November Issue 2014

By | Featured News | Society | Published 10 years ago

On September 11, 2012, Pakistan set a world record. At least 255 people were killed in a fire at the garment factory owned by Ali Enterprises located at Plot No.F-67, SITE, Karachi. Before this incident, the highest number of people killed in a factory fire was 146 — in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist garment factory in New York — and 82 years later, 188 in the 1993 toy factory fire in Thailand. This was Pakistan’s  9/11 — at no time in world history have so many people been killed in a factory fire.

So did the state and society effectively respond to this disaster? Have any measures been undertaken to prevent such factory fires in the future? The answer is a resounding no. All one can glean after an analysis of this incident and the nature of the response to it are important insights about the nature of the state, society, labour and the capitalist/industrial class in Pakistan, and also about the important linkages of global capitalism to such tragedies.

Some key questions and issues need to be addressed. Firstly, why were so many people killed in this incident? Second, was the tragedy faced by the families of the factory fire victims and injured recognised, and were they provided any sort of relief? Third, have the people and institutions responsible been held accountable for this tragedy? Fourth, what does this incident tell us about the relationship between the state and labour, state and capitalism and labour and capitalism in Pakistan? Fifth, why have the labour movement and other sections of civil society failed in their response to this tragedy?  Sixth, what is the role of international buyers and international inspection companies in such tragedies? Seven, given the prevailing circumstances, can an effective fire safety regime in factories actually be established in Pakistan?

The debate on the Baldia Factory fire has revolved around the issue of the cause of the fire.

The consensus which emerges out of the three separate inquiries/investigations by the Police, FIA and a judicial commission headed by a retired judge of the High Court on the Baldia factory fire, is that such a large number of people would not have been killed had there not been a complete absence of fire and safety mechanisms, if the building structure was not a fire and safety risk, and if the factory owners and management had taken certain immediate actions after the blaze erupted. No evidence was found regarding the conspiracy story floated by the owners, and echoed by the Karachi business community, that the fire was allegedly caused by an extortion or bhatta group.

The fact is that just following Section 25 of the Factories Act, 1934, could have saved a lot of lives at the Baldia Factory. But in complete violation of Section 25, there was an absence of escape routes, absence of safety and fire fighting measures, of fire-alarms, and no basic training of staff and workers in fire and safety measures.

Moreover, exit doors were locked from the outside. Additionally, the building’s structure, with its illegal wooden mezzanine floor, contributed to the rapid spread of the fire, and workers, who had not received even basic training in fire and safety measures, became trapped in the building, which soon became an inferno. Meanwhile, the owners and management at the factory made no attempt to extinguish the fire, or immediately alert the other workers on the premises about it. In fact, there are allegations that they first tried to save their goods and equipment before saving their workers.

Interestingly, the factory was never inspected by the labour department, amazingly, because it was never registered with it, although it was a major exporter of garment goods, and workers were registered with the Sindh Employees Social Security Institution and Employees Old Age Benefits Institution. As for the building violations, the Sindh Building Control Authority refuses to recognise its jurisdiction over such factories in the SITE area, and the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate doesn’t have the competence or authority to take action against building violations.

In short, it was a collusion of incompetence, disinterest and illegal practices that caused the death of so many that fateful day.

Relatives wait for transporation with coffins of garment factory fire victims in Karachi on September 13, 2012. Pakistan on September 13 registered murder charges against factory bosses and government officials over the deaths of 289 people in the country's worst industrial disaster, police said. AFP PHOTO/Asif HASSAN

The fallout of the fire provided little relief to those affected.  It took nearly 6 months to bury over 70 unidentified bodies — and that too only because of the judicial activism of the Sindh High Court. Tragically, even to this day, 17 unidentified bodies are only temporarily buried in unmarked graves because the DNA test reports of the victims are yet to be received despite the passage of over two years.

As far as financial compensation is concerned, it was only due to the judicial activism of the Sindh High Court, on a petition filed by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) and other organisations, that each family of the 255 deceased received Rs.13 lakhs, and each of the 55 injured people received from Rs.1,25,000 to Rs. 6,10,000 depending on the nature of their injuries.  And despite considerable delay, pensions to the victim families are finally also being paid. This financial compensation included relief provided by the state, dues under various laws (including death compensation legally due from the owners) and $US 1 million provided by KiK Textilien (‘KiK’) i.e. the principal (German) purchaser of the Baldia factory goods. However, between 1 to 5 lakh rupees is still to be paid as death grant by the state, and negotiations with KIK about long-term compensation for the victims are ongoing.

The financial compensation paid to the victims families raised other issues. While the disbursement of the compensation on the orders of the Sindh High Court and through a judicial commission gave the message that compensation for such grievous injury and death is every citizen’s right, not charity and it restored the dignity of the victims and recipients, the fact that no substantial relief package was offered by the Karachi business community, clearly demonstrated its attitude towards labour.

To add insult to injury, to date no one has been punished or convicted for the horrific crime. All the accused, including the owners, are on bail in the criminal case filed, and the criminal trial has yet to begin. Meanwhile, no cases have been registered for the violations of fire and safety laws, social security laws and building laws. The farce being enacted can be gauged by the case registered by the labour department against the owners of the Baldia Factory for labour law violations, which carries the ultimate punishment of a Rs 500 fine. Shockingly, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Raja Pervez Ashraf, allegedly personally intervened to direct the Sindh bureaucracy to withdraw the murder case against the owners. The withdrawal was only stopped because of the intervention of the Sindh High Court. Can there be a more balant example of the breakdown of the criminal justice system in Pakistan?

Also, can it be more clear now how nonexistent the labour movement in Pakistan is. Clearly, issues of labour don’t mobilise sections of civil society. Compare this with the public outcry and mobilisation against the killing of the young man, Shahzeb, residing in DHA, Karachi, in December 2012, and sadly, the class nature of our so-called civil society is revealed. In the presence of a powerful capitalist class, a compromised state and an absent labour movement and civil society, the role of individuals, organisations and judicial activism becomes critical. Hearteningly, one of the biggest public art exhibitions organised by the artist community in Karachi in relation to the Baldia factory fire in 2013 at the Arts Council, Karachi, demonstrated the nascent potential for empathy and mobilisation of just causes embedded in our society.

On another level, how could KiK Textilien, the buyer of nearly 75% of the Baldia Factory goods, not know about the working conditions at the factory? How could a SA8000 certificate be issued by RINA Services S.p.A., an Italian inspection company, on August 21, 2012 (i.e. 22 days before the fire), that there was compliance of all fire and safety mechanisms and labour laws at the Baldia Factory. In view of the investigations conducted by Social Accountability International (SAI), we now know that the SA8000 certificate was false, because no inspection took place. Alarmingly, such certificates by RINA were issued to over 100 factories in Pakistan.

This then, is the present state of global capitalism, in which buyers do not push local suppliers to make their factories safe and a privatised international false certification regime has been initiated, for the sole purpose of allowing for an uninterrupted and ever-increasing rate of profit for international and national companies, where uncomfortable issues about labour safety are never raised.

Pakistani women grieve as they wait at the EDHI Morgue to identify their relatives who died in a garment factory fire in Karachi on September 13, 2012. More than 310 Pakistanis perished in horrific fires that destroyed two factories in Pakistan, an unprecedented industrial tragedy that prompted calls Wednesday for an overhaul of poor safety standards. AFP PHOTO/Asif HASSAN

But there is a small counter movement to this dark side of global capitalism. Firstly, due to the efforts of Pakistani organisations, acting in concert with European organisations like the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) and Medico International, a public campaign has been launched for buyer and inspection companies accountability in Europe, and legislation is in the pipeline on this issue. Secondly, with the help of such organisations and sympathetic lawyers, civil and criminal claims are being pursued against RINA in Italy and if the negotiations break down, civil claims will be filed against KiK in Germany. Therefore, we are seeing a tentative global workers solidarity movement emerging, although tragically, without any substantive mobilisation in Pakistan yet.

There is no rocket science required to figure out the kind of reforms required to prevent such tragedies in the future. This is a late 19th and early 20th century problem for which solutions are already available. These call for new fire and safety laws, effective enforcement mechanisms of these fire and safety measures, a rigorous inspection regime of fire and building laws, the rigorous registration of factories and workers working in them, and the rigorous prosecution of violators of these laws and measures.

But is all or any of the above possible? Only if the state distances itself from the capitalist/industrialist class and considers it its primary duty to ensure a safe work place. But why would the state, in love with the private sector, do this? They would be compelled to only if powerful members of state and society and a mobilised political and civil society demand this. As for now, such a possibility seems remote and as a consequence, the likelihood of the reoccurrence of such tragedies seems very high.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue.