October Issue 2012
Burning Questions: The Karachi Factory Fire
It was unusually busy at the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Baldia Town on September 11 — the day a terrible fire engulfed the entire four-storey structure. Besides the workers on shift, many who were off-duty were there as well; they had come to collect their wages as it was pay day. Several women workers had brought their children along. It was late evening when a small explosion was heard, quickly followed by a blaze which spread through the building in a matter of minutes. Workers had little time to escape through the factory’s single exit — many jumped through the windows in a desperate attempt to save their lives. When the fire brigades finally arrived, supposedly delayed by the jam-packed traffic which is a permanent fixture of the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate (SITE), the industrial site where the factory was located, the fire had already spun out of control.
Even if it hadn’t, the fire brigades were hardly capable of doing their job effectively. With no ladders, hammers or even the proper attire, they watched helplessly as the fire continued to ravage the building and the people inside. With the little equipment they did have, they managed to break down one wall and get some of the workers out. By this time, volunteers from the colony behind the SITE area had come to help, risking their own lives — many suffered burns and ended up at the hospital as well.
When the fire finally died down after 12 hours, the extent of the damage came into full view. It was the worst industrial accident in Pakistan’s history. According to the latest set of data obtained by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 259 people died, of which around 30 have still not been identified and remain at the Edhi morgues, and more than 100 were injured. Abdul Hai, Assistant Coordinator, HRCP, tells Newslinethat most of the bodies were charred beyond recognition. “The bodies are like molten wax. It is difficult to even look at them.” He says that some of the victims might be from outside Karachi, with families in interior Sindh and other places, which makes it even more difficult to identify them. “Many workers come to Karachi alone, and have no family members in the city to help identify the bodies.” Hai confirms that several children were among the victims as well. He reports a Chhipa worker’s account of coming across the bodies of a woman and her two children standing against a factory wall. Another body of a woman holding a baby was also discovered.
Identification of the victims is going to be a long and harrowing process. Three camps were set up in the days following the fire to collect DNA samples from the families of the victims. But since Karachi has no DNA testing laboratories, the samples have been sent to Islamabad and it could take weeks to get the results.
There is also the question of compensating the victims’ families and the injured. On September 23, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf gave cheques of Rs 4 lacs each for the dead and Rs 1 lac each for the injured. Chief Minister Sindh Syed Qaim Ali Shah also gave cheques of Rs 3 lacs each for those who lost their lives and Rs 50, 000 each to the injured. Earlier, on September 18, Bahria Town distributed compensation cheques of Rs 2 lacs each to the families of 178 people who perished while Rs 1 lac each was given to the injured. But the bureaucratic process behind this seemingly simple handing out of cheques is far more complicated than most people realise, and only a small number have been compensated until now. “The families of the victims have to obtain DNA samples, get death certificates attested at police stations and go through a long and complicated process before they receive any compensation,” Hai says. “This is also true for the workers injured in the fire. I visited a young man at the Abbasi Shaheed Hospital who suffered terrible burns. He is in no condition to go around getting the paperwork in order. The compensation cheque should come to him, not the other way around.”
Ali Enterprises, which produced garments that were exported to several European companies, is owned by Abdul Aziz Bhaila, a member of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industries and the Readymade Garments Association of Pakistan, and his sons Rashid Aziz and Shahid Aziz. The factory had annual sales of around Rs 5 billion. Even though the Labour Department has stated that the factory was unregistered, HRCP confirms that it was, in fact, registered in 1965, and was bought by the current owners in 1967. Murder charges were issued against the owners, but they were granted protective bails by the Lahore High Court. On September 24, the owners appeared in court before a two-member commission and refuted all claims of negligence on their part, instead blaming the late arrival of the fire brigade for the tragedy. “Had the fire brigade arrived sooner, the loss could have been contained,” said Shahid Bhaila. “We rang up the fire emergency number many times, but did not get a response. I had to send my manager personally to the SITE fire station. Despite our hectic efforts, the first fire tender arrived after one hour.”
Hai contradicted the factory owners’ claim that the fire might be an act of terrorism, a claim that has also been made by Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik. “Witnesses have said that they heard a blast before the fire, but it was a small blast that had come from a faulty generator inside the factory,” he says. “This was no terrorist attack. The cause is quite clearly criminal negligence.”
Incidentally, there was no fire-fighting equipment available inside the factory. According to the workers of the factory, the fire extinguishers that hung on the walls had long been out of use and were only placed there for show. The factory had no emergency exits. There were only a few gates out of the whole structure, many of which were locked from the outside. Since the factory had no boundary wall, locking the gates was common practice to avoid theft. “The doors are locked to keep workers from leaving the factory before time or to prevent theft of material or equipment,” said Ali Enterprises’ accountant Abdul Majeed Khan, in his testimony before the tribunal which is looking into the matter.
All the windows had iron grills as well as thick glass, and many survivors explained that even breaking the windows proved to be impossible. Even the door to the roof was locked. The basement, which is supposed to be used only for parking or storage, was a working part of the factory as well. In fact, an additional floor had also been made there with wooden floors, which immediately caught fire. The fire had erupted right in front of the single door out of the basement, so nobody could get out. “It is beyond one’s comprehension as to how the authorities let factories like this remain in operation,” Hai says. “Were they blind?”
This tragedy is not only devastating in itself, but has also exposed a vastly flawed system which reeks of corruption, inefficiency and negligence. From labour legislation to the rudimentary inspection system in place, from the owners of the factories to the multi-national corporations who buy the products made in them, there is enough blame to go around for everyone. Each party shares responsibility for this catastrophe and there is a need to examine every aspect of the system before any corrective measures can be effectively applied.
To understand what is happening on the ground, it is important to be aware of the laws which are currently in place regarding the health and safety of workers, and labour legislation in general. There are more than a few faults to be found in the laws safeguarding the rights of workers. Such laws exist but are either outdated or are marred by amendments which make them restrictive and exclusionary, amounting to a denial of rights to workers of many industries in the country.
Article 37(e) of the Constitution makes provisions for just and humane conditions of workers, while Article 38 states that it is the responsibility of the government to secure the well-being of workers by ensuring equitable adjustment of rights between them and their employers. However, labour laws are rarely in conformity with these constitutional guarantees. Until 2010, labour was a ‘concurrent subject,’ which meant that both the federal and provincial governments were responsible for them. The laws were enacted by the federal government but the provincial governments had the authority to make amendments to these laws according to their own specific conditions — a stipulation that had been abused by provincial governments repeatedly, most notably in 2003 when the Punjab government banned labour inspections in all factories in the Punjab, a ban which was just lifted this February. However, after the passage of the 18th Amendment in 2010, labour was devolved into a provincial issue and is no longer a concurrent subject. This has led the Punjab government to develop more restrictive labour laws, and other provincial governments are likely to follow suit.
Pakistan is also a signatory to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 that recognises the right to have just and favourable working conditions, as well as to the 1998 International Labour Organisation (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work that pledges to ‘promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity’. Pakistan has also ratified all eight ILO core labour standards. However, such agreements on international standards are merely a formality. A report by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) states that “signing and ratification of international covenants and standards put only a moral binding on the government; practically it has little or no impact on the ground.”
Some laws do exist for the protection of workers in industries like the Ali Enterprises factory, the most prominent of them being the Factory Act of 1934, which was amended in 1977 and is currently in place. This Act outlines in detail, among other things, the health and safety measures that have to be in place in every factory in Pakistan. With regard to the precautions that have to be taken against fires, the Act clearly stipulates that all factories should have separate emergency exits and free passage-ways to be used in emergencies, a rule that is flagrantly disregarded by almost every factory in the country. It also states that all workers should be familiar with the routes of escape and should be adequately trained in the routine to be followed in such circumstances. Moreover, the Act stipulates that no doors or windows that afford exit from any room should be obstructed or fastened at any time. It also states that inspection of factories to ensure that these criteria are being met, are compulsory. However, this Act is rarely implemented in any form in most factories across the country. “It is not just this factory which wasn’t following the rules,” Hai explains. “You can walk into any factory in the country to see that there is no implementation of these laws.”
There is no independent legislation on health and safety at the work place, except the Hazardous Occupations Rule of 1963 which comes under the Factory Act and is, unsurprisingly, obsolete and outdated. In 2001, the Labour and Manpower Division had proposed the Occupational Health and Safety Ordinance, but it had been put on hold and is yet to be approved. The government has also not ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 155 on Occupational Safety and Health, and Convention 187 of promotional framework for Occupational Safety and Health.
Even if better laws were in place, factory owners are well-versed in the art of circumventing them. One common practice which is helping factory owners violate laws is the system of hiring workers through contractors. Workers hired through contractors cost less, because the employer is not obligated to provide benefits to contract workers. Factory owners do not have to pay for social security, group insurance and other workers’ welfare funds for the workers who are hired through contractors. This system also helps factory owners get away with paying these workers far less than the legal minimum wage and forcing them to work in inhuman conditions. An additional incentive for factory owners to subcontract is that the fragmentation of contract workers into small, self-contained units prevents contract workers from forming unions and fighting for their rights.
In an ongoing survey by PILER, it has been found that most of the workers of the Ali Enterprises factory, despite working there for an average of over five years, were still designated as “temporary workers.” None of the workers had been issued any appointment letter and they had no documentary proof that they worked there. This isn’t just true for this factory. In most cases, factory owners simply do not report the employment of workers through contractors to any government agency. Therefore, in effect, such workers simply do not exist on paper and hence cannot be entitled to any protection. In 2005, PILER investigated five factories in Karachi producing garments for global retailers and found that 95 percent of the workers were not given any written contract, most of the factories did not allow unionisation and the workers had no knowledge of the companies’ codes of conduct.
The owners of Ali Enterprises had not registered most of their workers with the Sindh Employees’ Social Security Institution (SESSI) or the Employees’ Old-Age Benefits Institution (EOBI). These are government-run workers’ welfare institutions which provide old-age pensions and other benefits to registered workers, and after they die, their next-of-kin are given a survivors’ pension. Most factory owners do not register their workers with these institutions in an attempt to lower their production costs, because if they do register their workers, they have to pay a monthly sum on the workers’ behalf. EOBI representatives say that they even approach the workers directly and ask them to register on their own, but the workers are too afraid of losing their jobs — if their employers were to find out, they would get fired. According to EOBI chief Javed Iqbal, out of 23 million workers in Pakistan, only 6 million are registered with EOBI and there is no record of the remaining 17 million.
“We have a record of 200 people employed with Ali Enterprises, whose monthly contribution was made by the company for pension and post-retirement benefits,” said Saeed Ahmed Jumani, the regional director of the EOBI, in his testimony to the tribunal. “We were very doubtful about the labour strength on the record of Ali Enterprises and that’s why we sent them letters as reminders asking them to update that number, but to no avail. In fact, the employers never allowed us to visit the factory and ascertain the number of employees.”
However, despite the fact that only 200 workers of Ali Enterprises were registered (out of a total of 3000 workers employed in the factory), EOBI has announced that it is giving all of them — the victims and survivors — a monthly pension of RS 3,600. The national database authority is providing them with the DNA matches of the survivors and victims so they can draw up a list.
Labour legislation in recent decades has also become increasingly restrictive when it comes to workers forming their own unions. The four industrial relations laws currently adopted by the provinces have restricted workers’ right to form unions. This is in direct contravention of the right to exercise freedom of association and the right to form unions, which is enshrined in Article 17 of the Constitution. Unionisation is important because it gives workers the power to negotiate with the industries’ management, through collective bargaining, for better working conditions. Laws restricting unionisation have adversely affected many industrial sectors of Pakistan, and this has been especially detrimental to the textile sector. In one of its reports, PILER says, “According to an estimate, less than five percent of workers in the formal sector are unionised, and a decrease in unionisation is particularly prevalent in the textile sector.”
Besides blatant bans on unionisation, the state often employs subtle tactics to curb union activities, such as transfer of union members from one place to another, and arrests and detentions on various pretexts. Employers also commonly dismiss workers who are active in unions, a practice which also acts as a deterrent for other workers to join the unions. PILER reports that 55 workers of a textile factory in Korangi were dismissed from their services in 2004 when they formed a union and registered it. Such incidents are very common but rarely get any media attention. “We are afraid to talk about unions because we know we will be fired immediately and we cannot afford to lose this meager income,” a worker confided to a PILER researcher. Where factory owners do not resort to termination, they use other means to intimidate and harass workers to discourage them from forming unions. In the case of Ali Enterprises, PILER reports that there was no trade union in existence, although some workers were members of the Sindh Hosiery, Garment and General Workers Union, a general union of textile workers.
The government has been heavily criticised by the civil society about its failure to keep a check on Ali Enterprises, and on Pakistan’s industrial sector in general. There are around 18 government departments and agencies who are responsible for monitoring the country’s factories, including the civil defence and labour departments and the SITE Association, which is the final authority on factory building designs.
According to officials of the SITE Association, it is not within their jurisdiction to check whether health and safety regulations have been followed when approving building plans. The existing by-laws are silent on such issues, and these officials say that it is the responsibility of the civil defence and labour departments to make sure that safety regulations are being followed. Meanwhile, the civil defence officials told the tribunal, that Ali Enterprises was not registered with them. The department’s deputy controller, Altaf Hussain, said that the department is responsible for installing safety equipment, but since the factory was not registered with the labour department, they had not visited it.
Labour inspections, which are required under the Factory Act, had been banned in Sindh since 2003, after the Punjab government did the same. Former Sindh Labour Minister, Ameer Nawab, who had resigned from his post just days before the fire occurred, said that the Chief Minister, Syed Qaim Ali Shah had given him orders to stop taking action against factories in Sindh which were violating labour laws. This point was corroborated by Sharafat Ali of PILER, who said that the chief minister had given verbal directives to officials to stop inspections. The inspection system, even when it was in place, was disorganised and lax at best. In one of its reports, PILER calls the labour inspection system “a weakened and crumbling system.” The appointment of the Wage Board chairman is often based on political considerations rather than on the criteria spelled out in the law. Members are similarly nominated.
Even when the system was in place, factory owners found several ways of working around it. Workers were told to lie to both local and international inspection teams about their wages, work conditions and other details, and were threatened with termination if they did not comply. Rumours of factory owners paying off local inspectors are also quite common.
The state departments also lack the means to carry out a proper investigation. “Neither do we have the expertise nor do the laboratories carry out a forensic examination of the affected place. The cause of the fire we have mentioned in the report is based on our assessment and experience, but not as a result of a technical analysis,” the chief fire officer Ehtashamuddin told the tribunal.
It is clear that the whole system needs to be evaluated and changed. This tragedy did spark a media outrage, and led Sindh Minister for Industries, Abdul Rauf Siddiqui to resign from his post. But as the media, and with it most of the nation, moves on to the other tragedies that are perpetually befalling the country, it remains to be seen whether any
corrective measures will be taken to change the lives of the millions of workers across Pakistan.
This article was originally published in the October issue under the headline “Burning Questions.”
Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.