Although two months have passed since the devastating fire at a factory in the Baldia Town area claimed the lives of nearly 300 people, only 165 families of the victims were compensated by the authorities for their tragic loss, stated a report of the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) which was shared exclusively with The News. It added that a number of these heirs were unaware of the procedure to follow to get the compensation.
It said that the relevant authorities could not even produce a DNA report for the 61 families whose loved ones’ bodies were yet to be identified. The trade union revealed that there were only 27 bodies in the mortuary, whereas 61 families had yet to get the corpses of their relatives. Identifying and locating the bodies was not only important to the families for burial purposes, but also to get the compensation promised by the federal and provincial governments.
This report was complied by Zohra Akbar Khan, the education research secretary of NTUF, in collaboration with some other trade union activists of the federation. The prime minister announced Rs400,000 as compensation for the families, while the Sindh chief minister declared that around Rs300,000 would be paid to the legal heirs of those who perished. In addition, prosperous businessman Malik Riaz also announced Rs200,000 for the families.
Meanwhile, a committee had also been formed to oversee the compensation; however, not a single trade union or federation activist was included and neither were the people affected by the fire.
The News also attempted to get a list of the compensated families, but it was yet to be made public. Many families, who were yet to receive the bodies of their relatives, had also not been compensated.
According to the report, almost 80% of the injured workers were yet to receive the money promised by the government, and the majority of them were being forced to pay for their own medical expenses. Only 20 percent of the injured workers that were interviewed confirmed that their compensation had been received, while just eight of the twenty families questioned said they got their total payment amounting to around Rs900,000.
According to the findings of The News, some affected families did not possess computerised national identity cards (CNIC) which were needed to get their compensation cheques. These families applied for their CNICs and these applications were being processed.
Although most information suggested that nearly 300 people were killed, government statistics painted a different picture and said just 258 workers perished in the blaze. Many workers suffocated as there was no accessible emergency exit point.
The incident also exposed numerous lacunas in the government machinery which had left the majority of industrial workers at the mercy of their factory owners due to the failure to implement laws across the board. Despite the massive loss of human lives, many experts stressed there was a total lack of action on the part of the government to improve safety standards and working conditions. Most of the workers who perished in the fire were young people below the age of 35. There were more than 10,000 factories running in Karachi, and Ali Enterprises, the scene of the devastation, was one of them.
The garment factory in question had an estimated turnover of $10 million to $50 million a year compared and the average salary of a worker was estimated to be $50 to $100 a month. The factory would manufacture products for international brands and had a workforce of around 2,000.
More than 500 people, including women, men and children were working at the plant when the fire erupted. According to survivors, it was payday and that was the reason why the workers were there in such large numbers.
This was not the first time that a blaze erupted in the factory as many workers, who were later interviewed, revealed that it was the third or forth fire at the premises. However, they added that none of the owners of Ali Enterprises paid any attention to the incidents.
On the fateful day, reports emerged that the owners did not allow the labourers to save their lives and the workforce was directed to secure the finished products that were stored at the site. The factory owners believed that the fire would be controlled, but sadly that not to be. The emergency exits were locked and the main electric gate was also closed when the fire erupted. All windows in the factory were also sealed off with iron grills.
There was also no emergency alarm to inform the workers of the fire. A worker, when interviewed by The News, said that he visited the factory to get his pay and saw smoke billowing from the building. He also confirmed that there was no alarm to warn the workers, who were ultimately trapped inside.
It was also revealed after the fire that the garment factory, Ali Enterprises, was not even officially registered with the Factory Act of 1934 and the building design had never been approved by the competent authority.
Workers were also not registered with any social security institutions including the Employees Old-Age Benefits Institution (EOBI) and were being forced to work 12 to 14 hours a day on minimal wages.
According to workers’ representatives, the international brands buying products from the factory were equally responsible as none of them bothered to visit the premises and see the working conditions for themselves.
The government also formed a commission to probe the incident, but its report was yet to see the light of day.
Besides other illegal activities, the factory had reportedly hired the services of many workers who were below age of 18 years. This child labour would help the senior employees and their services were generally used to cut the extra threads of the finished products.