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September 27, 2020

‘Declaring Baldia factory fire main accused innocent a mockery of justice’


September 27, 2020

Dissatisfied with an anti-terrorism court’s recent verdict in the high-profile Baldia garment factory fire case, families and rights groups on Saturday said politicisation of the incident had saved the main accused and thus the families of the killed workers were deprived of justice.

Over 260 workers were burnt alive when the multi-storey Ali Enterprises garment factory was set on fire in Baldia Town on September 11, 2012 in what became the deadliest industrial blaze in Pakistan’s history.

The families and rights groups said while addressing a news conference at the Karachi Press Club that declaring the main accused, namely the owners of the factory, innocent was a mockery of justice.

They said the lack of health and safety facilities at workplaces in Pakistan had become death traps for the country’s workers. They expressed regret that eight long years had passed but the affected families still did not get justice.

Saeeda Khatoon, who lost her 18-year-old only son in the Baldia fire incident and heads the Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association, also addressed the news conference.

“The investigation in this case was influenced by forming different JITs [joint investigation teams], and the bereaved families were never accepted as party in the case, which is against the basic principles of law and justice.”

She said that the main question was not whether it was arson or an accidental fire incident, but the whole point was that a proper fire fighting system was not installed at the factory.

National Trade Union Federation General Secretary Nasir Mansoor said: “All exits of the factory, including its windows, were closed with iron bars. The firefighting equipment present there was not in working condition.”

He said the workers had not been trained for emergency situations. “The factory itself was illegal. Its building map had not been approved from the relevant departments. These were the main reasons that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent workers.”

The speakers said anyone involved in the incident should be given exemplary punishment, but terming the factory owners innocent was murder of justice because their criminal negligence in ensuring proper safety protocols took the lives of 260 workers.

They said if the factory owners were being blackmailed or receiving threats, they should have contacted the police or the relevant administration and ensured safety arrangements, which they did not.

They also said that instead of learning from this tragedy and improving working conditions at workplaces, business owners had been provided with an escape route in the name of extortion threats. They added that industrial accidents are on the rise and many workers are still dying in them.

However, the speakers lamented, the government continues to be a silent spectator while local and international brands carry on violating labour laws and standards in their race to earn more and more profits.

They also lamented that the International Labour Organisation’s conventions were not being implemented, and neither were the Generalised System of Preferences Plus nor the Global Framework Agreements.

They said international brands, their local suppliers and private social audit companies have formed an unholy alliance against workers, while the government is patronising them, which is tantamount to providing them with a licence to kill workers.

The speakers said local labour laws are being violated constantly. They said that about 95 per cent of the workers have no appointment letters and only five per cent are registered with social security and pension institutions.

They pointed out that ethnic and gender discrimination is ripe in industrial zones, while the notorious contract system of labour has virtually turned millions of workers into modern-day slaves. They said that only one per cent of the workers are members of labour unions.

They said Sindh has a law for occupational health and safety but it is not being implemented. “The Government of Sindh had declared September 11 as the day of health and safety, but strangely, no programme or event was held on governmental level on this day,” said a speaker.

The news conference was also told that everybody is doing politics over the blood of the martyred workers but no one is ready to help them get justice and dress their deep wounds.

The speakers said it is a shame that even in the 21st century, the largest industrial city of Pakistan, namely Karachi, does not have any forensic laboratory for DNA tests.

They said that seven dead labourers of the Baldia fire incident were buried without identification while their DNA match certificates were awaited from the laboratory in Lahore.

They said that all demands of the affected families should be accepted. They also said the provincial government should provide them employment and plots as promised.

The speakers said the Employees Old-age Benefits Institution pension of the parents of the martyred workers should be resumed. Orders should be issued to pay them gratuity and group insurance, they added.

They demanded that forensic laboratories be set up in all cities, especially in Karachi.

They also demanded that brands be compelled to follow local and international laws.

They said private social auditing systems should be ended and replaced with labour inspection systems. They also stressed on saving the lives of workers and ensuring their good health.

Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research Executive Director Karamat Ali, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Sindh Vice Chairperson Asad Iqbal Butt and Home-Based Women Workers Federation Secretary Zehra Akbar Khan were also present on the occasion.