The Ali Enterprises fire brought to light the poor working conditions prevalent in Pakistan’s garment and textile industry, which is the largest exporting sector, earning over $15 billion annually.
About 260 workers of Ali Enterprises lost their lives in the most horrible factory fire incident in Pakistan’s history on September 11, 2012, after they were trapped in the burning factory. All exits except the one engulfed by the fire were nonfunctional. Also, the trapped workers could not reach the upper floors as the doors were closed. The windows had narrow grills so that they could not jump from those. They were burnt and suffocated to death in the factory in Karachi’s Baldia Town.
At least 17 workers were buried unidentified as their bodies were burnt beyond recognition. Even DNA tests were not possible on the charred remains.
The incident, commonly known as Baldia Factory fire, exposed the utter failure on part of the government and supply chain actors (including the buying brand), to ensure occupational safety and health at work places. According to reports, the factory owners had been running the factory illegally. It had not been registered with the Labour Department. There had, therefore, been no labour inspectors visiting the factory premises to check the health and safety conditions.
The building had been constructed without an approval from the Building Control Authority. After the fire, it was learnt that the factory was not even registered with SITE Limited, in charge of allotting and maintaining the industrial plots. A very small number of workers were registered with the social welfare institutions like the Sindh Employees Social Security Institution (SESSI) and the Employees’ Old age Benefits Institution (EOBI) despite the fact that over 1,500 workers were engaged in various shifts. A majority of the workers were hired through contractors.
A majority of the dead, including 24 women, were under the age of 30. Many were poor migrants from other parts of the country. The Ali Enterprises fire brought to light the poor working conditions prevalent in Pakistan’s garment and textile industry, the largest exporting sector, earning over $15 billion annually. The tragedy was a reflection of the negligence not only on part of the government but also the factory owners and their associations.
Ali Enterprises had been supplying over 80 per cent of its garment production to the German textile discount chain, KiK Textilien, who miserably failed to play its role in insuring that the factory had proper fire and building safety arrangements in place.
Recently one of the people accused in the case has been set free by the high court. Investigation reports are unanimous that the human losses could have been avoided had the doors not been locked and windows not soldered shut. There was no proper fire alarm system and no emergency exits at the site. All this pointed to negligence of the owners.
Reports are unanimous that the human losses could have been avoided had the doors not been locked and windows not soldered shut. There was no proper fire alarm system and no emergency exit at the site.
Progress on improving the health and safety conditions at the workplace to prevent a recurrence of such accidents has been far from impressive. The government has notified the Occupational Safety and Health Council in August 2019 under the Sindh Occupational Safety and Health Act, 2017. However, the situation on the ground is almost the same as it was seven years ago.
The labour inspection system remains abysmal. There are only around 100 inspectors to cover the entire province and its 15 million-strong work force. The number of occupational and safety inspectors for the entire province is 15. There have been no efforts on record to overhaul the rotten system of labour inspection, which is marred by allegations of corruption and incompetence.
More than half the factories in Sindh remain unregistered. The Labour Department has been able to register around 10,000 factories with 550,000 workers – this, in a province that has the largest industrial base in the country. Even the registered factories are not properly inspected for compliance with labour standards
The situation is no better in other parts of the country. The Clean Clothes Campaign, a global network of trade unions and NGOs campaigning for better working conditions in the textile sector, has recorded 100 deaths at workplaces in Pakistan due to unsafe conditions since the Baldia fire. These are in addition to hundreds of minor incidents in which some workers were reported injured.
The Labour Force Survey 2017-18 states that one out of 25 workers in Pakistan is affected by occupational health and safety risks. The number is higher than many other countries in the region.
Progress on providing justice to victims, in terms of identifying and prosecuting those responsible for this tragedy, is very slow, essentially due to loopholes in the judicial system. The owners were initially charged with murder, then with negligence. Later, several JITs were formed and the alleged perpetrators booked under anti-terrorism laws. However, the heirs of the victims still await justice as no one has been convicted and sentenced to date.
Nine years on, there is much to learn from the Baldia fire. We saw several workers losing their lives in a factory in the Korangi area of the city last week (August 27). There is a need for drastic reforms to ensure health and safety at the work place. All actors, including the government, big brands, employers and workers have to play their role in this regard.
The author is a freelance journalist and human rights activist based in Karachi.