Baldia factory fire: two years after

Published in Dawn, September 11th , 2014

“The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.” — Voltaire

IT has been two years since Pakistan’s worst industrial disaster took place in a garment factory in Baldia Town, Karachi on Sept 9, 2012. A fire in the factory that day led to the loss of 259 precious lives and injuries to 55 workers who got trapped in the building because three out of four doors were locked from the outside. Locking the workers inside the premises is not uncommon in garment factories exporting to international buyers. An inquiry report released by the FIA as well as the case proceedings revealed violations of labour laws, safety laws and building by-laws by the factory owners and a number of state institutions.

Two notable aspects of the follow-up to this disaster are the nature of the criminal proceedings in the Sindh High Court (SHC) and the compensation to the bereaved families. Developments in both took place due to the pressure built by civil society organisations.

The scale of the tragedy compelled the Station House Officer concerned to register an FIR against the factory owners and relevant state bodies. The trial got impetus from two constitutional petitions filed collectively by labour and human rights groups. The first requested the SHC to determine the causes of the disaster, prosecute the accused individuals and state bodies for negligence and ensure compensation to the affected families. The second, filed by the same civil society groups, successfully halted the interference of the then prime minister in the criminal prosecution. This was one of the rare instances where the factory owners spent three and a half months behind bars for criminal negligence. Released on bail, they are not acquitted of the charges. The next hearing is scheduled for tomorrow.

The labour organisation, PILER, in concert with a European labour pressure group, the Clean Clothes Campaign, pressurised German retail company KIK Textilion — the main importer of the Baldia factory’s products — to accept its share of responsibility. The company paid $1 million to the affected families and promised to negotiate long-term compensation. The high court constituted a commission to disburse the joint fund, contributed to by KIK Textilion, the factory owners and local philanthropists, to the affected families. The commission completed its task on Aug 28, 2014.

The third, and critical, aspect of the disaster relates to the existing safety conditions and labour law violations in thousands of big and small industrial units in the country. Sadly, when you review the post-disaster period, there is nothing much to write home about. Soon after the tragedy, there was a great public outcry. Different stakeholders — labour, corporate sector and the state — all shaken, held meetings, organised seminars, and spoke of the need to ensure labour compliance. Then the din died down.

There has been one initiative, that too, alas, on paper. Spurred by the International Labour Organisation-Pakistan, the Joint Action Plan for Promoting Workplace Safety and Health in Sindh (2013-2016) was formulated by the Sindh government, Employers Federation of Pakistan and Pakistan Workers Federation after a tripartite consultation in December 2012.

The three-year plan, launched in January 2013, talks of ‘proposed actions’ and ‘key deliverables’ that include provincial policies of occupational safety and health, labour inspection, amendments in laws, capacity building, etc. An eight-member task force was created to implement the plan. However, 18 months after its unveiling, aside from the formation of the steering committee, which has met twice, every ‘action’ remains ‘proposed’.

According to a member of the Joint Action Plan Task Force, “Currently there is no labour minister in Sindh, the labour adviser is not interested in labour issues and the labour secretary is changed every now and then. This government is not serious about labour compliance.” The corporate sector does not trust labour. Labour is highly fragmented, has no leadership and no vision.

There are no trade unions in the textile sector. Out of 2,500 textile houses in Pakistan, only 200 are exporting. Given that the right to form a union is an integral part of labour compliance, you would think 200 exporting houses would have active unions. Sadly, the exporters tend to register fake unions to get international certification. This was the case with Ali Enterprises, the factory in Baldia, which had no union and no safety provisions but was certified by the Italian company RINA for compliance.

Thus the most important dimension of the industrial disaster — safety and health at workplaces — remains unaddressed. The number of industrialists who recognise the importance of labour compliance is yet to reach a critical mass, while the existing labour movement is in total disarray and unable to initiate a collective campaign. Civil society organisations are project-oriented, with little space, resources or vision to push for real change.

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