Pakistan is considering ratifying two occupational safety and health conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a UN specialised agency for the protection of labour rights, as part of its obligations to meet international standards. Convention No. 155 provides for the adoption of a coherent national occupational safety and health policy, and Convention No. 187 is aimed at establishing and implementing coherent national policies on occupational safety and health through dialogue between government, workers’ and employers’ organisations.

Legally, labourers in Pakistan are protected under a wide range of laws. Since 2010, provincial legislatures have been tasked solely with developing legislation governing labour laws within their provinces. However, practically, enforcement and implementation of these laws have been lacklustre. Despite laws pertaining to old-age benefits, minimum wages, bonuses, sick leave etc., workmen in Pakistan are still vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

These conventions are particularly relevant to Pakistan as, despite our many labour laws, there is little legislation that pertains to health and safety standards. The most comprehensive law, the Factories Act, 1934, is applicable to manufacturing enterprises employing 10 or more workers. Many sectors are either not covered under occupational health and safety specific laws or the coverage is very limited. Even when they are covered, these laws have not been updated. For example, the Factories Act of 1934 still contains provisions whereby children over the age of 15 may use machines in factories, as the section has not been updated since 1934 when the law was enacted.

There is a need to enact the standards set in these conventions, as Pakistan’s industries are no strangers to horrific incidents of occupational hazards. There have been several instances of fires breaking out in factories, or equipment being faulty, resulting in the loss of lives of workers. Most of the time, in factories, there are no escape routes, firefighting equipment or fire alarms, and those on site are not given basic fire and safety training. This needs to change if we mean to see a healthy and thriving industry.