Six workers (including three Chinese engineers) were killed and least 20 others were severely injured in a major accident at the Tarbela Extension Project (Phase IV), a dam project in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The largely World Bank-funded project is controlled by the Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), with the Chinese multinational construction company Sino Hydro Group as the main contractor.
The accident occurred when the scaffolding at one of Tarbela’s under-construction power houses came crashing down. Rescue agencies had to cut through the debris of concrete and steel to recover the dead bodies and assist the injured. The accident happened due to disregard to health and safety standards, evoking widespread condemnation from trade unions.
“The BWI deeply mourns the loss of lives and are concerned by the enormous injuries sustained by workers at the Tarbela Extension Project site. This unfortunate tragedy could have been averted had Sino Hydro adhered to health and safety norms which is something that BWI along with our affiliate in Pakistan has been consistently advocating for since the beginning of the construction of the project. These concerns were reaffirmed in our May 2016 meeting with the World Bank in Washington, USA,” stated Ambet Yuson, General Secretary of BWI.
He continued, “We have been requesting the World Bank to conduct joint inspections to assess the health and safety system so that workers have a greater say in the systems that are supposedly designed to protect them. The World Bank must encourage WAPDA and Sino Hydro to work closely with the trade unions, to ensure Sino Hydro implements and actually enforces health and safety norms at all times at the Tarbela Dam and to earnestly implement a collective bargaining agreement that guarantees workers’ rights and safety.”
Mohammad Ishtiaq Virk, President of the BWI-affiliated Associated Consulting Engineers Employees Union (ACEEU), also expressed his concern. “The project was following a very strict time schedule and there was mounting pressure on the workforce to expedite work. Such situations often lead to poor planning and OHS practices.”
The Prime Minister of Pakistan himself had inaugurated the commencement of works at the Tarbela extension in February 2014. It is one of a growing number of infrastructure projects in Pakistan being undertaken by Chinese multinationals construction companies, as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. When complete, it will produce 1410 MW of electricity, providing much-needed electricity to energy-starved Pakistan. The total funding provided by the World Bank in this project is USD$ 840 million.
Another BWI affiliate, Pakistan Federation of Building and Wood Workers (PFBWW) has membership at the site through its constituent union, the Awami Labour Union SINO Hydro Company Tarbela Dam (T4). Under Pakistani law the union is recognised as the collective bargaining agent on the site, however the relationship has been fractious over recent months.
PFBWW General Secretary Aslam Adil condemned the accident and lamented the loss of life. “It is time now that the World Bank and WAPDA take note of this grave incident and immediately demand Sino Hydro to start listening to trade unions and implement effective and democratic health and safety systems jointly to avoid such preventable mishaps in the future. It also calls for better functioning of the Grievance Redressal Committee (GRC) and implementation of its decisions”.
The BWI has been keeping a close watch on the rising health and safety issues at construction projects across South Asia. The Annual South Asia Trade Union Rights Network (SATURN) Conference to be held at Kathmandu, Nepal in August will focus on workplace health and safety issues at both the national and sub-regional level.