It was the darkest and saddest day in the history of Pakistan's labour movement when more than 300 workers were burned alive in Karachi on Tuesday, September 11, in the country's most severe garment factory fire accident.
The accident was not the first one in this factory, or in other factories. Unsafe working conditions are an everyday phenomenon, which go unnoticed until the most heinous crimes finally capture the media limelight. This week, more than 300 workers lost their precious lives at the alter of capitalist greed and lust for profits.
The Pakistani society is so criminally brutalized that in a sense no-one heeds the voices and cries of the downtrodden until uncalculable damage and the unimaginable miseries are inflicted upon them. The same is the case for workers at Ali Enterprises, a garment factory at Hub River Road in Karachi's SITE industrial area. The zone is the site of a couple of previous fires in which no government agency took any stern action.
According to the Karachi Building Authority (KBA), the factory building was not propertly approved. In Pakistan, safety measures are seldom observed in any workplace, and such was the case at Ali Enterprises. The 500 workers had no exit point except one at the time of emergency. All the factory windows were iron-grilled. Doorways and stairs were stuffed with finished or semi-finished merchandise.
The factory used a generator as an alternate source of electricity, but without the proper safety precautions. This became the main cause of the fire eruption when the boiler exploded. At least three hundred young male and female workers perished within a couple of hours. Many dead bodies are still in the rubble. No fire extinguishing equipment has been found in the factory.
The majority of the workers were contracted by a third party. None of the workers had a work appointment letter from the factory, making all the more difficult the identification of the dead bodies. None of the workers were registered with Social Security, the Employees Old Age Benefit Institute (EOBI), or with the Worker Welfare Board/Fund. The factory workers were not allowed to form a union and have collective bargaining rights. The workers who survived the accident reported that the factory itself was insured but that the workers were not. They expressed concern over the large amounts that the factory owner might get in insurance claims.
The National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan (NTUF) reacted swiftly to the accident by organizing a protest demonstration in Karachi and demanding the arrest of the factory owner, filing criminal cases against relevant departmental heads, and calling for the resignation of the labour minister, the minister for industries, and of the Governor and Chief Minister of Sindh due to the severe negligence on their part.
The NTUF also demanded compensation of PKR one million (US$10,576) for the families of deceased workers and PKR 400,000 (US$4,230) for wounded workers along with free medical treatment. NTUF also demands strict labour inspections of all factories in coordination with worker-representative bodies, the registration of all factories under the Factory Act, the upholding of health and safety laws, the abolishment of the dreaded contracted-worker system, the issuance of appointment letters to all workers at the time of hiring, and registration with social security, old-age benefit institutions, and worker-welfare programs.
The NTUF also appeals to international bodies of workers to put pressure on international apparel brands to force local manufacturers to respect labour laws and workplace safety standards, in accordance with ILO conventions and local laws in the country of production.
Nasir Mansoor is the Deputy General Secretary of the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) of Pakistan.