Dawn News

Karachi factory fire highlights risks for workers

Karachi-Fire-670-AFP
Pakistani rescuers and firefighters gather infront of a garment factory that was engulfed in a fire in Karachi. — Photo by AFP

KARACHI: The death of 258 workers in a devastating factory fire has highlighted Pakistan's dismal approach to industrial safety and raised fears for the clothing sector vital to the nation's struggling economy.

Western companies buying Pakistani garments and textiles are likely to scrutinise their suppliers' working practices more closely after Tuesday's disaster and there have been promises of a clampdown from officials in Karachi.

But in a fiercely competitive global market, analysts warn factory owners face a difficult dilemma, as higher safety standards means higher production costs.

Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and commercial heart, has around 10,000 factories on seven industrial estates, according to the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI).

On top of that, there are at least 50,000 cottage and small industries in the informal sector based in residential areas.

Fahim Zaman Khan, Karachi's former top administrative official, told AFP that Ali Enterprises, the factory destroyed in Tuesday's blaze, was typical of many units in the city.

“There is not a single factory in Karachi, which is different in shape and facilities as the one gutted by the fire. Everyone, including our rulers, could see similar factories nearby the gutted one but avoid to take action,” he said.

Police records show Ali Enterprises exported ready-made garments to North America and Western Europe, though it is not clear which brands or chains were supplied.

Nasir Mansoor of the National Trade Union Federation said safety measures were ignored at the factory.

“At Ali Enterprises there was only one exit point for more than 500 workers at the time of the emergency, all the windows had iron grills and doorways and stairs were stuffed with finished merchandise,” he said.

Karachi is a vast, seething metropolis home to some 18 million people, but its emergency planning is woefully underprepared, according to Khan — he said the city had only “a few dozen buildings” with proper emergency exits.

“We have a fire brigade which has just 35 fire tenders in working condition, but the city has hundreds of thousands of dangerous buildings. Our disaster management is totally inadequate,” he said.

Mohammad Hussain Syed, the city's municipal head agreed that “very few establishments are in Karachi which have been built on proper building plans.

“Safety exits are duly mentioned in the plans approved by the authorities but the owners got away with it only to save money and extra land thus risking precious lives,” he said.

A crafty two-step of corruption and political manoeuvring allows factory owners to skip around the rules and focus on making money, said analyst Hasan Askari.

The garment trade is vital to Pakistan's shaky economy, particularly the export sector.

According to central bank data, the textiles industry contributed 7.4 per cent to Pakistan's GDP in 2011 and employed 38 per cent of the manufacturing workforce. But it accounted for 55.6 per cent of total exports — around $11 billion.

Irfan Moton, chairman of the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate, said the Ali Enterprises tragedy would damage Pakistani exports.

“Anybody who is planning to import something from Pakistan will now think for a while about our safety standards.

“He will consider other options like India and Bangladesh and may book an order from such countries even if he is buying it a few cents higher than our price.”

Aziz said it was vital that Pakistan responded to the disaster in the right way.

“There would be clarion calls from Western buyers for an immediate review of safety systems in units that supply goods to them,” he said.

“A lot of damage control would be required immediately by the owners and more importantly from (the government).”But introducing better safety measures — fire hydrants, sprinkler systems, better escape routes -- means higher costs, giving the factory owners a dilemma.

“The choice is to make maximum foreign exchange at the risk of workers' lives or to earn less and make their life safe,” prominent Pakistani economist Kaiser Bengali said.

Trade unionist Mansoor said most of the workers at Ali Enterprises were on third party contracts and none had appointment letters, so they were not entitled to social security benefits.

Workers at Ali Enterprises said they earned between 5,000 and 10,000 rupees ($52 to $104) a month for their labour.

For the lucky ones who survived Tuesday's inferno, like 33-year-old Mohammad Khan who broke an arm jumping from the burning factory, braving frightening working conditions is just a fact of life.

“I am the only bread earner for my three children, wife and parents and have no choice. I am going to search for a job in another factory once my arm gets fixed,” he said with gloomy smile.


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Comments (12) Closed



sham
Sep 14, 2012 10:22pm
When the priorities of a society, community or country are misplaced in the name of upholding self-professed virtues, a lot of evil perpetrates below the facade of piety - persecution of minorities, the weak and women, unsafe streets and workplaces and hypocrisy from those in control..
alivazir
Sep 14, 2012 04:31pm
We all are responsible. And how much responsibility we can shoulder? It is evident from the number of Comments received here, just 3 by now. Had it been talked about Veena Malik or Shoaib Malik (dirty entertainment and wastage of time and resources game, not sports), you could easily have multiplied the number of Comments to 1,000.
Jamhura
Sep 15, 2012 12:42am
HUMAN Rights are not restricted to politics. It is the responsibility of the Owner to ensure that all conditions relating to Health and Safety are adequately are covered11
Jawaid Islam
Sep 16, 2012 02:28am
Yes, everyone from top to bottom is corrupt, corrupt and corrupt. A sweeping reform or an Iran-like revolution is in order.
Shahood Alam
Sep 14, 2012 08:12pm
Here's a practical suggestion: Firstly, as a preventive solution, stop this malpractice of allowing employers to keep workers on third party contract. This should be the case for all security guards, cleaners, tea boys, etc. Thus every job holder has the shield of Labour Laws, social security, retirement benefits, accidental insurance, leaves and all usual benefits. Secondly, as a corrective measure, confiscate all the properties of the factory owners, liquidate and equally distribute them, under a transparent judicial commission, among all the affectees. Publish the audited details of this collection and distribution in all newspapers. This will force the remaining factory owners to introduce safety measures in their factories and improve working conditions and thus avoid similar disasters in future. May Allah SWT save our beloved countrymen (Ameen).
dr omar
Sep 14, 2012 08:38am
who is responsible
Raza
Sep 14, 2012 10:12am
Accountability please. It
alivazir
Sep 14, 2012 08:38am
1. "Irfan Moton, Chairman, SITE, 'Anybody who is planning to import something from Pakistan .... will consider other options like India and Bangladesh and may book an order from such countries even if he is buying it a few cents higher than our price.' ..... 2. 'The choice is to make maximum foreign exchange at the risk of workers
alivazir
Sep 14, 2012 04:30pm
Yes, we all are responsible. And how much responsibility we can shoulder? It is evident from the number of Comments received here, just 3 by now. Had it been talked about Veena Malik or Shoaib Malik (dirty entertainment and wastage of time and resources game, not sports), you could easily have multiplied the number of Comments to 1,000.
Iqbal Hadi Zaidi
Sep 16, 2012 02:48am
What has been done since Karachi fire killed around 290 innocent lives is my first question? Did our concerned government officials inspect other factories to ensure that all safety and security measures are being taken care of is another question? What penalties have been imposed on those who have been found defaulters is yet another question? Are the destitute families who lost their sole bread earners in the fire paid compensation after expiry of four days is my last but most burning questions? We should rise to the occasion and pay them the money they need and at the same time rest of the factories be inspected to avoid any disaster alike in future but if we are not doing the two activities then I doubt we are sincere with our own people. Iqbal Hadi Zaidi / Kuwait
khan
Sep 14, 2012 06:12pm
'haan ab jo factories bachi hain wo b band kr dain??"We all are fighting a war! If you dont believe it or accept it than dont! but we infact are, and every little work that we do or any little honest part played in building its economy is a contribution to our nation. These are the sacrifices we will have to pay. All of them are shaheeds. May Allah bless their souls.
N.Usmani
Sep 16, 2012 01:03am
It's truely sad.... we are missing the point. It's not a question of safety vs cost and fear of losing export market. This is a sham! Unfortunately, culprit is our general acceptance of low safety standards and total disregard of human lives specially poor people lives. To keep exit doors open and functional is not a major cost item. Doors and windows are already there you have to have a mind set to understand and appreciate the importance of these doors and windows for emergency purposes. Also note that paying such low wages for full time work (5000-10000/month... comeon!) is gross voilation of human rights whereas factory owners are driving around in their Mercedes. This is simply tentamount to steeling from poor people only because they can. Raising standards will not reduce export... this is a false perception. In fact higher quality and standard will bring in high end business orders and increase export and well being of workers.