By Hunter King
Today, September 11th, we commemorate multiple tragedies. It is not only the anniversary of the fall of the Twin Towers but also the one year anniversary of the Ali Enterprises fire in Karachi, Pakistan. The fire, which claimed the lives of 262 workers, was the deadliest factory fire in world history. The subsequent garment sector disasters that have occurred over the past year have continued to highlight the results of greed and criminal negligence that endanger workers in South Asia's garment industry.
In addition to making jeans for KIK, workers interviewed by the National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan documented that Ali Enterprises factory also contracted with brands like Diesel and Go Blue. Sales revenues prior to the fire were estimated to be between 50 to 100 million USD a year but that money was hardly reflected in workers' paychecks or in investments in preventative safety measures. Ali Enterprises was an unregistered, illegally functioning factory with an unapproved building design and missing onsite fire-fighting equipment and an emergency alarm system. Workers reported that the factory employed children and that all workers were employed under an illegal third-party contract system. Workers were not unionized and thus had no collective bargaining power to push for better working conditions. Most lacked job verification letters and, despite the fact that registration is mandatory in Pakistan, were not registered with the country's Social Security and Old Age Benefit institutes. The factory had only one exit, which at the time of the fire was blocked, and all windows were covered with iron grills. Inspite of two previous fire incidents, including one which took place in February of the same year, the factory failed to pursue precautionary measures or educate their workers in fire safety and exit strategies. In fact, when the building started to go up in flames, workers found that they were not only trapped, but that they were forced to save factory materials and equipment before attempting to save themselves. For many, it was already too late.
While the intentional criminal negligence of Ali Enterprise’s owners and managers is appalling, a report on the fire by the National Trade Union Federation Pakistan (NTUF) cautions us to remember that it is:
not only local manufacturers but also the international companies, brands and certification organizations [that] are responsible for such fatal incidents...The international brands use the ISO and social auditing certifications through international audit firms and Codes of Conduct (COC) mutually signed by the local manufacturers and the International Brands as a smokescreen to avoid the responsibility of implementing the local labour laws and ILO conventions...[In this case] an international Social Audit Company RINA had issued a SA8000 certificate to Ali Enterprises which means the factory was safe and working conditions there were more than satisfactory. The certificate was issued just 10 days before the accident which speaks volumes about the credibility and authenticity of the audit system of so-called international audit companies… International brands and audit certification organizations have to implement the international labour laws and standards for safeguarding the rights of workers.
Under international pressure, KIK agreed to supply an initial one million dollars to compensate the families of workers who died in the fire. This contribution is pennies to an industry giant like KIK that profits off of the labor of low wage workers in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. Ineke Zeldenrust, International Coordinator at Clean Clothes Campaign, remains optimistic about efforts to procure further compensation for the victims:
We welcome this agreement and look forward to having the full compensations and relief package, which we estimate will be at least EUR 20 million, to be negotiated soon. We continue our campaign towards other international stakeholders, notably auditing organisations SAI and Rina, to also take their responsibility and pay their share of the compensation needed.
What relief victims and their families have received has been won by local and international activists. For the anniversary of the fire, NTUF has organized demonstrations in Karachi, Hyderabad, Islamabad, Lahore and Multan with the hopes of revitalizing the issue of working conditions in Pakistan. This tragedy, says NTUF, “has now changed into a new symbol of a workers' resistance movement which would help the factory workers to secure the right of having a decent working environment and to get rid of social injustice and the prevailing norm of low wage slavery which characterizes crony capitalism.”