Wednesday May 22, 2024

Remembering Saeeda Baji and her struggle for justice in Baldia factory fire case

By Zubair Ashraf
January 02, 2023

The first time I met Saeeda Khatoon was at a general body meeting of the Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association at the PMA House, the Pakistan Medical Association’s office, in Karachi in 2014.

I was a rookie reporter. Intrigued by her speech, and because the desk wanted quotes, I approached her after the meeting. She was super busy. Everybody wanted to talk to her, and she knew all of them.

She appeared to be the most prominent leader of the affected families. They called her Saeeda Baji. I asked her for an interview, and, gladly, she agreed. A long, dusty, broken road led to her house on a hill in Baldia Town. It had only one room, containing an iron cupboard, a sewing machine, a table, a water cooler, a mat on the floor and a picture of a young, bespectacled, curly-haired guy.

He was barely 18 when he was killed with 260 others in the fire at the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Baldia Town a couple of years ago. His name was Aijaz, but she nicknamed him Ayan.

He would come home from work, bang on the door and immediately ask for food. They used to eat together every day. With him gone, she did not feel like going into the kitchen any more. She survived on tea and biscuits from a kiosk for long.

I have known and followed her since then. She led a movement that became the tipping point for formulating the German Supply Chain Due Diligence Act. And now such a law is being considered at European level.

Saeeda Baji’s story

It was her son’s payday. Just as she was finishing cooking dinner, she received a call that the factory had caught fire and people were trapped inside. She arrived outside the factory within minutes, only to see flames rolling out of the windows and people crying for help both inside and outside.

She kept on running from one ambulance to another, and from one hospital to another. The dead body of her Ayan was found in the factory’s basement on the second day of the fire that was still raging.

Just a few years after losing her husband, she had lost her only son. Caught in a spiral of poverty, the mother-son duo had been trying to make ends meet by pooling in money. Her job as a caregiver to children at a school was not enough to pay the bills. The compensation that the government promised to give the victims’ families was her only hope of survival. She ran from pillar to post to get the compensation but returned empty-handed from everywhere.

She had heard of an NGO that could help the victims. She approached them but they asked for around Rs30,000 per family to put their case into the system. She and some of the others paid the NGO, which later disappeared. Some of the people started blaming her.

She understood that not everyone was trying to help them but was more interested in profiting from their misery, so she took matters in her own hands. She and her colleagues set up an association for the affected families to wage a collective struggle. With the help of some union organisers, lawyers, politicians and other sympathisers, they were able to find some solace in the form of compensation through the Sindh High Court (SHC).

The money disbursed through the SHC helped her buy a small house and allowed her to receive pocket money in the name of pension for a few years. But she was not convinced. She was in pursuit of justice. And this was not it.

All she wanted was to save others from meeting a fate like hers. She reiterated this in discussions, speeches and press conferences. And I noticed her voice shaking and her eyes getting teary each time.

She understood that the fight she had taken up had multiple fronts and involved many opponents, from firms to states, from politics to economics, and from society to religion. She was threatened by some social and political elements to refrain from her struggle. Undoubtedly, these elements were jealous of her and wanted to hijack the victims’ movement. She continued unfazed.

She represented the victims at many levels, including before the Pakistani and German states, the European Union, the United Nations and the likes. Because of her and her colleagues’ struggle, the victims received some more compensation.

It was, however, under a corrupt mechanism, courtesy of the weak social institutions and bad governing policies. Yet, she wanted more. Maybe a heartfelt apology, which no perpetrator or those who colluded with them offered.

When the German brand KiK, which purchased clothes from the Ali Enterprises, refused to acknowledge its responsibility for the fire citing an investigative report from Pakistani law enforcement and security agencies that it was an arson attack, she filed a civil suit against the brand in Germany and a criminal suit against the factory owners in Pakistan.

She argued that people were killed simply because they could not find an exit, meaning that no health and safety measures had been taken at the factory, even though they are among the basic rights of a worker.

In late 2018, her case was finally taken up in a German court. As she attended the proceedings, her lawyers sought a chance for her to speak. The bench refused and started pronouncing its verdict.

The order was in Deutsch, the German language. Although she did not know the language, her facial expressions showed that she understood it even before her lawyers could explain it to her after the hearing. That day she was very upset. She preferred isolation to conversation.

I had the honour of meeting Saeeda Baji on many occasions, beyond her own struggle. She was a regular to demonstrations for labour, women and human rights. She would always find me or the other way round, and then we would catch up a little.

Sometimes she would sound a bit depressed and hopeless because of running into hurdles one after the other that continued to pop up in her way. But despite all odds, she carried on. She knew that people looked up to her. She knew what each of the affected families was going through, and she made efforts to solve their problems.

One of her last efforts was to seek changes in the pension rules that barred payments to the parents of a victim after a specific time period. When she heard that Germany had passed a law that obligated German companies to conduct due diligence to rectify human rights and environmental violations down their supply chains, she was very happy.

At a book launch at the IBA (Institute of Business Administration) in 2021, she spoke about what this law could mean for her when implemented. When she concluded her speech, the then Supreme Court Justice Maqbool Baqar rose from his seat to applaud her.

Over the years I noticed only these changes in her: she turned to dupatta from burqa, her hair turned silver from black, and her face became wrinkled. The last time I met her was on the ninth anniversary of the factory fire. She looked a bit weak. She told me that she was not well, and that doctors were trying to figure out what was wrong.

In November 2022 I learnt that she had been diagnosed with cancer. I thought of giving her a call later. Just a few days ago I saw a Facebook post about her being hospitalised for treatment. I remembered that I needed to call her, but then I forgot again.

And then, on December 29, 2022, I received a text that she had passed away. I remembered again that I needed to call her. But it was too late by then. And now I would never be able to speak to her again. Rest in peace, Saeeda Baji. The writer is a journalist who was formerly associated with The News