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LAHORE: While the families of the 289 victims of Karachi’s Baldia Town factory inferno have been awaiting justice and compensation since September 11, 2012, one continues to envy the prosecution and judicial systems of countries like the United States where the heirs of 146 garment workers were paid $75 each over 100 years ago, after their dear ones had died in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911.
Using the CPI inflation calculator, which uses the average Consumer Price Index for a given calendar year; one finds that the amount of $75 in 1913 or 102 years ago is approximately equivalent to $1,808 in 2015 in dollar terms or Pakistani Rupees 188,450 of today.
Research conducted by the “Jang Group and Geo Television Network” reveals that the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of the deadliest in American history, had led to the demise of 123 women and 23 men, all of whom had lost lives due to burns, smoke inhalation, falling or jumping to their deaths.
The owners of the New York factory had survived the fire by fleeing to the building’s roof when the fire began, but were later indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter because they had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits, a common practice used to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and pilferage.
During the initial trial, the jury had acquitted the two men of first- and second-degree manslaughter, but they were found liable of wrongful deaths during a subsequent civil suit in 1913 in which the plaintiffs were awarded compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim.
The local insurance company had paid the New York factory owners about $60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty.
This incident had led to enactment of 64 new laws for the safety and compensation of industrial workers between 1911 and 1913.
When it comes to investigating industrial accidents and prosecuting the guilty elements, even Bangladesh is far ahead of Pakistan.
Following the April 2013 Savar building or Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, deemed to be the deadliest accidental structural failure in modern human history, murder charges were filed in June 2015 by the Bangladeshi police against 42 different people, including the owners of the building.
While 1,129 humans had perished in this accident, some 2,515 injured people were rescued alive from the Savar building or the Rana Plaza, which was housing clothing factories, a bank, apartments, and several other shops.
As far as the compensation to the victims of this tragedy is concerned, Messrs Primark (an Irish clothing retailer operating in Europe and United States) had paid a $200 compensation for families of each victim after they were able to provide DNA evidence of their relative’s death in the collapse.
The US government had provided DNA kits to the families of victims.
Not fewer than 28 international brands had outsourced their products to Bangladeshi factories operating from the ill-fated Rana Plaza.
And by March 2014, seven of the 28 international brands sourcing products from Rana Plaza had contributed to the Rana Plaza Donor’s Trust Fund compensation fund, which is backed by the International Labour Organisation.
However, a few global brands included Messrs Walmart, Carrefour, Mango, Auchan and Kik etc had refused to sign.
Those who signed the compensation agreement included Messrs Loblaw, Bonmarche and El Corte Ingles etc.
Families of all Dhaka building collapse victims, however, are yet to be compensated as discussions with many international brands are still underway.
In case of Karachi’s Baldia Town factory (Messrs Ali enterprises) incident, a case was initially against the factory owners, manager and other employees for their alleged negligence in managing the evacuation process during the fire and not providing a safe exit.
In 2013, the court had ordered to release the factory owners and their key managers against surety bonds of Rs200,000 each. The owners had, of course, alleged that their factory was set ablaze by stalwarts of a political party after they were not given the extortion money.
The Sindh High Court had then constituted a commission headed by Justice (Retd) Rehmat Hussain Jaffery to distribute compensation pledged by the prime minister, the chief minister, factory owners, local administration and Messrs KIK, the German buyer of the factory’s products.
Two Joint Investigation Teams have since been formed, though one hopes that the report of the second JIT identifies the cause of fire and the culprits involved in killing of 289 innocent workers at the earliest.
Interestingly, the German discount chain Messrs KIK (Kunde ist Konig), which operates 3,200 stores in Germany, Austria and six Eastern European countries, had also outsourced its products to the Baldia Town factory, as it had done to the Bangladeshi firms operating from Dhaka’s Rana plaza that had collapsed.
Messrs KIK had faced a lot of criticism for its supply-chain practices in Bangladesh.
The New York Times, in its September 19, 2012 edition, had not only mentioned the German company KIK, but had viewed that the disaster had also revived scrutiny of the procurement policies of the Western companies that have their clothes made in factories like Ali Enterprises.
The New York Times had stated: “A prominent factory monitoring group heavily financed by industry gave a clean bill of health to a Pakistani apparel plant last month, just weeks before a fire engulfed the premises and killed nearly 300 workers, many of them trapped behind locked exit doors. In August, two inspectors who visited the factory, Ali Enterprises in Karachi, to examine working conditions gave it a prestigious SA8000 certification, meaning it had met international standards in nine areas, including health and safety, child labor and minimum wages.”
The prestigious American newspaper had further reported: “The two inspectors were working on behalf of Social Accountability International, a nonprofit monitoring group based in New York that obtains much of its financing from corporations and relies on 21 affiliates around the world to do most of its inspections. Weeks later, a fire swept the plant on Sept 12, trapping hundreds of workers in a building with barred windows and just one open exit, resulting in one of the worst industrial disasters in history.”
The New York Times had observed: “The Karachi tragedy is a huge embarrassment to the factory monitoring system, in which many Western garment and electronics companies rely on auditing groups to provide a coveted seal of approval to their low-cost suppliers in the developing world.”
The US newspaper had gone on to write: “A German discount textile chain has said its jeans were being manufactured in the plant at the time. The calamity has led to bitter recriminations in Pakistan, where textile exports play a vital role in a faltering economy. For international rights campaigners, the fact that the factory had been certified by a respected Western organization made clear the failings of a controversial 15-year-old industry initiative.”
The New York Times had added: “The Social Accountability International said it had suspended work in Pakistan with the RINA Group, an Italian company that carried out the Ali Enterprises audit on its behalf. It added that it was engaged in a broad review of its entire certification process. The three owners of the Ali Enterprises factory, who fled Karachi in the hours after the fire broke out, appeared this week at a courthouse in Larkana, 200 miles to the northeast. The State Bank of Pakistan has frozen the owners’ bank accounts, which hold more than $5 million, according to news media reports. Their passports have been confiscated, and they may face criminal charges.”
The New York Times had also hit Italy’s RINA Group, the auditors of the Baldia Town factory, very hard.
It had written: “The RINA Group, which carried out the Ali Enterprises audit, has performed 540 factory certifications for Social Accountability International, according to the international organization’s web site, including nearly 100 in Pakistan. In an e-mail, a company spokeswoman told European labor rights activists that it had obtained three independent audits of Ali Enterprises. The factory failed to meet fire safety standards during a 2007 check, but those problems were remedied by the time of a subsequent check in December 2011, she said.”
About the German company, Messrs KIK, the New York Times, had viewed: “KiK said it had started a relief fund for the families of the dead and injured workers in conjunction with other Western producers that use the plant. But the identities of those producers remain a mystery. One reporter found a pair of jeans bearing the Diesel brand on the factory’s premises after the fire, but Diesel has denied any links to the plant. In recent years, many factory monitors have come under criticism.”
By the way, in February 2015, four heirs of the victims of Baldia factory fire tragedy had lodged a case in the High Court of Dortmund, Germany against Messrs KIK — for which Karachi’s Ali Enterprises used to manufacture garments.
Messrs KIK also claimed it used to buy 75 per cent garments manufactured by the Karachi Baldia Town factory.
The heirs were represented in court by German lawyer Dr Remo Klinner.
The law suit had sought a $4,320 compensation for each victim.
The Baldia Factory Fire Affectees Association said the German company under review was supposed to compensate the families of the victims, but they paid only Rs one million as initial amount and had then backed out.
In a press conference held simultaneously in Karachi and Berlin, the representatives of National Trade Union Federation and the Baldia Factory Fire Affectees Association had said that German clothing brand KIK had refused to continue talks for final payment of compensation to heirs. This, they said, was tantamount to backing out of its promise to pay the remaining amount in terms of livelihood damages.
Families of many other victims were also critical of the Karachi-based “Messrs Synergies Sourcing Pakistan,” asserting it was German firm KIK’s agent in Pakistan and claimed on its brochure that it followed a code of conduct along with other international standards and contracts with only those suppliers who operated in accordance with them.
The brochure of Messrs Synergies, of course, mentions that Messrs KIK was among its many customers.
Messrs Synergies, a global supply chain management company with value-added sourcing and customer services offices in Europe, North and South America etc, claims to enjoy the services of 500 employees managing more than $350 million in business for 75 customers.
The Synergies brochure reads: “Synergies ensures that each of our clients’ goods are produced in factories where the workers’ rights are respected. We are dedicated to improving the working conditions and social benefits of our factory partners. This commitment ensures that our clients’ compliance requirements are met.”
Meanwhile, around the same time early this year, some 15 more heirs of the Baldia Town factory victims were planning to sue the Italian audit firm RINA (mentioned above in the New York Times story) in a court in the city of Milan.