The federal government’s plan of establishing temporary ‘panahgahs’ in public schools for construction workers expected to arrive in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad will certainly make their lives easier and allow the authorities to provide adequate living conditions. Current practice is that labourers and other workers either stay in makeshift rooms and tents established on construction sites or as a second option, they attempt to rent houses nearby. Workers share each living space because contractors are not interested in spending too many resources on creating residences that allow for necessary distancing. Will the proposed policy replace these on-site living quarters? If not, then the government must find a way to survey and exercise oversight to ensure on-site locations do not become hotbeds of coronavirus. In their current form, they are not at all suitable.

The problem is further exacerbated because labourers visit their homes during and on completion of projects, thus increasing the risk of transmission across cities. At panagahs too, there is a risk of infection. Since authorities will have on their radar each school designated as a panahgah, they can certainly deploy teams to routinely supervise and keep these accommodations safe. There is also the question of schools reopening. If and when that happens, the government should have a plan in place to prepare the schools for students to return.

This is an also an opportunity for the government to address the larger issue of poor accommodation options for construction workers in general. While some good work has been done with regards to enacting labour protection laws, there is a lot that can be accomplished in the way of registering workers so they are eligible for benefits provided under law, and compelling employers to provide adequate living facilities.