Two years ago on September 11, 2012, a third-degree fire broke out at Ali Enterprises, a garment factory in the industrial area Karachi, in which 259 workers perished alive. It was one of the most devastating fire tragedies of known industrial history. The tragedy sparked a debate, but unfortunately on too small a scale, on one of the most neglected but important issues: workplace safety and working conditions of the working class. But as usual, soon after the tragic inferno, the issue of workers was dumped, forgotten due to other thorny issues confronting our country.
The second anniversary of the “Baldia Factory Fire Tragedy” is the right time to revisit the conditions and situation under which Pakistan's workforce of 60 million is compelled to work.
It’s no more secret now that Pakistan is one of the most vulnerable countries on the global spectrum in relation to labor and human rights violations. The long history of military dictatorships, the state-sponsored growing phenomenon of religious extremism, ethnic sectarian rifts and separatist movements, and a very fragile democracy are the hallmarks of Pakistani society. These deep-rooted factors hardly force anybody to see seriously into the depressing affair of workers in factories, other workplaces and on farms. For a long time, the issue of working conditions has been no more the priority of any government, whether elected one or the military rulers.
In a country of more than 200 million people, the huge workforce doesn't enjoy the benefits of the basic labor rights as envisaged in local labor laws and also in the International Labour Organization (ILO) core conventions rectified by Pakistan. The situation in all industrial sectors producing merchandise for local and international markets shows the worst scenarios of low wages, long working hours, no social protection nets, lack of occupational health and safety in the workplace, and the denial of the right to form unions and bargain collectively.
The most horrible conditions prevail in the textile, garment and apparel sectors, where 60% of the total workforce is engaged in different stages, from cotton fields to value-added goods. The exportable textiles items from raw cotton to high quality apparel earn much-needed foreign exchange of around 10 billion USD yearly, 60% of total export earnings. The wages in the textile sector are very low as compared to other sectors, easily opening the path to the treatment of women workers as cheap and voiceless labour. According to one estimate, nearly 2.5 million women are engaged in the garment sector alone. Millions more (no exact data available) are engaged in cotton fields and other textile-related activities across Pakistan.
Like all other industrial sectors, the textile sector also portrays the same miserable scenario of working and living conditions. If counting the public sector industries like railways, WAPDA, steel mills, gas corporations, postal and many others, the total workers organized in trade unions stands at less than 5% of the total workforce. While in the private sector alone merely 2.8% workers are unionized and in the textile sector the situation is even worse, with unionization standing at less than 2%. Textiles is one of the sectors where much of the international brands and buyers are involved in gross violation of ILO labor standards and also breach the constitution of Pakistan regarding workers' right to form their associations. The reaction of factory owners and the local administration are always very harsh towards workers who try to form unions. For many workers trailed under the Anti Terrorist Act (ATA) and punished for jail imprisonment, their only "crime" was the formation of a union or demanding implementation of minimum wages, observance of lawful working hours, occupational health and safety at the workplace and other very basic demands.
The reality is that only 3% of workers have appointment letters while only 4 to 4.5% are registered under the Social Security Institute, responsible for health care of the workers and their families. These labor law clauses are obligatory for running of any business or industry in Pakistan, but nowhere are these important instruments implemented in the true sense. The same is the situation with the Employees Old Benefits Institution (EOBI) and Workers Welfare Fund (WWF) where a very small ratio (4%) of workers were registered to claim their rights and privileges. The Group Insurance and yearly bounce guaranteed in law books remain a dream far from realization. The agrarian workers, which are half of the labour force, aren't covered under any scheme as they are not considered workers under labour laws, except in Sindh. So they have no right to form unions and no right to claim labour-related rights.
The international brands use the ISO and social auditing certifications through international audit firms and codes of conduct mutually signed by the local manufacturers and the international brands as smokescreens to avoid the responsibility to observe local labour laws and ILO labor conventions. It was always demands of the trade unions, labour and human right organizations to the governments and international bodies, including the ILO, to look into serious violations of labour-related regulations in industries, especially in the textile sector, through the above-mentioned mechanisms. But never has it been received seriously, even after the fateful day of September 11, 2012, when a huge fire broke out at Ali Enterprises, an export-oriented garment factory situated in the industrial zone called SITE, near Baldia Town in Karachi. In the fire, 259 workers were forced to burn alive, many others injured seriously, and around 1500 rendered jobless. The disastrous accident was one of the most horrible in industrial history of not only of Pakistan but of the whole world.
In the backdrop of the “Industrial Nine Eleven (9/11),” the implementation of the apparatus of labour inspections as described in existing labour laws is vital to make sure that adequate safety measures, including fire-extinguishing mechanisms at workplaces, and to check violations of any labour laws and other labour rights obligations. However during General Musharaf’s military rule it was strictly banned and unfortunately it was continued throughout the civilian government in all practical purposes just to appease the industrialists and all powerful Chambers of Commerce and Industries, even at the cost of workers' lives. Due to the ban on labour inspections, industrial accidents increased many folds in the last decade.
It’s very unfortunate and shocking that nobody seems to care about the pathetic working conditions and vulnerability of the textile sector's millions of workers, all of their workplaces are death traps in practical terms, with no possibility to escape the loss of life at the time of a mishap. The government gave 42 Billion Pak Rupees in 2010 to uplift the textile sector, but not a single penny was spent on the well-being and safety of workers. No serious concern was shown by any government or even international bodies, including the ILO, for the implementation of very basic labour standards for the safety of the workers' lives during work.
It’s characteristic of Pakistan’s industrial activities that a small degree of accidents (but very serious by any international standard) as compared to Ali Enterprises occur nearly every day but are largely unnoticed by the concerned departments and factory owners. This is because labour laws are not being observed in their true spirit. The majority of factories or establishments in industrial zones or in residential area operate illegally, as 90% of the factories are not registered under Factory Act1934.
The Baldia fire accident has provoked a shock wave all over the country. Trade union bodies such as National Trade Union Federation, Pakistan (NTUF) along with some other labour and human rights organizations have started a movement with the main demand to book the culprit responsible for the gruesome disaster. It was the test case to expose the real image of the working environment under which millions of industrial labourers work. The facts speak louder than words: like all other factories, Ali Enterprises (where inferno was occurred) was not registered under the factory Act, its building structure was not lawfully approved from the building authority, the majority of workers didn’t have appointments letters, all worked under an illegal third-party contract system, their long working hours ranged from 10 to 14 hours a day without overtime, all workers worked on piece rate, the majority of the workers were not registered with the Social Security Institute and the Old Age Benefits Institute which is mandatory, no union existed so as a result there were no collective bargain rights. It was totally modern day slavery in the city of Karachi, the hub of industrial and commercial activities where more than 60% of the industry is located.
Looking at the irony of the deplorable state of affairs of export-oriented industries, another depressing aspect of the situation is revealed: Ali Enterprises had been manufacturing more than 90% of its merchandise for an international brand, “KiK,” of Germany with the label of “Okay” for many years without fulfilling their lawful responsibilities. The international brand had had just one concern, and that was cheap products at any cost, even at the cost of the death of 257 workers whose average age was less than 30 years.
No sane person can imagine that a factory of such dubious feature got the clean chit from an international social auditing company, “RINA,” which certified that all was well, even a few weeks before the frightening inferno tragedy on 11 September 2012. This kind of certification had been issued in wholesale by the audit company without keeping in mind the potential of human tragedies looming large on every factory which they had certified with all willful negligence. We witnessed the stark reality on tragic day of 11 September 2012, when the fire started to grip the factory and more than 600 workers were trapped inside. There was no fire extinguishing system in operation, there was only one main gate at the extreme end of the factory, all the windows were closed and covered with iron rods, and exit doors were forcibly locked making it impossible for workers to escape.
This was the criminal act at the time of fire by the factory owner and management, while it was also the crime of the audit firm which has awarded the certificate to the factory, which was actually a massive death cell, running illegally and with all malpractices and gross violations of international and local labour standards. It is reported that RINA has issued some kinds of certificates to more than 90 factories in Pakistan, a license to kill. Many families of deceased workers have received partial compensation under the pressure of the workers’ movement, still many are waiting for compensation. On the other hand, although at a late date, the social security and pension-providing institutes have started to register the victims’ families for the heath and old age benefits coverage to escape for punishment for their sheer negligence, but illegally marking social security and pension cards valid only for three years.
A commission was established with the mandate to find out the causes of the fire and to fix responsibility. Workers’ organizations have many serious concerns on the formation and functioning of the commission. The commission submitted its final report and findings to the government of Sindh, but for unknown reasons the government is not willing to make it public even still two years after the tragedy. Nearly 17 families continue to searching for DNA reports of their missing family members who died in the factory fire; these unidentified bodies were buried in Machko graveyard in Baldia Town, Karachi, on Sindh High Court order. A number of cases have been filed in different tiers of the court against the culprits of the factory fire.
The owners of the Ali Enterprises factory obtained bail from court after spending five months in jail. It was first time in the last three decades that any industrialist or factory management official was put in jail in connection with an industrial dispute. The government functionaries including the Prime Minister of that time from PPP were very keen and serious to drop the murder charges against the factory owners to appease and pacify the industrialists, which worker movements have denounced as anti-worker and pro-industrialist gestures and interference in court affairs.
On the pressure and joint efforts of the trade union and labour rights bodies in Pakistan and international organizations, the international brand “KiK” has committed to provide an amount of one million USD as initial relief to the victims and survivors. The trade union bodies and labour rights organization demand that final and full compensation should be in accordance with some international precedent as set in case of the Spectrum Garments collapse in 2007 in Bangladesh. On the request of the trade union federation and labour rights bodies, Sindh High Court has formed a commission headed by a former Supreme Court Judge to disburse the amount through a mechanism evolved by the commission.
All this was achieved only because of a great show of global solidarity to the workers at their hard time, but still much more is needed to achieve the goal of the betterment of workers’ living and working conditions in a dignified manner. It requires consistency and steadfastness in workers’ struggle along with strong support of international workers’ unions, labour, human and legal rights organizations in the shape of solidarity.
If global capital and its local cronies strike jointly against the interests of the working class, then all who stand for workers’ rights and better working conditions must come together and resist all forms of exploitation in the workplace. In countries like Pakistan where injustice becomes the law, here workers have no other choice except to start resistance as their duty.
NTUF held a workers gathering to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of the death of 259 workers of the Baldia Factory Fire Tragedy on Thursday 11 September at 3.30 pm at Ali Enterprises Factory, SITE area Karachi.