PAKISTAN: September 11, 2012 – when workers were forced to be burnt alive

Two years ago on 11th September  2012 a third degree fire broke out at the Ali Enterprises, garment factory in the industrial area of Karachi, where  259 workers perished – burnt alive. It was one of the most devastating tragedies known in the history of the garment industry. The tragedy sparked a debate but on a very small scale in the society on one of the most neglected but most important issues; work place safety and working conditions of the labour class.  However, as is usual, soon after the tragic inferno, the issue of workers was dumped under other thorny issues confronting our country.

The second anniversary of “Baldia Factory Fire Tragedy” is the right time to revisit the conditions and situations under which a 60 million labour force in Pakistan are compelled to work in.

It is no longer a secret that Pakistan is one of the most vulnerable countries on a global spectrum with regard to labour and human rights violations. The long history of military dictatorships, state sponsored and the growing phenomenon of religious extremism, ethnic sectarian rifts and separatist movements and a very fragile democracy are the hallmarks of Pakistan society. These deep rooted factors force hardly anyone to look seriously into the depressing state of affairs of the workers in factories, work places and farm lands. The issue of workers’ condition since a long time hence, is no more on the priority list of any governments whether elected or military.

Pakistan is a country of more than 200 million people, having a huge work-force without any benefit of basic labour rights envisaged in local labour laws or in any  International Labour Organization’s (ILO) core Conventions ratified by Pakistan. The situation in all the industrial sectors producing merchandise for local and international markets showed the worst scenario possible of low wages, long working hours, lack of occupational health and safety at work place and denying of right to form union and to bargain collectively.

The most horrific conditions prevailed in the textiles, garment and apparel sectors which account for 65% of  entire economy of the country  where 60% of the total workforce are engaged in the different areas of work  from cotton fields to value added goods. Exportable textiles items from raw cotton to high quality apparels earn the much needed foreign exchange of around US$ 10 billion USD annually, which is a 60% of total export earnings. The wages in textile sectors are very low as compared to other sectors – which sector is also easily open to women workers as forming cheap and voiceless labour. One estimate revealed that nearly 2.5 million women are engaged in the garment sector alone in addition to millions of other (no data available) engaged in cotton fields and other textile related activities across Pakistan.

Like all other industrial sectors the textile sector also portrays the same miserable scenario of work and living conditions of the labour force. When taking into account the public sector organizations like Railways, WAPDA, Steel Mills, Gas Corporations, postal and many others the total number of workers under organized trade unions stand less than 5% of the total workforce. While in the private sector alone merely 2.8% workers are unionized and in the textile sector the situation is even worse and stands at less than 2%.The textile sector is one in which much of the international brands and buyers are involved in gross violation of ILO standards and openly breach the constitution of Pakistan regarding the right to form their own trade unions/associations. The reaction of factory owners and local administration is always very harsh towards the workers who try to form a union. Many workers are trailed under the Anti-Terrorist Act (ATA) and punished for jail imprisonment; their only crimes were the formation of a union or to have demanded implementation of minimum wages, observance of lawful working hours, occupational health and safety at work place and other such basic demands.

It’s the ground reality that only 3% workers have appointment letters while only 4-4.5% are registered under the Social Security Institutes responsible for health care of the workers and their families.  These provisos  of labour laws are obligatory for the running of any business or industry in Pakistan. However,  there is no place where these important legal instruments nor their provisions are implemented in a true sense. The situation is the same with the Employees Old Benefits Institution (EOBI) and Workers Welfare Fund (WWF) where a  small ratio (4%) of workers have been registered to claim their rights and privileges.   The Group Insurance and yearly bonus guaranteed by law remains a dream never to be realised.   Further, agrarian workers who form almost half of the workforce are not covered under any such scheme as they are not considered as workers under labour laws except in the Sindh Province. They have no rights to form a union and no claim to any labour rights.

International brands use the ISO standards and other social auditing certifications through the various international audit firms and Codes of Conduct (COC) mutually signed by and between the local manufacturers as a smokescreen to avoid responsibilities in observing local labour laws and ILO labour Conventions.  Trade unions, labour and human rights organizations have always demanded the governments and international bodies including the ILO to look into these serious violations of labour related regulations in industries in Pakistan – especially in the textile sector through above mentioned mechanisms. Despite such demands, they never receive serious consideration even following the events which unfolded on the fateful day of 11th September 2012. A huge fire broke out at the Ali Enterprises, an export oriented garment factory situated in the industrial zone called SITE near Baldia Town in Karachi. During the fire, 259 workers were forced to be burnt alive many others were seriously injured and around1, 500 more were rendered unemployed. The disastrous accident was one of the most horrific to have taken place in the history of not only Pakistan but of the world.

In backdrop of the “Industrial Nine Eleven (9/11)” the apparatus of the Labour Inspection as described in the existing labour laws was  to make sure that adequate safety measures including fire extinguishing mechanisms should be installed at work places and also to check on violations of any labour laws and other labour rights obligations. However, during General Musharaf’s military rule labour inspections were was strictly banned and unfortunately it was continued throughout during the civilian government in all practical purposes just to appease the industrialists and all powerful Chambers of Commerce and Industries – at even the cost of workers’ lives. Due to the ban on labour inspections industrial accidents saw a marked increase by many folds in the last decade.

It is unfortunate and shocking that no one today cares to think about the pathetic working conditions and vulnerability of the textile sectors’ millions of workers. In practical terms, all of their work places are ‘death traps’ where at a time of an accident such as a fire,  there is literally no other escape than to loose one’s life.

In 2010, the government has provided 42 Billion Pakistan Rupees for the upliftment of the textile sector but not a single Rupee has been spend on the well-being and safety of the workers’ lives at these factories.  No serious concern has been shown by any government or even international bodies including the ILO for the implementation of the very basic labour standards for the safety of the workers’ lives during work times.

It is characteristic of Pakistan’s industrial sector to experience many small scale accidents as compared with what happened at the Ali Enterprises and they occur on a daily basis, but they pass largely unnoticed by both the government authorities as well as the factory owners. This is a result of the non-observance of labour laws in their true spirit. Majority of factories or establishments in the industrial zones or in residential areas operate illegally and 90 percent of these factories are not registered under the Factory Act of 1934.

The Baldia fire accident has provoked a shock wave across the country; trade union bodies such as the National Trade Union Federation, Pakistan (NTUF) along with some other labour and human rights organizations have started a movement with major demands to bring the culprit employers responsible for the gruesome disaster to book.  It was considered as a test case to expose the real image of working environments under which millions of industrial labour force work. The facts speak louder than words , like all other factories the Ali Enterprises, was not registered under the factory Act; its building structure was not lawfully approved from the Building authority; majority of workers didn’t have appointments letters; all  workers were hired under the illegal third party contract system undergoing  long working hours ranging from 10 to 14 hours a day without over time; all workers worked on piece meal rate; majority of workers were not registered with the Social Security Institute and Old Age Benefits Institute which are mandatory requirements; and no trade unions existed and  as a result no collective bargaining  right ever existed for these workers.  This virtually amounted to modern day slavery in the city of Karachi, seen as a hub of industrial and commercial activities where more than 60% of Paksitan’s major industries are located.

Looking at the irony of the deplorable state of affairs of export oriented industries; there unfolds another depressing aspect of the situation and reveals that the Ali Enterprises had been manufacturing more than 90% of its merchandise for an international brand “KiK” based in Germany with the brand label “Okay” for many years – without fulfilling any of their legal and social responsibilities. The international brand had just one concern and that was to produce cheap at any cost even at the cost of the lives of 257 workers whose average age was less than 30 years.

No sane person can imagine that a factory of such  dubious nature received a ‘clean chit’ from an international social auditing company ” RINA” which certified that all was well and up to the mark at the factory, just two weeks before the frightening inferno tragedy. This kind of certifications have been issued on a large scale by this audit company without keep in mind the potential of human tragedies looming large in every such factory whom they had certified as safe with wilful negligence. The world witnessed this stark reality on 11thSeptember 2012 when the fire started to grip the factory and more than 600 workers were trapped inside; there was no fire extinguishing system in operation; there was only one main gate at the extreme end of the factory; all the windows were closed and covered with iron rods and worse still all exit doors were forcibly locked from outside in order to not allow the workers any escape, before the factory owners could save the merchandise from the fire.

This was simply a criminal act by the factory owner and management while the same criminal liability extended to the audit firm which awarded the certificate to the factory. This was not a factory but a virtual ‘death cell’, running illegally and with all malpractices and gross violations of international and local labour standards.  It is reported that RINA has issued such certificates to more than 90 factories in Pakistan –   in other words ‘licenses to kill’.

Many families of deceased workers have received only partial compensation under pressure from workers movements, and many are still waiting for compensation. On the other hand even at this late stage , social security and pension providing institutes have started to register the victims’ families for the heath and old age benefits coverage to escape punishment – as a result of their sheer negligence. This too is being done with illegally marked social security and pension cards valid only for three years.

A Commission was established with a mandate to figure out the cause of the fire and to find those responsible.  Workers’ bodies have many serious concerns on the formation and functioning of this Commission. The Commission had submitted the final report and findings to the government of Sindh but for unknown reasons the Government is not willing to make it public even after two years of the tragedy. Nearly 17 families are still searching for DNA reports of their missing family members who died inside the factory – even after two years on. Their unidentified bodies were buried in Machko grave yard in Baldia Town, Karachi, on a Sindh High Court Order. Numbers of cases have been filed in different tiers of courts against the factory owner and the management.

The owners of the Ali Enterprises have obtained bail from court after spending five months in jail. It was the first time in the last three decades that any industrialist and factory management officials were put in jail in connection with an industrial dispute of such magnitude.  The Government functionaries including the Prime Minister at that time from  the PPP were keen and serious to drop the murder charges against the factory owners to appease and pacify the industrialists. These anti worker and pro- industrialist gestures and interference in court affairs were taken seriously and workers’ movements have launched complaints in several courts of law against such moves in January 2012.

Under pressure and joint efforts of the trade union/ labour right bodies in Pakistan and international organizations the international brand “KiK” has committed to provide an amount of one million USD as an initial compensation to the victims of survivors. The trade union bodies and labour right organizations demand that a final and full compensation should be in accordance with international precedent as set in the case of Spectrum Garments collapse in 2007 in Bangladesh. On the request of trade union federations and labour rights bodies the Sindh High Court has formed a Commission headed by former Supreme Court Judge to disburse the amount of compensation through a mechanism evolved by the Commission itself.

All this was achieved only because of a great show of global solidarity to the workers during these hard times but still needs to be taken a long way to achieve the goals of workers prosperity and betterment in their living and working conditions in a dignified manner. It requires consistency and steadfastness in the workers’ struggle along with strong support of international workers unions, labour, human and legal rights organizations.

If the global capital and its local cronies strike jointly against the interests of working class, then all who stand for workers’ rights and better working conditions must come together and resist all forms of exploitation at work places. In countries like Pakistan where injustice becomes the law, workers have no other choice except to start  a resistance movement and consider it their duty to do so.

About the Author: The writer is a trade unionist and can be reached at,