By Tariq Awan, Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER)
The total population of Pakistan is about 135.6 million. The ratio between male and female is equal. The majority of the population are young people. Approximately 90.05 million were of working age.
According to government statistics the labour force in Pakistan was estimated at 39.4 million of which the industrial labour force constituted 6,005,487, agriculture represented 17,518,204 and service 10,586,309.
According to another government source 44 percent of labour belongs to the agriculture sector and 56 percent form the service and industrial sectors of which 20 percent is formal sector and 36 percent informal.
The number of registered unions was 7,349 with a total membership 293,530 made up of 288,327 men and 5,203 women (Labour Department statistics). These data show that less than three percent of workers are organised.
The above data is not reliable but is what is available.
No data about occupational health and safety (OHS) are available in Pakistan because the majority of accidents are not reported to the Labour Department. Diseases and accidents in the work place are an appalling tragedy. The incidence of occupational diseases and injuries is very high in Pakistan because thousands of workers are routinely exposed to hazardous chemicals.
It is well known that healthy workers are most productive. The introduction of hazardous technologies in industry and agriculture have resulted in high accident rates, occupational diseases, and unhealthy working environments. Most workers are illiterate and do not know what protective measures should be adopted for their jobs. This results in an increasing toll of work related accidents and diseases.
Pakistan has poor occupational safety and health legislation and infrastructure to promote it.
Large numbers of illiterate workers are employed informally in unregulated sectors like construction, agriculture, mining, especially in small-size enterprises.
Women and children are especially vulnerable as they usually work informally, with no access to basic occupational health and safety protection.
Government data in 1999 show 1,934 industrial accidents occurred in factories registered under the Factories Act 1934. [But ALU believes this figure to be far short of the actual total]
Accidents per 1,000 workers
Four major working sectors in Pakistan are identified as agriculture, formal sector, informal sector and service sector.
The overall accident rate is similar to Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA). An average 70 workers die per year due to electric shocks. In year 2000, 82 WAPDA linemen and workers died due to decreasing standards in safety. 72 WAPDA workers died from electrocution in 1999 up on the 65 who were killed in 1998.
In the transport sector in Punjab province alone in 1999, 6,553 people died in road accidents.
Working conditions are similar in other hazardous industries like textile, tanning, chemicals, paper, sugar, electrical, and electronic. The workers suffer more in those industries and face diseases like lung cancer, skin and eye allergies, deafness, headaches and also the rate of accidents is higher. In addition the tanneries waste liquid contaminates underground water making it danger for workers’ and residents’ health.
The largely informal construction sector provides employment to large numbers of workers who are specially vulnerable to occupational health and safety risk as most of them are illiterate. These workers are not even provided with the protection that is available to industrial workers, because most labour laws do not apply to this sector, and the rate of accidents, diseases and injuries is consequently higher.
Brick kiln workers are scattered across all four provinces of Pakistan. Their working conditions are worse than most others as it is either joint family labour or, as in some areas, bonded labour.
According to a Labour Department source, in Punjab province there were 500 registered brick kilns against 1,900 unregistered. The total number of workers was estimated at more than 100,000. Brick dust causes lung infection, eye allergies, backache, depression, and skin problems.
Pakistan’s rich source of non-metallic minerals including coal and gemstones are mined by hundred of small- and medium-size mining groups. Working conditions of mine workers, particularly coal mines, are very poor. The severe lack of safety measures in these mines cause widespread deaths every year. Government agencies have not been able to stop accidents because of very poor physical and technical standards observed by small and medium mines. Added to which the equipment is considered obsolete by modern standards.
Industrial sector (formal and informal)
A survey by the Centre for the Improvement of Working Conditions and Environment (CIWCE) based in Lahore found industry lacks basic hygiene facilities, has inadequate exhaust filters, fire prevention and medical facilities (even first aid), emergency transport, waste disposal services, and hazard warning signs. New chemicals have increased the ratio of accidents.
Families of workers registered 1,855 cases against employers but courts are usually sympathetic towards employers, and only award compensation to workers who prove an accident is due to negligence by employers. This is not easy for workers to prove.
Children and OHS issues
Children work in carpet making, garages, welding, shoeshine, garbage collecting, fresh flower sales, and the chemical sector. Most children working in garages use petrol as the solvent to clean auto parts. This poses numerous hazards to their health, specially because petrol is highly inflammable.
Welding is often carried out near their work stations, and results in burns to children. Inhalation and skin absorption of petrol fumes pose multiple health hazards such as depression, low red cell counts, de-fatting of skin and even cancer due to benzene in the petrol. Breathing petrol fumes can also be addictive.
Companies promote the use of pesticides and artificial fertiliser to increase agricultural profits. Every month they introduce new chemicals and tell farm workers that it is comparatively unharmful to humans and environment.
Pesticides also harm soil and plants. In south Punjab and Sindh Provinces during the cotton-picking season, many women reported a variety of diseases; some even died due to pesticide poisoning. This claim is supported by at least one non-governmental organisation.
Pesticides also weaken the immune system making workers more liable to diseases like cancer, gastrointestinal infection, and tuberculosis. Despite advances in medicine during the last two decades, the general health of farm workers has worsened.
In Gujrat recently a factory producing electric fans caught fire and six workers were seriously burned. Every day in newspapers we read about fire accidents in different industries causing death and injuries due to fire, and smoke inhalation – often where workers are locked in factories for ‘security reasons’.
PILER conducted surveys in three industries. We found that the fire extinguishers provided in most factories were out-dated, and workers were unaware of OHS procedures. They were not even trained to correctly use the existing obsolete fire extinguishers. Proper techniques in fire fighting are crucial. Exploding boilers (105 were registered) killed hundred of workers in the paper industry between 1998 to 2000.
Unemployment, illiteracy, poverty, abuse of human rights, exploitation, child labour, declining living standards and other social issues seem to threaten women especially. Women are not aware about OHS and labour laws, even graduates and professionals. A study by a university said 64 percent of women are unaware of the basic and constitutional law.
We must demand the government establishes Health and Safety Council be set up at national, provincial and plant levels to ensure that lives and health of workers are protected.
Laws and Regulations on OHS
The main law governing OHS is the Factories Act 1934 Chapter 3. The Hazardous Occupation Rules of 1978 regulate certain occupations as hazardous, and contain special provisions to regulate the working conditions in those occupations. Each province has also enacted its own Rules within the mandate of the Factories Act.
In addition there are other laws dealing with OHS:
- The Mines Act 1923
- Social Security Ordinance 1965
- Workmen’s Compensation Act 1923
- Shop and Establishment Ordinance 1969
- Dock Labourer Act 1934
The health and safety measures prescribed in most of the above laws have not kept pace with the rapidly changing times. Many of the sectors with grave OHS hazards (and most workers anyway) are not covered by these laws. They contain very few technical standards. Furthermore the occupational exposure limits (OELs) now common all over the world are still missing from Pakistan’s laws. These laws must be thoroughly revised and updated.
- Health and Safety council at plant, provincial and national levels;
- Training and education on OSH specially for trade union leaders and worker activists;
- Rights to information for the safe use of machinery and chemicals (in the appropriate language);
- At least two percent of income from every industry should be spent to provide OSH protection;
- Warning signs in local language;
- Categories of sign (warning, danger etc.) have been adopted in OSH laws of some countries. In Pakistan no such signs have been recommended under Health and Safety laws;
- Noise standards - this simple step may go a long way in reducing the toll of accidents and diseases in the work place;
- Only 1.1 million workers out of total 39 million are covered by labour laws – all 39 million should be protected.
Source: ALU Issue No. 39, April - June 2001