Two factory fires in Pakistan have claimed the lives of over 300 workers, in an appalling demonstration of lax safety standards and procedures, almost certainly as a result of employers being more interested in profits than the welfare of their staff.
The higher death toll of at least 285 occurred on Tuesday in a Karachi garment factory. The blaze reportedly spread rapidly, trapping workers who were unable to find escape routes. Some died or suffered serious injuries when they were forced to leap from the top floors of the multi-story building. Local officials said that it was very likely that more bodies would be found in the wreckage of the building.
In Lahore earlier in the day, a fire at a shoe factory caused 25 more deaths as well as serious burns and smoke-inhalation injuries to dozens more. Although this week’s death toll may be the worst of recent times, these devastating workplace fires are by no means unusual. Nor are such tragedies confined to Pakistan. How often do we hear of hundreds of lives lost in the tragic sinking of over-crowded ferries in the Philippines or of scores of dead and injured when overloaded buses and trucks crash in India or Indonesia?
None of these should ever be described as an “accident”. There was nothing accidental about the lack of fire-prevention equipment that could have slowed the spread of smoke and fire this week in the two Pakistani factories, nor in the inadequate evacuation routes, nor very probably in the total lack of fire drills for workers in the building.
There is nothing accidental about ferry owners who do not raise the gangway when they have embarked the maximum number of passengers their vessel is designed to take. By continuing to load more human beings, it will be no accident that there are insufficient lifebelts and places in lifeboats for everyone aboard.
In the light of this reality, those owners, be it of factories, ferries or whatever, who breach safety rules are, when something goes wrong and people lose their lives, guilty at best of manslaughter, but many would call it cold-blooded murder.
Truly, this is not overstating the case. Anyone who calculates that they can boost their profits by risking people’s lives, is accepting implicitly that it is possible that they will make money from the death or serious injury of others.
It does not do to argue that people should refuse to work in dangerous places or passengers should not tolerate unsafe overcrowding. In poor countries like Pakistan, any job is seized and treasured. And in the archipelagos of Asia, why should ferry owners endure the expense of running an extra vessel, allowing passengers eager to travel a safe and comfortable journey, when they know that they can persuade them to pack into a single ferry?
The authorities should act against all of these highly dangerous practices before disasters happen. Inspection officials who fail in their duty should suffer consequences, but more importantly, those who through sheer greed are content to risk a human life day after day, should suffer where it hurts them most — in their pocketbooks, and if they say they cannot pay, in prison.