By Mohammad Hussain Khan
HYDERABAD: Tears welled up in Bushra Bajwa`s eyes as she related her ordeal, which started when she lost a hand while working on a machine in a factory in Kotri`s SITE area last year, and continues till this day.
The tragedy took place on March 8, 2010 in an industrial unit manufacturing oil and air filters for car engines.
Ms Bushra, in her late 20s, said: “I was asked to work on a machine which is otherwise operated by male workers. The machine had been out of order for some time and that same day its fault had been repaired. But, as it proved later the fault had not removed completely,” she said.
“I had to clean the machine after turning it off. The moment I lowered my left hand into the machine it started without being switched on and chopped my left hand above the wrist,” she recalled.
She was rushed to a private hospital by her colleagues but it was already too late. She had lost her hand for good.
Since, she said, she was not registered under the Social Security Ordinance 1965 by her employer, Mr Subhan, she was taken to a private hospital instead of government-run social security hospital.
Ms Bushra lives in a two-room house in Gharibabad, a slum area in Kotri. Her poor family migrated to the industrial area from Umerkot to earn livelihood. Her younger sister also works in the same factory to supplement family income.
Low-paid manual workers like Bushra fall prey to different sorts of exploitation by their employers and are made to run from pillar to post to get their rights under the labour laws.
Her story does not end her. Like majority of labourers she is denied minimum wages of Rs7,000 announced by the government in July 2010.
Officials of the labour department wait for a complaint to be lodged to wake up from their slumber and take ages to take action. Their investigations often end up favouring the employer instead of the poor and hapless worker.
“Around 300 workers work in the factory, including 28 women. I was getting Rs3,500 and only recently my salary was raised to Rs4,000,” said Bushra.
Her requests for a social security card have fallen flat. Her employer has told her to either get social security registration or Rs25,000. “I can`t leave the job because I will have to forfeit my claim by doing so,” she said, adding although he (employer) had made tall claims before her family when she lost the hand.
She is now 100 per cent physically disabled and thus qualifies for pension, Rs200,000 compensation under the Compensation Act 1923 and Rs300,000 of group insurance under the West Pakistan Industrial and Commercial Employment Standing Order 1968.
“It is a crime. The labour department should have taken notice of the tragedy,” said the president of the Sindh chapter of the National Labour Federation, Rana Mehmood Ali Khan. He said that if the poor girl had been registered under the Social Security Ordinance she would have received better treatment facilities at government expenses. “The artificial hand offered by the employer is of low quality and doesn`t help,” he said. Labour officials are not in the habit of visiting factories and mills regularly to check quality of machines and certify them accordingly.
The minimum wage of Rs7,000 is not paid to workers although the law covers every worker regardless of nature of his or her job.
But ground realities are stark. Neither labour department officials conduct a survey about implementation of minimum wages nor are there any trade unions in many industrial units to protect workers.
Non-existence of genuine trade unions favours employers and they manoeuvre to form `pocket` unions to get their interests protected.
Affected workers usually do not go to labour department with complaints. If they do so they are bound to face the axe. Hence they continue to work silently for as low as Rs3,500 to Rs4,000 .
Secretary-General of Muttahida Labour Federation Qamoos Gul Khattak said that labour officials were getting paid to stay in offices and not pay visits to factories.
“If the government becomes worker-friendly then …workers will take care of their issues on their own,” he said.