Thursday, September 13, 2012

Pakistan Factory Fires Reminiscent of NY, 1911

Yesterday I wrote about what I thought was despicable behavior by a Tennessee employer. Then later that morning I read about a factory disaster in Pakistan that put the Tennessee case into perspective, and was eerily similar to a disaster over 100 years ago in New York.

It was March 25, 1911 when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory went up in flames, the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York and the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. It was also the second deadliest disaster in New York City – after the burning of the General Slocum on June 15, 1904 – until the World Trade Center attack 90 years later. 

146 garment workers died from burning, smoke inhalation, or falling.

Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits – a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks – many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors to the streets below. 

The fire led to new laws on factory safety, unionization of workers, and sparked the need for workers' compensation and industrial safety laws in New York and throughout the nation.

Fast forward to September 11, 2012 and nearly the exact same disaster is repeated in Pakistan where fires swept through two clothing factories in Pakistan, killing 283 workers, many trapped behind locked doors and barred windows.

The twin blazes broke out Tuesday night at a garment factory in the southern port city of Karachi and a shoe manufacturer in the eastern city of Lahore. At least 258 people died in the fire in Karachi according to news reports. An additional 25 died in Lahore.

The workers in Karachi had only one way out since the factory's owner had locked all the other exit doors in response to a recent theft, according to media reports. Many of the victims died of asphyxiation in the smoke-filled basement because they could not escape. Others jumped from up to five stories to escape the flames. There were between 300 and 400 workers in the building when the fire erupted.

Pakistan has workers' compensation and worker safety laws, and news reports say that it is a crime to lock emergency exits. 

There is no independent legislation on occupational safety and health issues in Pakistan. The main law, which governs these issues, is the Chapter 3 of Factories Act, 1934. All the provinces, under this act, have devised Factories Rules. The Hazardous Occupations Rules, 1963 under the authority of Factories Act not only specify some hazardous occupations but also authorize the Chief Inspector of Factories to declare any other process as hazardous.

But according to the Wall Street Journal report on the fires, Pakistan workers still face atrocious conditions with workplaces that often lack basic safety equipment and owners who bribe officials to ignore the violations.

Under Pakistan's Workers Compensation Act, 1923 an employer has to compensate his employees for injuries by accident. If death or permanent and total disablement of a worker results from the injury, the employer has to pay the dependents of that employee 200,000 Pakistani Rupees, which at current exchange rates is equivalent to 2114.21 US dollars.

According to the Wall Street Journal, on Wednesday a provincial minister ordered an inspection of all factories and plants in the Sindh province within 48 hours.

"Things like this used to happen in the US all the time before all that 'Red Tape' that everyone whines about came along,"someone commented to the Journal story. 

I think that says it all.

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