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Opinion

March 4, 2015

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A tale of two fires

On March 26, 1911, a New York Times headline announced a disaster, “141 men and girls die in shirtwaist factory fire; trapped high up in Washington Place Building; Street strewn with bodies; Piles of dead inside.” Details of the news were: Victims were mostly young girls, ages 16 to 23; many of them primary bread winners for their families; there was no fire escape; fire fighters could not reach the girls trapped inside; many burned alive while others jumped to their death from 9th floor.
On September 12, 2012 – a hundred years later – another headline, another disaster, same newspaper: “Fire ravaged a textile factory complex in the commercial hub of Karachi early Wednesday, killing almost 300 workers trapped behind locked doors and raising questions about woeful lack of regulations in a vital sector of Pakistan’ s faltering economy.” Details of the news were: hundreds of poorly paid workers were making undergarments and plastic tools; every exit but one had been locked; windows were mostly barred; some desperate workers flung themselves from the top floor sustaining serious injuries; fire fighters found dozens of bodies clumped together on the lower floors.
According to reports, there was public outrage after the New York fire. Many in the middle class were already uncomfortable about the conditions of the working class. Many civil society organisations like the National Consumers’ League, the Association for American Labor Legislation, the National Women’ s Trade Union League and private citizens came together to ensure that something like that never happened again. Their efforts resulted in the formation of a high-powered commission with a mandate to look into fire hazards, unsanitary conditions, occupational diseases, effectiveness of factory inspections and many other matters. This led to legislative changes about work place safety and other issues like low wages, long working hours, sanitary conditions, and women and children labour.

This wave of changes started from New York City, eventually affecting the whole country in the form of the New Deal under FDR.
On the other hand, even after over two years the Baldia factory fire incident is in the news again as a result of the JIT report, which was used not to highlight the plight of workers but for political point-scoring. Nothing much has changed for the workers of Pakistan. They continue to work long hours at less than minimum wages under hazardous, unsafe, unhealthy and unsanitary conditions.
What is the difference between 1911 New York and 2012 Karachi? Why such different outcomes after two such similar tragedies? Perhaps one of the most important differences is the reaction of the citizens. Whereas New Yorkers were outraged and appalled at the incidence, the people of Karachi went about business as usual after the initial few words of condemnation. While there must have been political opportunism, personal egos and infighting in New York as well, that did not overshadow the main concern.
In early 20th century New York, there were many progressive movements whereas in Pakistan, in the past several decades, any element of progressiveness has been systematically suppressed and replaced with reactionary and retrogressive thinking. Progressive movements propel the society forward, challenging the status quo, questioning accepted truths, promoting out of box thinking – and eventually making people think about issues in a new light to find solutions to the society’ s problems.
In the absence of such movements, any questioning is discouraged; blind following of customs and traditions is encouraged; group-think and herd mentality rather than individual innovation is praised. This directly and indirectly affects society’s attitudes towards authority, rarely daring to stand up to it, acceptance of the dominant narrative resulting in tolerance, even compliance with exploitation and oppression in the name of fate and God’s will.
Absence of trade unions in Pakistan is another major factor. A couple of years prior to the Triangle Factory fire, New York workers had struck successfully, winning the right to have most shirtwaist factories declared union-only shops. The Triangle Factory was not one of them. Right now in Pakistan less than three percent workers are unionised. Over the past several decades, unions have been systematically undermined, discouraged, penalised and co-opted. Non-unionised workers do not have bargaining power or the clout to even get the existing laws implemented, let alone getting news laws passed.
The media is a force to be reckoned with and can become a strong voice advocating workers rights and highlighting their issues. However, unfortunately, the media – like all institutions under capitalism – serves the interests of capitalists. So, it has become a tool for the ruling class to be used for their own agendas. Instead of focusing on the rights and plight of workers, the JIT report was used to further political agendas.
Some civil society organisations and NGOs have been trying to rectify this situation but have been ineffective so far. The globalisation of capital has resulted in the globalisation of workers’ exploitation.
Big capital roams the streets of poor countries in search of cheap labour, looking for places to set up sweat shops, hungry for the sweat and blood of people desperate for work, in order to boost CEO bonuses and maximise shareholder profits. It monopolises resources in the name of free economy and claims to provide jobs to the wretched of the earth.
To further fool the poor, the owners of this capital set up foundations and NGOs to ‘serve’ the victims of their savagery. They brandish their generosity by donating money to eliminate poverty, hunger, and disease – all the while writing trade agreements meant to suck the blood of the poor. And the media sings songs in their praises, obfuscating the fact that the same people are responsible for creating that hell.
We must accept the fact that even though having active citizen advocates for workers, passing protective laws, having strong unions will all help to ameliorate the current pathetic conditions to which the workers of Pakistan and the world are subjected to, the only permanent, sustainable, and long-term solution is to replace capitalism with a more just and equitable economic system.
Email: [email protected]

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