Karachi, September 10, 2014 (PPI-OT): Two years ago on September 11, 2012 third degree fire was broke out in Ali Enterprises, garment factory in industrial area Karachi, perished 259 workers alive.
It was one of the most devastating fire tragedies of know industrial history. The tragedy sparked a debate but on very small scale in society on one of the most neglected but important issues; work place safety and working conditions of labor class. But as usual soon after the tragic inferno the issue of workers was dumped under other thorny issues confronting our country.
The second anniversary of “Baldia Factory Fire Tragedy” is a right time to revisit the conditions and situations under which 60 million labor force of Pakistan compel to work.
It’s no more secret now that Pakistan is one of the most vulnerable countries on global spectrum in connection labor and human rights violations. The long history of military dictatorships, state sponsored growing phenomenon of religious extremism, ethnic sectarian rifts and separatist movements and very fragile democracy are the hallmarks of Pakistan society. These deep rooted factors hardly force anybody to see seriously into the depressing affair of workers in factories, work places and farm lands. The issue of workers condition was no more on the priority of any governments whether elected one or the military rulers since long.
A country of more than 200 million people having huge work-force without having any benefit of basic labor right envisage in local labor laws and also in International Labor Organization (ILO) core conventions rectified by Pakistan. The situation in all industrial sectors producing merchandise for local and international markets showed worst scenario of low wages, long working hours, no social protections nets, lack of occupational health and safety at work place and denying of right to form union and bargain collectively.
The most horrible conditions prevailed in textile, garment and apparel sectors which account for 65% of whole economy where 60% of the total workforce engaged into different stages right from cotton fields to value added goods. The exportable textiles items from raw cotton to high quality apparels earn much needed foreign exchange of around 10 billion USD yearly, 60% of total export earnings. The wages in textile sectors are very low as compare to other sectors so easily open to women workers as cheap and voiceless labour. One estimate revealed that nearly 2.5 million women engaged in the garment sector alone other than millions (no data available) engaged in cotton fields and other textile related activities all over Pakistan.
Like all other industrial sectors the textile sector also portrays the same miserable scenario of workers working and living conditions. If count the public sector organizations like Railways, WAPDA, Steel Mills, Gas Corporations, postal and many others the total workers under organized trade union stand less than 5% of the total workforce. While in private sector alone merely 2.8% workers unionized and in textile sector situation even worse and stand at less than 2%. Textile is one of the sectors where much of the international brands and buyers involve in gross violation of ILO labor standards and also breach the constitution of Pakistan regarding right to form their associations.
The reaction of factory owners and local administration are always very harsh towards the workers who try to form union. Many workers trailed under Anti Terrorist Act (ATA) and punished for jail imprisonment, their only crime was the formation of union or demand implementation of minimum wages, observance of lawful working hour, occupational health and safety at work place and other very basic demands.
It’s the ground reality that only 3% workers have appointment letters while only 4-4.5% registered under the Social Security Institutes responsible for health care of the workers and their families. These clauses of labor laws are obligatory for running of any business or industry in Pakistan but nowhere these important instruments implemented in true sense.
The same is the situation with Employees Old Benefits Institution (EOBI) and Workers Welfare Fund (WWF) where very small ratio (4%) of workers was registered to claim their rights and privileges. The Group Insurance and yearly bounce guaranteed in law books still the dream which is nowhere nearer to realize. The agrarian workers which are half of the labour force don’t cover under any scheme as they are not considered worker under labour laws except in Sindh. So no right to form union and no right to claim labour related rights.
The international Brands use the ISO and social auditing certifications through international audit firms and Code of Conduct (COC) mutually signed by the local manufacturers and the International Brands as smokescreen 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 ILO to look into serious violation of labour related regulations in industries especially in textile sector through above mentioned mechanisms.
But never received it seriously even after fateful day of September 11, 2012 when huge fire brook out Ali Enterprises, an export oriented garment factory situated in industrial zone called SITE near Baldia Town in Karachi. In the fire 259 worker were forced to burn alive, many injured seriously and around1500 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 backdrop of the “Industrial Nine Eleven (9/11)” the apparatus of the Labour Inspection as described in existing labour laws was the vital toll to make sure the adequate safety measures including fire extinguishing mechanism at work place and also to check violation 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 civilian government in all practical purpose just to appease the industrialists and all powerful Chambers of Commerce and Industries even at the cost of workers lives. Due to ban on labour inspection industrial accident increased many folds in last decade.
It’s very unfortunate and shocking that nobody care about the pathetic working conditions and vulnerability of the textile sectors’ millions of workers, all of their work places are death traps in practical term where no escape other than the loss of life at the time of any mishap.
The government has given 42 Billion Pak Rupees in 2010 for the up lift of textile sector but not a single penny was spend on wellbeing and safety of workers lives at workplace . No serious concern was shown by any government or even international bodies including ILO for implementation of very basic labour standards for the safety of the workers lives during work.
It’s the characteristic of Pakistan’s industrial activities that small degree of accidents (but very serious by any international standard) as compare to Ali enterprises occurred every day but unnoticed at large extent by concern departments and factory owners. It’s all because of non observance of labour laws in true spirit. 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 the shock wave all over country; trade union bodies as National Trade Union Federation, Pakistan (NTUF) along with some other labour and human rights organizations have started movement with main demand to book the culprit responsible for the gruesome disaster. It was the test case to expose the real image of working environment under which millions of industrial labour work.
The facts speak louder than words , like all other factories the Ali Enterprises (where inferno was occurred) was not registered under the factory Act, its building structure was not lawfully approved from the Building authority, majority of workers didn’t have the appointments letters, all worked under illegal third party contact system, long working hour ranging from 10 to 14 hour a day without over time, all workers work on piece rate, majority of workers were not registered with the Social Security Institute and Old Age Benefits Institute which is mandatory, no union existed so as a result no collective bargain right. It was totally modern day slavery in a city Karachi, hub of industrial and commercial activities where more than 60% of the industry located.
Look at the irony of deplorable state of affairs of export oriented industries which unfold another depressing aspect of the situation and it revealed, the Ali Enterprises had been manufacturing more than 90% of its merchandise for an international brand “KiK” of Germany with label of “Okay” for many years without fulfilling their lawful responsibilities. The international brand had had just one concern and that was the cheap products at any cost even on the cost of death of 257 workers whose average age was less than 30 years.
No sane person can imagine that the factory of that dubious feature got the clean chit from an international social auditing company “ RINA” which certified that all was well and up to mark at the factory just two week before the frightening inferno tragedy on sep11 2012. This kind of certification have been issued in wholesale by the Audit company without keep in mind the potential of human tragedies looming large on every factory whom they had certified with all willful negligence. We witness the stark reality on tragic day of 11 September 2012 when the fire
started to grip the factory and more than 600 workers 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 cover with iron rods and all exit door were forcibly locked not to allow the workers any escape before the save recovery of merchandises from the fire.
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, actually 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 same kinds of certificates to more than 90 factories in Pakistan, a license to kill. Many families of deceased workers have received the partial compensation under the pressure of the workers movement, still many waiting for the compensation.
On other hand somehow very late but 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 of their sheer negligence but with illegal marking social security and pension cards valid only for three years.
A commission was established with mandate to find out the causes of fire and fixed the responsibility. Workers bodies have many serious concerns on the formation and functioning of the commission. The Commission had submitted the final report and findings to government of Sindh but for unknown reasons the Government is not willing to make it public even after two years of the tragedy. Nearly 17 families still searching for DNA reports of their missing family member died in the factory fire even after two years of the tragedy, these unidentified bodies were buried in Machko grave yard in Baldia Town, Karachi on Sindh High Court order.
Number of cases filed in different tiers of court against the culprits of the factory fire.
The owners of the Ali Enterprises obtained the bail from court after spending five months in the jail. It was first time in last three decades that any industrialist and factory management officials were put in the jail in connection with 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. These anti worker and pro industrialist gestures and interference in court affair were taken seriously and worker movements complain has been launched in court of law against it in January 2012.
On the pressure and joint efforts of the trade union/ labour right bodies in Pakistan and international organizations the international brand “KiK” has committed to provide an amount of one million USD as initial compensation to the victims survivors. The trade union bodies and labour right organization demand that final and full compensation should be in accordance with some international precedent as set in case of Spectrum Garments collapse in 2007 in Bangladesh. On the request of trade union federation and labour rights bodies Sindh High Court has formed a commission headed by former Supreme Court Judge to disburse the amount through a mechanism evolved by the commission.
All it was achieved only because of great show of global solidarity to the workers at their hard time but still needed long way to go to achieve the goal of workers prosperity and betterments in their living and working conditions in dignify manner. It requires consistency and steadfastness’ in workers struggle along with strong support of international workers unions, labour, human and legal right organizations in shape of solidarity.
If global capital and its local cronies strike jointly against the interests of working class than all who stand for the workers’ rights and better working conditions must come together and resist all form of exploitation at work place. In countries like Pakistan where injustice becomes the law, here workers have no other choice except to start the resistance as their duty.
“Workers Gathering” to Commensurate 2nd death anniversary of 259 workers of Baldia Factory Fire Tragedy on Thursday 11 September at 3.30 pm at Ali Enterprises Factory, SITE area Karachi.
For more information, contact:
Deputy General Secretary
National Trade Union Federation Pakistan (NTUF)
726 Mashriq Center, Gulshan Iqbal 14,