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Pakistan pledges safety legislation after deadly fire

Health and safety measures are desperately needed in Pakistan's most dangerous industry

Pakistan pledges safety legislation after deadly fire

A Pakistani man looks at the wreckage of a decommissioned oil tanker a day after a gas cylinder explosion at the Gadani ship-breaking yard, west of Karachi, on Nov. 2. (Photo by AFP)

In the aftermath of a deadly fire which killed more than 20 laborers at a major ship-breaking yard in Pakistan, the government has announced plans for new health and safety legislation.

The fire at the ship-breaking yard in Gadani town in the impoverished province of Balochistan on Nov. 1 was caused by a gas cylinder explosion which caused a fire on an decommissioned oil tanker. It took days to put out.

"The federal government is in the process of formulating ship-breaking laws and hopefully this will help prevent these kinds of accidents from recurring," Mir Hasil Bizenjo, a minister for ports and shipping, told parliament last weekend.

"There were 28 workers killed and more than 50 injured in this unfortunate incident," he said, adding the Balochistan state government has announced a compensation of 1.5 million rupees (approximately US$15,000) each for the legal heirs of each victim and 1 million rupees for those injured.

"Three officers have been suspended for their negligence and further investigation is in progress to accord responsibility," said Bizenjo who admitted there were no medical or fire fighting facilities at the ship-breaking yard.

Mansha Noor, head of Caritas in Karachi, said that the charity welcomed the announcement regarding legislation, but said that a thorough investigation was needed.

"We have always demanded that, be it a factory laborer or home-based worker, there should be a proper safety net. But unfortunately we don't act unless precious lives are lost," Noor told ucanews.com.

"Most of those still working at the Gadani ship-breaking yard can be seen working without even wearing shoes. People have died after falling into the sea as they had no life jackets. Safety equipment, fire fighting equipment and first aid should be there all the time," he said. 

"We strongly support the demands of labor unions for free and fair investigations. Such incidents can only be prevented if those guilty of compromising safety are punished," he said.

Union leaders have called for the government to release the findings of an inquiry committee set up after the tragedy.

"The inquiry report submitted to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should be made public immediately," Nasir Mansoor, deputy general secretary of the National Trade Union, told ucanews.com.

"The Gadani ship-breaking yard is the most dangerous workplace in Pakistan where some 700 laborers have died according to estimates," he said.

Mansoor also said that the compensation announced by the government was not enough given most of the victims were young people. "We demand 3 million Pakistani rupees (approximately US$30,000) for the families of each victim. We will go to court if our demand is not met," he added.

The Gadani ship-breaking yard, the world's third largest, consists of 132 plots across 10 kilometers of beachfront. Located about northwest of Karachi, the yard contributes millions of dollars to the national economy annually.

Industrial accidents are common in Pakistan due to the lack of safety measures and lack of training. In 2012, there were 255 people killed in a fire in a textile factory in Karachi.

At least 45 workers died and over 100 were injured when a shopping bag factory collapsed in 2015 in Lahore.

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