October Issue 2012

By | Society | Published 12 years ago

The textile industry plays a pivotal role in Pakistan’s economy. It contributes around 54 percent of the total export earnings of the country. Garments madein factories like Ali Enterprises are exported to multinational corporations around the world. In recent years, weak labour regulation and poor implementation of labour standards in countries such as Pakistan has compelled multinational corporations to address these issues. Their code of conduct calls for proper working conditions and compliance with international standards and usually the companies’ motives — either strategic, defensive or altruistic — are strong enough to compel the companies to honour and push for the implementation of its code of conduct. The responsibility of implementation lies with the factory owners, but the companies have the ultimate power — they can take their business elsewhere if the local factory is not implementing its code. For example, in 2006, Nike Inc. cancelled its contract with Saga Sports Ltd, one of the largest football production companies in Sialkot, on charges of violation of the code of conduct.

Multinational corporations rely on Social Accountability International (SAI), an international non-government organisation, which has developed the SA8000 certificate for decent work, a tool for implementing international labour standards. The SAI relies on 21 affiliates around the world to do most of its inspections. In a press statement released on their website, SAI has confirmed that one of their affiliates, RINA, a global certification body based in Italy, had issued this certification to Ali Enterprises in August 2012, after two inspectors visited the factory. Granting of this certificate means that the factory had met international standards in nine areas, including health and safety. SAI have mentioned in their statement that they have begun an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the certification.

Meanwhile, RINA has issued a statement on their own website, saying that they have suspended new certification activities in Pakistan and are carrying out their own internal investigation into this case. They admit that they sent inspectors to Ali Enterprises. Their statement says, “The audit started on 22 June 2012 and was completed on 5 July 2012. Ten days were spent on the site. The certificate was issued on 20 August.” They have also quoted some portions of their audit report. “Fire extinguishers and fire safety buckets were available in sufficient quantity. Fire extinguishers were visible and accessible to all workers. Access to fire extinguishers and passages leading to exits was maintained free from any kind of obstruction. Primary exits and emergency exits are kept unlocked while employees are inside facility “. So far, they have failed to answer questions about how they mentioned these safety measures in their report, despite the inhuman conditions in the factory, which have been reported by numerous witnesses. The organisation has said that a senior auditor of RINA is on his way to Pakistan to further investigate the matter. It is unclear whether RINA will be facing any charges.

Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) is an alliance of organisations in 15 European countries, which works toward identifying problems in the textile sector of several countries and developing strategies to support textile workers in fighting for their rights. They have worked extensively with the Bangladesh garment industry, which has a track record that is almost as horrendous as Pakistan’s. After a factory fire in Bangladesh in 2010, the CCC helped Bangladeshi and international labour rights groups sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the multinational corporations to whom the factory was exporting, an agreement which promises to improve the safety of workers. Newsline talked to CCC’s International Coordinator, Ineke Zeldenrust, through email, about their plan to help the affected workers of Ali Enterprises in both the short and long term.

“Our goal is to push the international buyers of the factory’s garments for compensation as well as prevention of any similar accident,” Zeldenrust says. “For now, our objective is to ensure that all the injured workers receive full medical care without charge, that wages continued to be paid, and that the families of the dead workers and the injured receive full compensation and a pension covering future loss of income.” CCC is going to put pressure on all brands sourcing from Pakistan “to take the necessary measures to prevent such a terrible tragedy from ever happening again.” This includes a full safety review of all suppliers involving worker representatives, providing health and safety training for all workers and ensuring that they can freely organise and express themselves. Zeldenrust says that it is important that the factory owners publicly disclose their supplier list, and that the Pakistani government ensures that all workplaces are registered and that all workers have a written, legal contract.

According to Zeldenrust, Ali Enterprises was producing for the German retailer KIK. “There was photographic evidence from the factory, of a pair of jeans with the KIK label and a trading website has also mentioned KIK as a buyer,” she says. KIK have admitted that they were a client in a press statement published on their website. They have also claimed to be working with other buyers of Ali Enterprises, and CCC has requested them to share the names of these buyers. KIK has also stated in this press statement that they, along with other companies who purchased from Ali Enterprises, have already established a relief fund for the victims of the fire, which they will distribute in collaboration with international relief programmes. However, they haven’t established a specific date and are vague in detailing this relief initiative.

There is also a witness statement, as reported in the New York Times, that a pair of Diesel jeans was seen in the factory. This point has also been corroborated by the CCC. “Diesel has also been identified as another buyer by an industry source who we cannot name,” Zeldenrust says. However, Diesel has denied this. The CCC urges the Pakistan authorities to disclose shipping records and other transactions of Ali Enterprises that can help identify the buyers. “The secrecy that surrounds garment supply chain production as well as the audit industry [such as the SAI] is one of the biggest problems we face,” Zeldenrust explains.

Ultimately, Zeldenrust says, the right of workers to organise themselves and to speak out freely is key. “Even the audit industry now admits that their audits of factories provide zero guarantees once the auditors have left the building. We will certainly keep calling on companies as well as on the authorities to ensure workers can safely organise in order to have safe workplaces,“ she says.

This article was originally published in the October issue as part of a larger story on the Karachi garment factory fire. 

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.