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Thursday May 23, 2024

Baldia fire anniversary reminds us again nothing learnt from our own 9/11

By Zubair Ashraf
September 12, 2021
Baldia fire anniversary reminds us again nothing learnt from our own 9/11

Hundreds of people, including widows, orphans and elderly parents of the victims of the Ali Enterprises garment factory, gathered outside its blemished structure in Baldia Town on Saturday to commemorate the ninth death anniversary of the 260 workers who had perished in the fire on September 11, 2012.

The event was presided over by a woman in her 60s, Saeeda Khatoon, who had lost in the fire her only son, 18-year-old Ejaz Ahmed, whom she lovingly called Ayan.

She is the chairperson of the victims’ representative organisation, the Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association (AEFFAA). As soon as she started speaking, tears began rolling down many faces in the crowd.

“This factory was a jail where our children were set on fire behind grilled windows and locked doors,” said Saeeda. “There was no fire safety and no emergency exit.”

She said that when her son’s body was taken out of the basement, his hands were on his face, and between them was a plate that he had tried to use to protect himself from the fire, “but he failed, and so did the others who had tried to escape the flames rolling down the floors”.

“Since then we’ve been protesting in the streets, moving the courts, talking to the government, raising our concerns at different platforms — doing whatever we can do to at least save others from meeting the same fate as our children.”

She said that in this quest, 13 of their companions have lost their lives, “but what we have not lost is the hope for a better tomorrow and the commitment to continue our struggle”.

It is usual for Saeeda to make these speeches and keep her comrades, who are caught between their work and their activism, motivated and connected to their cause as well as to remind the world about the horrific outcomes of the lack of fire safety at workplaces.

Over the years she has grown weak but her narration has grown powerful. On Friday, when she had delivered a similar speech at a book launch at the IBA, the chief guest of the event, Justice Maqbool Baqar of the Supreme Court, stood up in respect. She was moved by the gesture, as her face, etched with melancholy, beamed with a smile.

“But,” she later said in an interview with The News, “I’ll be truly happy when the workers in this country become safe at their workplaces, and those who’re responsible for exploiting their vulnerability, including government officials and employers, are taken to task.”

She knows that this is not happening in the near future because she has been witnessing fires breaking out at workplaces every other day and workers dying in them.

“If they [the government] hadn’t let the owners of the Ali Enterprises run away from their crime, I bet no other employer would’ve even thought of forsaking workers’ safety or putting profit before lives.”

According to Nasir Mansoor, general secretary of the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) — which is a partner organisation of the AEFFAA in their struggle for ensuring justice to the victims and implementation of occupational health and safety measures at workplaces — the government politicised the Baldia factory fire case and this provided an escape route to the real culprits.

“Our concern is simple: if there had been fire safety measures in place and emergency exits had been available, these casualties wouldn’t have happened. But there were none and this hadn’t even been considered a breach of law.”

Mansoor demanded that a high-level judicial commission be formed to reinvestigate the Baldia tragedy so that those who are responsible for it can be identified. He said that this commission should also propose concrete measures to curb the lawlessness at industrial establishments.

“Corrupt officials in the government and the racketeer employers have made a criminal nexus to rake in money. And the only loser in this scheme is the worker, whose only goal is to provide for his family.”

He said that only five per cent of the workers in the job market are getting minimum wage while the rest of them — 95 per cent — are earning even lower amounts, yet they are being killed mercilessly, and no one seems to care about this.

“The whole world watched the tragedy of the Baldia factory fire, a global debate started after it, Germany even passed a law binding its companies to ensure the safety of workers down the supply chain, but in Pakistan, just a few weeks ago, a fire broke out at a luggage factory in Mehran Town, killing 16 workers, and the scene was quite similar to that of the Ali Enterprises. It means that we’ve learnt nothing from our own 9/11.”

Hours before the gathering of the heirs of the victims of the Ali Enterprises fire, a judicial magistrate at the city courts remanded to jail four people — owners Faisal Tariq and Hassan Metha, manager Imran Zaidi and gatekeeper Syed Zarin — of the Mehran Town factory, where 16 workers were killed in a fire on August 27.

They were held after their bail applications were rejected by a sessions court on the observation that they illegally ran a factory in a residential area and completely ignored workers’ safety.

The district & sessions judge (East), who had ordered their arrest, had pointed out that prima facie these people were not involved in this criminal activity alone, as government agencies, including building control authority, labour department, civil defence, land owning agencies and trade associations, had also shown a criminal negligence to let their operations run under their nose. No government official, however, was booked in this case.