Friday September 29, 2023

Baldia factory fire victims’ movement for safety of workers goes on

September 11, 2018

Sitting in her room at Avari Hotel in Karachi, Miriam Saage-Maass finishes the complaint against Italian company RINA which had certified Ali Enterprises in 2012 for abiding by international labour standards a mere three weeks before the factory was gutted by a fire with hundreds of workers locked inside.

She is due to file the report online today to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) office in Rome on behalf of the affectees who mark the anniversary of the fire outside the burnt structure in Baldia today. On September 11, 2012, at 6:30pm, a massive fire ravaged through Ali Enterprises in Baldia, killing up to 260 workers and wounding dozens others. Investigations later revealed that the casualties occurred because the garments manufacturing facility lacked basic health and safety measures with no compliance to labour standards, both local and international.

“The high death toll of the factory demonstrates that the certification process ignored major safety issues,” Saage-Maass, who is a human rights activist and lawyer working with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin, said in an interview with The News on Monday.

She referred to a digital simulation of the fire by Forensic Architecture, a research group based out of the University of London, which showed that if safety was in place, hundreds of lives could have been saved at the factory.

According to her, RINA not only failed to visit the factory itself but its Pakistani subsidiary RI&CA also allegedly did not set foot in the factory. She said that on this anniversary, an international coalition of eights human rights, labour and consumer organisations has filed the complaint against the auditing firm to the OECD’s office at the Italian Ministry for Economic Development.

Her colleague Carolijn Terwindt, who travelled with her to Karachi, said that RINA’s failure to detect and act upon safety and labour violations in the factory once again showed that the social auditing system was inherently flawed and that without transparency and accountability to workers, the system was due to fail again and again.

The duo of lawyers is also working on a case against the main buyer of the merchandise produced at the Ali Enterprises factory, KiK, which is a German clothing chain. Terwindt said that a public hearing on their complaint is expected to be held in November this year in Dortmund, Germany.

She said the court has heard and recorded legal opinions from both sides and is likely to rule on the fate of the case following an independent opinion on whether the case was maintainable in Germany.

KiK has already paid around USD 6 million to the affectees of the fire as compensation, while it claims that it cannot be held responsible for the incident. Victims are expected to start receiving the pension from the next months as, according to the National Trade Union Federation and Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research who supported the victims’ association – the Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association, the Sindh government has made all arrangements to distribute the money through the Sindh Employees Social Security Institution.

The main case in court is suffering delays though because of the dramatic turns in the investigations. The case is currently being heard in an anti-terrorism court in Karachi on the preamble that the fire was an act of arson caused by extortionists belonging to the then powerful political party of the city, the MQM. The chairperson of the fire affectees association, Saeeda Khatoon, a widow who lost her only son to the fire, is hopeful of getting justice.

“My son died as hundreds of workers did because they were unable to flee the factory in time. There was no functioning of fire detection system, tolls and escape routes were blocked or not available. We don’t want others to suffer like us, therefore we are struggling for safe workplaces and better working conditions,” she said.