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Baldia factory: HR body plans action against foreign firm

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Rights activist Karamat Ali addresses the press conference at KPC.— Photo release
Rights activist Karamat Ali addresses the press conference at KPC.— Photo release

KARACHI: While murder charges against the owners of Ali Enterprises — a garments factory in Baldia Town where hundreds of workers were burnt to death nearly two years ago — have not been dropped so far, they are once again pursuing European markets to sell their product, said the counsel for the victims at a press conference on Monday.

“We’ve recently heard that they have been trying to pursue European markets to sell their products which I think is alarming. We are trying to make sure that no one buys their product or does business with them after what had happened in September 2012,” says Advocate Faisal Siddiqi while speaking at the Karachi Press Club.

The Baldia factory fire, which is considered to be the worst industrial tragedy in the country’s history, had left as many as 259 workers dead and many others injured on Sept 11, 2012.

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The lawyer, accompanied by rights activist Karamat Ali, said that murder charges against the factory owners were still there. A former prime minister had given instructions to the chief secretary to withdraw the charges but they had not been withdrawn so far. Bank accounts of the owners are frozen until further orders by a court, he explained, while a list of properties owned by them is also submitted in the high court.

Besides, Mr Siddiqi along with labour rights bodies is considering to pursue a legal case against the German company, KIK, for going back on its words to provide compensation to the victims on a long-term basis. The company, which used to buy 90 per cent of its products from Ali Enterprises until the 2012 blaze, agreed to pay for the compensation to those who died in the fire, the lawyer claimed.

Following the industrial fire and pursuing the KIK management for eight months, labour organisations from across Pakistan, headed by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler), had a long meeting with the company’s management. “A Memorandum of Understanding was signed after the meeting,” said Mr Siddiqi. “We decided on three points: firstly, to ensure immediate relief to the families of the victims; secondly, payment of compensation to the families on a long-term basis; and thirdly, strengthening labour rights in Pakistan through collaborative efforts between KIK and labour organisations.”

He said the first phase of the agreement was completed after the KIK issued a cheque for one million dollars and the money was distributed among the families through a judicial commission constituted by the Sindh High Court.

“But it is the second phase of the agreement,” added Mr Siddiqi, “of providing long-term compensation to the families on which the company is behaving evasively. This has also put a question mark over the third phase of the agreement.”

In a copy of the document shared by Piler at the press conference, the company has signed beneath the agreement that says it “is willing to fund another $250,000 in the year 2013” that at present has become a bone of contention between the two groups.

Mr Siddiqi claimed when he reminded the company management about the agreement in a recent meeting, “they refused to acknowledge their commitment”.

A day after the meeting on July 17, the lawyer along with Clean Clothes Campaign, an alliance of labour unions worldwide, called a press conference in Germany. “We approached the media, parliamentarians, and government officials to take notice of the issue. Eventually, the issue was raised in the German parliament. But, sadly, the response in our own country to this tragedy has been apathetic,” the lawyer recalls.

Social accountability

The counsel for the factory fire victims said that labour rights organisations are also preparing to file a case against RINA, a global certification body based in Italy, for issuing social accountability certificate (SA8000) to the industrial unit in Baldia nearly three weeks before it burnt down and killed hundreds of workers trapped inside the factory.

On the day following the fire, Social Accountability and Accreditation Services was informed that RINA had issued SA8000 certification to the Ali Enterprises on Aug 20, 2012, according to the Social Accountability International.

Mr Siddiqi said the company also had issued certificates to 350 other factories which must be inspected properly. “An investigation into the role of the said company is under way. It has been suspended to further issue any certificates to other companies. But from our end, we want to ensure that the companies they have previously issued certificates to are also inspected,” the lawyer added.

Two years after the huge fire engulfed the Baldia factory, he said, the situation surrounding labour laws and the condition of most factories in and around SITE is more or less the same. “This remains one of the biggest factory fires in South Asia, and yet it is not getting the sort of public support it should.”

Piler Executive Director Karamat Ali said: “We have been repeatedly pointing out the need for labour unions and a review of labour laws to find out where we are going wrong.

“After the Baldia factory incident, there were many other incidents reported at other factories but they are not being highlighted. There’s no action being taken about it either.”

Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2014