Factory on Fire

AT 9:30am, on Aug 27, 2021, a fire erupted in the BM Luggage (bag) Industry (BLI) in Korangi, Karachi. Eighteen workers were burnt to death, with many injured. This is not the first such tragedy in Pakistan and, if things do not change, it will not be the last.

This incident evokes heart-wrenching memories from nine years ago when in September 2012, a fire broke out at the Ali Enterprises factory in Baldia, Karachi; 258 workers including women were burnt to death, some permanently disabled. It was the most tragic industrial accident in Pakistan’s history.

ReadEight years on, families of the Baldia factory fire victims say they’ve only received ‘half justice’

What caused the fire in 2012 is what caused the fire and killed workers in 2021. There are many parallels between the two incidents.

A report put together by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler), showed that BLI was not registered with the Sindh Department of Labour; similarly, Ali Enterprises was also unregistered. Lack of registration meant that the factories were never subjected to any labour or occupational safety inspections and the building designs were never approved by the competent authority. Additionally, none of the BLI workers were registered with the Sindh Employees Social Security Institution. Ali Enterprises employed more than 1,500 workers and only a small percentage were registered. Unregistered workers are not entitled to basic labour rights, healthcare, minimum wage, or group insurance etc.

What has changed since 2012 in terms of improving safety and occupational health at workplaces?

In terms of workers’ safety, the BLI factory did not have emergency exits, only a single point of entry and exit, no fire alarm system and a non-functional fire-extinguishing system. The same was true for Ali Enterprises which had only one entry and exit in the three-storeyed factory. When the fire broke out on the ground floor and quickly spread outwards, workers could not leave the building fast enough because of the lack of emergency exits and the failure of the factory’s fire alarm system. Even the windows were blocked with iron grills. Both factories had electric short-circuiting due to substandard and unsafe wiring. Workers in both factories were working in highly dangerous and inhumane conditions.

Both factories were manufacturing textile products for export to big brand companies in the West and had recently been audited by third-party international audit firms and given clean chits for their fitness to function.

What has changed since 2012 in terms of improving safety and occupational health at the workplace? Not much on the ground except for the Sindh Occupational Safety and Health Act, 2017. The law, however, is very far from being implemented. Similarly, Pakistan has signed but not implemented various ILO conventions, and other international labour instruments on occupational safety and health.

Occupational safety and health remains a critically unexamined issue for Pakistan’s workers.

These two factories represent the tip of the iceberg. The Sindh Department of Labour has 10,000 registered factories with around 500,000 workers whereas the actual size of the industry in Karachi is much larger. Unregistered (and hence illegal) factories producing exclusively exportable products are effectively death traps for our workers.

Some months after the Ali Enterprises tragedy, Rana Plaza, an eight-storeyed commercial complex building housing five garment factories, collapsed in Bangladesh killing 1,134 people and injuring over 2,500 — the deadliest workplace disaster in the global garment industry.

The Rana Plaza tragedy incited mass worker protests and eventually led to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety in 2013 (further improved in 2018). Brand firms entered into a legally binding agreement with two global trade unions, UNI Global Union and IndustriALL Global Union, to commit “to the goal of a safe and sustainable … industry in which no worker needs to fear fires, building collapses, or other accidents that could be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures”. The Accord is chaired by the ILO and implemented through a steering committee which provides equal representation to the signatory global brand firms and labour unions. The Accord has made a difference. Over 90 per cent of the safety hazards originally identified by the Accord inspectors could be eliminated from Bangladesh’s garment factories.

Conversely, in Pakistan, the aftermath of the factory fires failed to effectuate any systemic changes. For over a year, the affectees of the Ali Enterprises fire ran from pillar to post in search of justice and compensation. Eventually, they formed the Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association (AEFFAA) with the support of the National Trade Union Federation and Home-Based Women Workers Federation. Piler played a major role in negotiating with KiK (the German company buyer of Ali Enterprises) the compensation of $1 million in immediate relief for workers’ families. KiK later also agreed to pay $5.15m as a result of a transnational lawsuit in Germany.

The global value chain in the garment industry for ‘fast fashion’ finds cheaper labour in Pakistan and Bangladesh where clever businessmen compete to win foreign orders in a cut-throat environment. To keep production costs low, factory owners do not invest in improving working conditions while poor workers do not protest for want of jobs. In Pakistan, only 1pc of the labour force is unionised.

The Rana Plaza collapse changed things through the development of the Bangladesh Accord. There is now a Bangladesh Accord Foundation with offices in Bangladesh and the Netherlands. More than 190 global brands are members of the Bangladesh Accord and 1,600 factories in Bangladesh have introduced safety and occupational health programmes benefiting more than 2m workers. The Accord is being expanded with more health provisions with the intention to make it international. There have been voices for a ‘Pakistan Accord’ but to no avail. It is high time Pakistan became part of the international accord.

Saeeda Khatoon lost her son in the Ali Enterprises fire. She later became the president of the AEFFAA to fight for justice and safer working conditions. In her own words; “My child could not come back, but others can be saved.”

The writer is a former SAPM on health and is currently serving as a WHO Adviser on Universal Health Coverage. This column has benefited from an open access volume Transnational Legal Activism in Global Value Chains: The Ali Enterprises Factory Fire and the Struggle for Justice.

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