Mill labor: a job on the face of death

Naeem Ahmed

Muhammad Sarfraz is the sole breadwinner of his five siblings and elderly parents. Until a few weeks ago, he worked as a foreman at Phoenix Petroleum, a used mobile oil refinery near the Sudhar Bypass in Faisalabad, where he was paid Rs 22,000 a month to support his household.
But on June 8, a fire broke out in the factory due to a short circuit, which immediately engulfed the entire building. Eleven workers were burned in the blaze, five of whom died on the spot and one died at the hospital. Muhammad Sarfraz, 28, also lost his leg in the accident.

His family took him to Allied Hospital, the largest government medical center in Faisalabad, for treatment, where, according to him, “we have spent Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 2 lakh”. He raised this money by selling two of his three buffaloes.

Muhammad Sarfraz’s leg has not yet fully recovered, so nowadays he spends all his time in his village, 60 km south of Faisalabad. He told that since he became unemployed, his “family members have not eaten enough”. With only one buffalo left in the house, their income from selling milk has dwindled – they say it is now “difficult to make ends meet.”

According to a government investigation report, Phoenix Petroleum, spread over an area of ​​ten kanals, had been operating since 2014 without the approval of any government department. Similarly, a women’s clothing packing factory on Maqbool Road in Faisalabad was not listed as an industrial unit in official documents.

In Pakistan, 70% of workers work in industrial and commercial enterprises where working conditions are extremely unfavorable and safety measures are non-existent.

On July 3, 2020, a fire broke out due to a gas leak, as a result of which three workers, Hafiz Thaqleen Sarfraz, 31, Muhammad Irshad, 25, and Faisal Shehzad, 23, were burnt and seriously injured. All three later died at Allied Hospital.
Hafiz Thaqleen Sarfraz’s elder brother Waris Sarfraz says: ‘My parents have already died and now my only brother has left me. I don’t know who to share my grief with.

The victims of these two accidents were not given any assistance or compensation by the owners of the industrial establishments nor were they given any financial assistance by the government departments even though Muhammad Tayyab Advocate, an expert lawyer of labor laws working in Faisalabad. According to a law enacted in 1923, the government is required to pay compensation to the heirs of every worker who is injured in an accident. He says: “It is not necessary for the affected workers to work in a registered industrial company with the Social Security Department.” But “in order to receive compensation, their families have to file a case in the court of the Compensation Commission in the Labor Department.”
Haq Nawaz, a 17-year-old nephew of Shahadat Ali Khan, a Chiniot laborer killed in Phoenix Petroleum, has filed a case with the Compensation Commission, but his case has not yet been heard, despite several weeks having passed since the accident.

Meanwhile, his family is in dire financial straits. He says: “My uncles used to support my wife, children, my widowed mother and my three brothers, but after their death, I dropped out of school and started working in the fields.”

Many such tragic stories are scattered across the Faisalabad district as frequent industrial accidents occur here. According to government figures, a total of 22 workers have been killed and 35 injured in various industrial accidents in the last seven months.

According to Mian Mehboob, an official with a local labor union, the accidents were caused by a lack of safety measures in factories and poor working conditions. “Factories in older buildings have seen roof collapses, short circuits and other such accidents become commonplace,” he said.
But he also says that no practical action is taken at the government level on any of these accidents. “When there is a major accident, we make a lot of noise about it, which leads to official investigations, but nothing is done to provide a good working environment for the workers.”
His statement is corroborated by a report by the International Labor Organization, which states that 70% of workers in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mali and Nepal work in industrial and commercial enterprises that are not regularly registered with government agencies. And where working conditions are extremely unfavorable and without safety measures. As a result, industrial accidents are more likely to occur in these countries.

Roofs and short-circuit fires have become commonplace in factories in older buildings.

But officials from various government departments stationed in Faisalabad are unwilling to do more than blame each other for the situation. Munawar Awan, local director of the Labor Department, for example, admits that many local factories are not registered with his department, but excuses himself for the lack of safety measures in industrial establishments. It is the responsibility of the Industries Department, not us, to ensure these arrangements.
But Shahbaz Khan, the district officer of the industries department, claims that his department is only responsible for matters related to the development and promotion of industries. “Government officials inspecting machinery in factories are not accountable to us, but to the Department of Labor and Civil Defense.”
Rana Muhammad Abbas, the district officer of the Civil Defense Department, also has a justification for the failure of his department. “Due to lack of staff, we are not able to inspect industrial establishments in remote areas,” he said. However, he acknowledged that “this increases the risk of accidents.”

Naeem Ahmed is a journalist and political worker. Writes on political and social issues.