down this brutal violation of labour rights. More importantly, effective labour inspections are vital if safe and decent working conditions are to be ensured in the industry.

Mr.  Sharif,

You mostly warn against a bloody revolution because of increasing poverty due to policies of handful of elite.  The revolution you talk about may indeed come if this class divide is not overcome and workers are not given rights.

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