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Pakistan worker’s 9/11 - massive factory fires of Karachi and Lahore - selected media reports, edits and statements by labour organisations

13 September 2012

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Pakistan worker’s 9/11 - massive factory fires of Karachi and Lahore - selected media reports, edits and statements by labour organisations

a) Fires at Karachi and Lahore factories kill more 310 people
b) Deadly Karachi blaze was ’waiting to happen’
c) Editorial : Karachi’s inferno
d) Statement on the press conference by labour leaders and trade union activists at Karachi Press Club on 12 September 2012
e) Statement by International Labor Rights Forum

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Gulf News, September 12, 2012

Fires at Karachi and Lahore factories kill more 310 people

Dozens were hurt as they jumped from windows to escape flames

By Mohammad Ashraf, Correspondent

Karachi: The two fires that gutted factories in Pakistan’s two largest cities killed more than 310 people, as calls grew to speed up poor industrial safety standards, officials said on Wednesday.

At least 280 people died at a garment factory in Karachi, in the worst blaze in decades to hit the city, just hours after 21 died at a shoe factory in Lahore.

Dozens were hurt in Karachi as they jumped out of windows from the four-storey building to escape the blaze that began on Tuesday evening in a bid to save their lives, as sobbing relatives of trapped workers scuffled with police overnight.

The inferno that sparked on Tuesday evening at a garment factory in Karachi kept wreaking havoc until Wednesday evening as the rescue workers recovered 246 bodies while still fearing there were more to recover.

Provincial health minister Sagheer Ahmad gave the death toll as 246, whereas the tally came to 290 according to three state-run hospitals.

The mortuaries of Jinnah Post Graduate Medical College, Civil Hospital and Abbasi Shaheed hospitals were full to capacity due to the unabated arrival of charred bodies from the garment factory that was almost eaten by the fire.

“The mortuaries are out of capacity now and very few bodies were recognised and taken away by their relatives,” Roshan Shaikh, commissioner of Karachi, told the media.

Authorities feared recovering more bodies as the huge basement of the weakening building was yet to be cleared by the relief and rescue workers.

A fire officer told Gulf News that water used for extinguishing the fire had pooled into the basement. It was hot and workers could not get into the basement.

Most of the bodies were beyond recognition and the authorities were preparing for DNA tests to establish their identities.

A debate was going on among the different authorities as to who was responsible for such an unprecedented industrial accident in the history of this the largest city of Pakistan, which has many industrial estates in almost all of its outskirts.

“It is horrible to know that the owner of the factory ordered their workers to first recover the raw material of the factory and locked down the gates,” Shaikh commented.

The media reported that some surviving workers revealed that the factory owner commanded the security staff to shift all the inventories before human evacuation.

The Site Association, a representative body of the industrialists, ruled out the possibility of this inhuman gesture.

“I know the owner in person and I don’t think he might have ordered such thing,” Irfan Motan, the chairman of the association said.

The police were carrying out raids to arrest the owner of Ali Enterprises.

Several committees were set up to investigate the calamity and are to would file their reports within three days.

Governor Ishratul Ibad announced three days of mourning in the province to offer condolences to the victims’ families. Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has also announced a three-day mourning period.

Pakistani Interior Minister Rahman Malik said he had ordered an inquiry into both fires, as officials said the factory in Karachi in particular had been flimsily built, lacked emergency exits and had developed cracks in the walls.

Noman Ahmad, from the NED University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi, said few industries and businesses implement the law on safety and fire exits, finding it easy to avoid because of lack of effective monitoring.

“Most of our shopping centres and markets too have no safety mechanisms, which the authorities should review seriously, otherwise it could cause graver tragedies in future,” he said.

Mohammad Saleem, 32, who broke a leg after jumping out of the second floor, said he and his colleagues were hard at work late on Tuesday.

“It was terrible, suddenly the entire floor filled with fire and smoke and the heat was so intense that we rushed towards the windows, broke its steel grille and glass and jumped out,” Saleem told AFP.

“It was extremely painful. I saw many people jumping out of windows and crying in pain for help,” he said.

Around 150 employees were working at the time in one of the factory’s three round-the-clock shifts, Saleem said.

Officials said the cause of the fire was unknown but Rauf Seddiqi, the industry minister for the southern province of Sindh of which Karachi is the capital, said the owner was under investigation for negligence.

“We have ordered an inquiry into how the fire erupted and why proper emergency exits were not provided at the factory so that the workers could escape,” Seddiqi said.

In Lahore, flames also trapped dozens of workers in a shoe-making factory, killing 21 and injuring 14 others, local officials and medics said.

Tariq Zaman, a government official, blamed the blaze on a faulty generator.

— With inputs from AFP

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BBC News, 12 September 2012

Deadly Karachi blaze was ’waiting to happen’

It was during the late afternoon shift change when the fire which has so far killed nearly 300 people broke out at the garments factory in Karachi.

Survivors say the power was the first thing to go after the blast which preceded the blaze in Pakistan’s commercial capital.

"There was an immediate scramble for the exit - leading to chaos," a survivor told the BBC.

"People piled on top of each other - some got crushed as there was just one way out and so many people.

"Everybody was screaming and pushing - it was pure panic and fear. I thought I was going to die."
Death trap

Those who could not get out tried breaking through the iron-barred windows at the Ali Enterprises factory.
Pakistani rescuers remove a body from the garment factory A common denominator is the lack of adequate safety standards

For many, fear of imminent death put paid to any misgivings about jumping 6m (20ft) to escape - leading to many broken bones.

But these were the lucky ones - those still trapped inside were faced with a horrific choice: suffocation or incineration.

Rescue workers had by that time started arriving on the scene.

They were able to get dozens of people out of the front of the building. Local residents and relatives of those inside also arrived to help.

Their numbers grew so big that at one point they hampered the rescue effort. Police had to stop distraught relatives from going into the factory - by now a death trap - in search of their loved ones.

Brothers and sons, sisters and wives were seen urging rescue workers to do more, while simultaneously trying to venture into the premises themselves.

This led to some ugly altercations - until more security personnel arrived and brought the crowd under control.

Meanwhile, the fire had become a raging inferno, dwarfing the cries of workers trapped in the factory.

Rescue problems
Firefighters and onlookers at the scene of the blaze The rescue operation was temporarily hampered by large crowds outside the factory

Later Karachi’s fire chief admitted to reporters that the rescue effort had been hampered by a lack of resources.

At one point the fire engines ran out of water.

Fire fighting equipment in general appears to have been minimal at the factory - fire exits had not been built or were shut to make space for storage.

Training the staff was probably never a consideration - although it remains part of Pakistan’s industrial safety laws.

Eventually, the navy’s fire fighting team was called in - but by then it was too late for most of those trapped in the building.

Karachi fire chief Ehtesham Salim later told journalists that aerial water spraying may have helped and the authorities had at one point considered calling in the air force.

Ironically it had been raining in Karachi for a week - the only exception being on the evening the inferno broke out.

Although the fire was brought under control on Wednesday, late into the evening rescue workers were still digging through the debris of the building for bodies and any survivors.

The structure itself is near collapse - the debris being slowly excavated to make sure those still inside are not crushed.

The source of the fire is thought to have been a faulty electrical switch. A case has been registered against the owner - and police officials say they have launched an investigation.

But it is clear to those who have seen such disasters in the past that the sheer human cost in this blaze was not just the result of an accident.

For many it was years in the making - and possibly the biggest industrial fire in Pakistan’s history.

The Hub river massacre - as people are now calling the garment factory blaze - dwarfs others in scale, but the circumstances of the fire have unfortunately been replayed across Pakistan often of late.

In this case the factory was a recipe for tragedy - its low-ceiling halls were crammed with machines manned by workers toiling away in sweat shop conditions to produce top-of-the-line, ready-to-wear garments which earned the factory owners millions of dollars annually.

The workers, on the other hand, go home with $5 to $6 a day. There are no other benefits.

As the factory’s profits turned to ashes, Karachi’s Civil Hospital was besieged by hundreds of grieving relatives desperately searching for their loved ones among dozens of bodies, many burnt beyond recognition.
Lethal combination

In the commercial sector it is not just textile mills - industries across Pakistan are more prone than ever to disasters, many here feel.
Continue reading the main story

Although fires cause the main damage, it is not unknown for poorly constructed premises to collapse on top of workers or residents.

In general, the problem is the same that plagues all matters of governance in Pakistan - a failure to enforce the law. Whether it is an industrial disaster, a road accident or an air crash - the common denominator is the lack of adequate safety checks.

Textile factories are particularly at risk due to the lethal combination of chemical dyes and stacks of cotton often stored next to each other - ensuring a deadly result.

Fire exits - as in the case of the factory in Karachi - exist only on paper.

That - along with the congested construction of the industrial zones - prevents escape and multiplies the death toll.

The city administration itself has a limited number of fire engines to serve the growing needs of the sprawling metropolis.

Lahore fares a little better in terms of equipment but is no better in terms of enforcement of standards or disaster management.

Observers see a common pattern. Industrial standards are disregarded to minimise cost as inspectors are paid to look the other way.

Small and potentially easily rectifiable problems are made worse by years of official neglect. Mistakes are covered up only to be repeated a few months later.

That is why many fear disasters such as the Karachi fire are on the rise in Pakistan.

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Dawn, 13 September 2012


Karachi’s inferno

CLEARLY the country’s worst industrial disaster, the factory blaze in Karachi will be seared in memory as the Pakistani worker’s 9/11. Like the factory fire that struck Lahore on the same day killing over 20 people, it had long been building up in the casinos of government officials who make their fortune gambling on the lives of the hapless millions. The tragedy that began to unfold on Tuesday has taken the entire country in an asphyxiating grip of grief mixed with rage. Questions, though belated, are being asked about the non-implementation of safety standards and the massive corruption in government ranks which led to such flagrant violations of the law. These questions must also be put to all departments concerned — whether labour, industries or local and provincial administrations — and responsibility affixed for the catastrophe. Compensation too must be given to the families of the dead or injured, many of them the sole breadwinners for old parents and children in a society where poverty has struck deep roots.

With this tragedy, it has become imperative for all factories in the country to undergo regular inspections and a thorough cleanup. Anything short of that will be an insult to the hundreds who over the years have paid with their lives for a system that is rotten to the core. Changing the system will be a challenge to stranded workers looking for an exit from the virtual hell that still must erupt into an inferno to get noticed — a challenge which others in civil society must help the workers take on.

Factories in Pakistan are kingdoms unto themselves. They are concentration camps where workers are denied their basic rights enshrined in the constitution, in the country’s labour laws and in international conventions. Even a proper appointment letter is more often than not a favour, and not a rule, and those who are not employed as per the regulations have no claim to privileges, not even compensation in accident cases. Trade unions are a luxury which can hurt the owners’ interests. The government promises to reinvigorate them but is either too meek or too overwhelmed by petty profits to even try and implement the existing law. The presence of unions could have ensured better working conditions — more fire exits at least — for those lost forever in the industrial holes in Karachi and Lahore. But then recent anti-terrorism cases against workers in Faisalabad and Karachi spell out just how difficult it is to even demand something as basic as a union. This betrays a flawed policy and must change. Organised, active unions are the first and vital defence against greedy employers and their equally selfish partners in government. Allowed enabling space, these organised workers could ultimately provide the country with the forward-looking front so desperately needed.

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Statement on the press conference by labour leaders and trade union activists at Karachi Press Club on 12 September 2012 against fire incidents in Karachi and Lahore

The press conference was addressed by:
Noor Mohammad, Port Workers Federation
Asad Butt, HRCP
Sharafat Ali, PILER
Ayoub Qureshi Pakistan Workers Federation
Mir Zulfiqar Ali NOW Communities

Labour rights advocates hold the state responsible for loss of lives in Karachi and Lahore factory fires.

“State’s criminal negligence with regards to enforcement of labour inspection system, building control laws and industrial regulation provisions responsible for the unfortunate incidents”

Karachi, Sept 12, 2012: Two factory fires in Karachi and Lahore in a single day claiming over 250 lives and counting is a part of a chain of events taking place every day as a result of state’s criminal negligence to pursue its constitutional responsibility to protect and safeguard citizens’ lives. At least 151 other workers have lost their lives at work during the course of the ongoing year.

This was observed by a group of civil society members that visited the factory fire site in Baldia in Karachi and held a press conference afterwards to share details with the media.

“The entire state, including the government, the bureaucracy, the policy-makers, the state departments especially those concerning enforcement of labour laws and building codes are responsible for these deaths as they silently and criminally allow violation of laws and regulations established to ensure health and safety provisions at work.”

The group noted that Karachi factory did not have emergency exits forcing the workers to jump out of the windows when the fire erupted. The building itself stood as a gross violation of building control laws that had clearly stated that the area will have single storied buildings as small scale production enterprises. There were three separate production units at the site further endangering the safety of workers as all the items being produced at the factory – candles, plastic and garments - were highly combustible. The question arises why the factory establishment was allowed to set three production units at the premises without any safety provisions in the form of fire exits and training of staff on rescue and emergency – that was essentially the responsibility of the state through the labour department.

The statement observed that the Article 37 e of the constitution guarantees right to secure and humane working conditions while in Pakistan the situation of occupational health and safety is fast deteriorating. There is no independent legislation on health and safety except the Hazardous Occupation Rule 1963 under the Factories Act 1934. The concerned laws too are obsolete and do not conform to international practices.

The civil society group also emphasized that Pakistan has ratified the ILO Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81) in 1953. Under this convention the government, through the labour department is bound to ensure that employers and workers are educated and informed on their legal rights and obligations concerning all aspects of labour protection and labour laws; and advised on compliance with the requirements of the law; and necessary provisions are made to enable inspectors to report to superiors on problems and defects that are not covered by laws and regulations. These and many other pro-workers laws are made redundant by the absence of an effective labour inspection system and a tripartite consultation on labour, a weak labour union structure and lack of interest of state institutions for capacity building of workers to protect their interests.

It was also observed that the ban on labour inspection is a key contributor to the loss of life and property as establishments and employers violate labour laws and health and safety provisions with impunity. Besides, the laws related to health and safety at work requires the appropriate government (Federal or Provincial) to appoint qualified individuals as inspectors to enforce these laws. The provinces of Punjab and Sindh have no functional labour inspection system. In fact, the system was banned on the orders of the previous provincial governments. The Punjab Government just restored the inspection system but its ineffectiveness is evident from the Lahore incident where the concerned shoe factory was located in a residential area offering limited provision for emergency exits.

“Employers have a legal compulsion to ensure that hazards in the workplace are eliminated, minimized, or controlled in such a way that work accidents are avoided. In the absence of labour inspection, employers have a free hand to pursue commercial interests at the cost of labour rights and safety.”

According to the Pakistan Labour and Human Resource Statistics, the number of industrial accidents increased from 354 to 419 during 2000 to 2008. In year 2011 alone, the reported number of fatal accidents went up to 101. This year, the two factory fires in Karachi and Lahore alone have reportedly caused a loss of around 250 lives.

The government has also not ratified ILO Convention 155 on Occupational Safety and Health and Convention 187 of promotional framework for Occupational Safety and Health.

The civil society demanded stringent action against the factory owners for operating the establishment in a non-protected fashion. However, they stressed that the elements responsible for the massive loss include more than merely the factory owners. The labour departments of Sindh and Punjab needs to be taken to task for turning a blind eye to the violation of health and safety provisions in the two factories, the provincial and the national assemblies for ignoring the ban on labour inspection, and the building control departments for allowing violation of building control codes in the two cities.

The group also urged the government to ratify ILO Convention 155 and 187 that provides for the formulation of a comprehensive labour protection and inspection policy in Pakistan. Conventions 155 and 187 will also provide a base line to address the issue of health and safety at national, industrial and enterprise level.

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Statement by International Labor Rights Forum

Deadly Denim: Workers Burned Alive Making Jeans for Export

You have ruthless buyers sitting in the U.S. who don’t care what you do, as long as you do it on time… We take a hit every time we’re late. That means lost margins. That means we do what we need to do to make our orders, fast. This factory owner may have been working extra shifts just for that purpose…
— Ali Ahmad, Owner of Nizam Textiles in Karachi, Pakistan1

In the aftermath of the deadly factory fires in Pakistan on September 11, 2012, Pakistani unions have called for the factory owner and local government officials to be held accountable. ILRF expresses our deep sorrow for the pain, suffering, and loss of life caused by the owner’s, the buyers’ and the government authorities’ unconscionable neglect. We stand in solidarity with the workers of Pakistan, and support the demands of the unions. We also call on the brands and retailers that together buy $11 billion of Pakistani apparel each year to take responsibility for making Pakistani factories safe for workers.

More than 300 trapped workers were killed in two separate fires on the same day—289 workers in an apparel factory in Karachi and 25 workers in a shoe factory in Lahore—a day Nasir Mansoor, leader of the National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan (NTUF)—calls the “darkest and saddest day in the history of Pakistan’s labor movement.”

The Karachi factory, Ali Enterprises, operated illegally, without proper registration. When fire broke out—reportedly for the fourth time within two years—more than 600 workers were trapped. The main sliding door was locked to protect the merchandise; windows were barred with iron grills; stairs and doorways were blocked with piles of finished merchandise; and there were no emergency exits. None of the workers had appointment letters and most of them were contract employees hired by a third party. As contract workers they were not entitled to social security or workers’ compensation. None of these workers had the security to voice their fears about the risky working conditions they found themselves in.

Mansoor’s union, NTUF, demands the arrest of the factory owner for murder, and the resignation of several government officials for severe negligence. NTUF also demands compensation for the families of deceased workers and for injured workers; inspections of all factories in coordination with worker-representative bodies; the registration of all factories under the Factory Act; the abolishment of the contract-workers system; the issuance of appointment letters to all workers; and the provision of social security, old-age benefits, and worker-welfare programs to all workers.

Buyers, too, are culpable for the deaths of the workers and must take responsibility for workplace safety. The recent fires in Karachi and Lahore were not the first garment factory fires in Pakistan, not even the first fire at Ali Enterprises. In fact, Mansoor notes that rarely a month goes by without an explosion, fire or structural collapse in Pakistan’s garment industry. However, when only one or two workers die on the job, these incidents go unreported. “These factories are chemical bombs, waiting to happen,” he says.

The conditions in the Karachi and Lahore factories were reportedly typical of garment factories in Pakistan, and the risk of fire is equally high in many other facilities. Alarmingly, apparel factory fires appear to be increasingly globalized. For many years, we heard mostly about fires in Bangladesh where more than 100 reported factory fires since 1990 have killed more than 750 workers. Now, fires in Pakistan are being reported, and just one day after the Pakistani fires, a fire in a Moscow sweatshop killed 14 Vietnamese immigrants who were trapped behind a door that was locked and barred with a sledgehammer from the outside.2

These fires are not the product of exceptional circumstances, isolated examples of especially greedy or negligent owners, or freak accidents that strike much like natural disasters with nobody responsible. The fires are the product of the failings of the global apparel industry. They are the logical result of the lethally low prices buyers offer the factories and the lightning-quick deliveries they require. When factory owners are squeezed by the buyers they are not going to invest in proper factories with functioning fire escapes and sprinkler systems and worker training on proper procedures in case of fires. On the contrary, they are going to rush to get orders done as cheaply as possible, no matter the cost to workers. If the buyers require compliance with labor and safety standards, the factories will find ways to create the impression of compliance because real compliance is not possible under the business terms they are given.

In the case of Ali Enterprises, the owner, one of the country’s major exporters of garments, was rushing to get an order ready in time for year-end shopping and was making his employees work overtime to avoid the high cost of air freight. The owner had reportedly obtained a fake certificate from an audit company to satisfy buyers abroad that the factory met required safety standards.3 Workers told The New York Times that managers had forced them to lie about working conditions to auditors representing foreign buyers. Do not complain or you will lose your job, they were told. This is typical in Pakistan, and typical in the global apparel industry.

The horror of this Pakistani fire is yet one more wake-up call for the brands and retailers that cheap products come at a steep price for workers—an unconscionably steep price. It is time for the brands to put workers’ lives ahead of brand image, and promote real solutions. The best model for real fire safety in the global apparel industry is one that has: independent factory inspections; freedom for workers to report on dangers in their own workplace and to have a voice in their workplace; a binding commitment from brands to work with suppliers to implement the program; and fair prices for factories so that they can invest in safety. So far only the Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation and the German retailer, Tchibo, have agreed to adopt such a program in Bangladesh. We call on all brands and retailers to sign on quickly and replicate the program in other countries.

1 NBC News, "’We were trapped inside’: Pakistan factory fires kill at least 261," September 12, 2012

2 Moscow News, "Blaze in Moscow region sweatshop kills 14," September 12, 2012

3 The News International, "None of the victims had appointment letters," September 13, 2012


The above reports are reproduced here for educational and non commercial use