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May 2, 2018

Six years on, ‘Mother Baldia’ continues the fight for justice and labour rights

Karachi

May 2, 2018

It’s late evening and a young woman sits with her toddler in her lap listening intently to Saeeda Khatoon. Her kid makes a little fuss but she rocks him gently, never once moving her attention from her Saeeda Baaji, who is sharing information vital for her parents’ financial future.

Saeeda, the chairperson of Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association – a group that represents the victims and families of the 2012 Baldia factory fire, tells the woman, who lost an elder brother in the fire, what happened in the courtroom where their claim of group insurance was put up for a hearing on April 24. The judge had expressed his displeasure on the delay tactics and asked the opposing counsel to provide the complete copies of his defence to the claimants so that they could file a response by the next hearing scheduled for May 10 so that the case can move forward. It was the first hearing of the case in past four months which didn’t just get adjourned. In the past few hearings, the lawyers, from either side, would routinely excuse themselves from appearing.

Saeeda narrates what went down in the court hearing with mixed emotion – happiness and uncertainty. With the case finally progressing, she is hopeful, but also uncertain of what lies ahead.

Yet, as if realising the weight her words hold for people, she quickly assures the woman that “everything is going to be fine”, adding an “Inshaallah” at the end. A smile spreads across the woman’s face. “Ameen”, she says and adds a few prayers for the judge and his family.

A bereaved mother’s fight After the woman leaves, Saeeda pulls out a picture of her son Ayan from her purse. “He used to come banging on the door, asking, ‘What have you cooked, mother? I am very hungry, please make Roti fast’. He hated waiting,” she recalls of her teenage son whom she lost in the Baldia factory inferno six years ago.

“For a long time, I did not cook food. I couldn’t. The plate he ate from, the glass he drank from, everything reminds me of him,” says the mother who lost her son too soon. While continuing to deal with her grief, over the years, Saeeda has become a symbol of the struggle of the victims and affectees of the Baldia factory fire. She has and is trying to take up not only the cases that pertain to the incident but also those that affect labourers as a whole, be it their safety or social security. She is regularly seen in all such demonstrations. Because of her endeavours and untiring efforts to get justice, some even call her ‘Mother Baldia.’

Saeeda’s story is of a mother, who after losing her only child in the fire at Ali Enterprises garments factory in Baldia Town, was left at the mercy of a system that has become corrupt and incompetent to the core. Like many before her, she took a beating from the system and then decided to bear the pain and fight for justice till the end.

She is the focal person of the victims of the fire and has been raising the issue across the world. Because of her and other colleagues’ continued efforts, KIK, the German clothing retailer which used to buy a majority of the merchandise made at the ill-fated factory, was brought to the negotiation table to compensate for the loss, being one of the parties accused of overlooking workers’ safety.

The only visible change that has occurred in Saeeda in the past six years is that her hair has turned more silver than grey. The rest, she remains the same – courageous, untiring, and sometimes, unavoidably talkative. Just the other day, she spoke at length about walking from Askari Park to Daak Khana, around 1.6 miles, in the scorching afternoon just to save enough money to fare a rickshaw home in Baldia Town. She has, however, also seen days when her only meal was tea and biscuits from a tea stall close to her house.

“I have met people who would make money off your misery and you won’t even know it,” she says, describing her experience with the kinds of people she has dealt with during her campaign for the Baldia factory fire victims and for labour rights.

Occupational safety

One of the major demands of the victims is Occupational Safety and Health. With the exception of Sindh, no other provincial government or the federal government has drafted any such legislation. However, in Sindh’s case, the legislation too exists only on paper and little has been done for implementation.

Around 260 workers were killed in the Ali Enterprises factory fire which raged in the two-storey building for two days. Some of the bodies were burnt beyond recognition. Seventeen are still awaiting a DNA match, and the facts of what went down that day are still yet to be decided, let alone the case.

Neither the factory owners who are alleged to have neglected their workers’ safety nor the culprits who are alleged to have caused the fire are being tried. The victims believe that weak and exploitable laws, corrupt institutions and selfish politicians have all favoured the rich and powerful and helped them get away with murder.

Saeeda explains how the victims were kept in the dark about the payment schedule of the USD 5.15 million that KiK released for them two years ago.

The International Labour Organization that held the money in Geneva, in September 2016, recently signed an agreement with the Sindh Employees Social Security Institution to pay the victims a monthly pension as long-term compensation. The payment has not yet begun.

However, Saeeda remains hopeful. “One day, we will win,” she says, raising a fist, perhaps trying to hide the helplessness she feels. “People ask me when all this will be over. Literally, I have nothing to say to them but to give hope.”