Justice and factory fires

Published March 25, 2015
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

IT was an inferno whose flames exposed the scourge of global inequality, the vast chasm between those who wear global designer brands and those who manufacture them. On April 24, 2013, the largest fire in the history of Bangladesh ravaged the Rana Garment Factory located on the outskirts of Dhaka. Over 1,100 people died in the blaze and more than 2,000 were injured.

When investigations were conducted, it was found that the factory was under contract to supply garments for many well-known, including designer, manufacturers. Included in the list were the Italian manufacturer Benetton, the Spanish brand Mango, the American Wal-Mart Corporation and many others.

Life for the garment workers who worked in Rana Plaza and the scores of other garment manufacturing establishments dotted across Bangladesh has never been easy. Even before it burned down, the workers who toiled within it saw interminably long working hours, which stretched on some days from eight in the morning to three the next morning.

The Rana Plaza Arrangement in Bangladesh has provided some relief to the relatives of those killed in the 2013 inferno as well as to those who were injured.

In the case of Rana Plaza, those who did survive were left with injuries that prevented them from working in the sorts of hours and conditions that they had endured earlier. There was talk of compensation for the victims but the fund and parameters of how the victims would be compensated could not be agreed on until late 2013. The Rana Plaza Arrangement, developed under the auspices of local Bangladeshi groups and the International Labour Organisation, resulted in a process in which the relatives of those killed in the fire, and those who were injured, could claim reparation from the companies.

The Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, developed via the Rana Plaza Arrangement, was given the task of collecting money from the international companies that had been using the plaza to source their merchandise. This, unsurprisingly, proved difficult, with many manufacturers, including ones that were making whopping profits in multi-million dollar amounts, delaying and avoiding making contributions to the $40 million sum that was required to compensate the many victims. As Max Strasser wrote in Newsweek, a whole year after the incident only half the 28 companies had put aside anything at all for the fund. Things improved with time, however, with the help of international advocacy.

As the second anniversary of the fire approaches next month, more companies have paid up. Last month, Benetton announced that it would be paying a “fair and proportionate” amount into the fund prior to the anniversary. It is notable that the announcement came after a petition campaign was carried out by the organisation Avaaz, which used social media and various other platforms to collect a million signatures to persuade the company to do so.

There are $9m left to be raised to reach the $40m amount that the Rana Arrangement has deemed necessary to meet the needs of the survivors and victim families. The Avaaz spokesperson expressed hope that Benetton would supply the amount.

The Rana Arrangement provides important lessons for developing countries whose cheap and hapless work forces are often the victims of the multinational quest for large profit margins. In this case, Bangladeshi organisations provided the local relevance of actually knowing and making a reparation process accessible to victims.

The ILO provided the heft of the United Nations. Finally, a crucial component was international advocacy (such as the petition campaign conducted by Avaaz) that used the power of ordinary people to impose the sort of international pressure required to make companies like Benetton (and all others concerned about their reputations) to pay up.

In Pakistan, the fate of victims of another factory fire lies in abeyance. This coming September will mark three years since the horrific factory fire in Baldia Town, Karachi. Efforts for justice and reparation have all been embroiled in controversy, accusations and counter-accusations. There have been reports and investigations, hearings and meetings. They have hardly yielded any tangible results for the families of those who perished or for the survivors who managed to somehow escape the cataclysm.

While there has been apathy at the local level, accompanied by the usual mess of political manoeuvring, there is a bit of activity abroad. A couple of weeks ago, a few residents of Berlin barged into the shop of KIK, the German retailer that sourced products from the ill-fated Baldia factory, and damaged the store. They were shouting slogans that the clothes being sold there were made with the blood of Pakistanis.

Following this incident, the National Trade Union Federation head Nasir Mansoor announced that litigation was going to be pursued in German courts to hold KIK accountable and contribute to compensation for the victims. The union has retained a German lawyer to represent the victims in the proceedings abroad. After the incident, KIK had promised to compensate the families of the victims, but it paid only Rs1m of the agreed amount and then stopped.

Those working to collect compensation for the victims of the Baldia factory fire can take important lessons from the tactics employed by the Rana Arrangement. The alliance of local NGOs and the ILO and the possibilities of international advocacy and petition campaigns were together instrumental in that case to collect a large amount of money. While the money can never make up for what the survivors have endured, or for the long time that has elapsed in obtaining these reparations, it is undoubtedly better than nothing.

Pakistan and Bangladesh share many of the same challenges in justice provision; the Rana Arrange­ment and the promise it represents is hence both relevant and worthy of emulation in the Pakistani context. More than anything, it reveals that despite poverty, corruption, shifting of blame and avarice, some semblance of justice is still possible for those that perish and for those left behind to mourn them.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2015

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