KARACHI: Three years since the country’s deadliest factory fire claimed 259 lives in Baldia, investigation is still under way and the court has yet to decide whether the fire was accidental or the result of an arson attack while the families of as many as 64 victims have not been compensated so far, it emerged on Tuesday.
Most of these people do not have computerised national identity cards, or their documents are not in place, or they are not getting the cheques due to dual nationality. In some cases, women who lost a brother or a father in the inferno, or got married in the ensuing years, are not getting permission from their in-laws to make CNICs causing issues in creating a bank account for them. Besides, there are families which after waiting for the promised compensation relocated from Karachi or even the country.
For the past three years, labour rights organisations have been fighting on behalf of the victims and say the remaining people could have been paid if “there were not too many lacunas in the way the compensation was dispensed to the deserving”. They have also been insisting on the need for an overhaul of the entire labour system to ensure workplace safety and precautions for workers.
According to labour rights organisations, 259 workers were killed and many others were injured in the fire that broke out in the garments factory, known as Ali Enterprises, on Sept 11, 2012.
Speaking to Dawn, Rehana Yasmeen, a spokesperson for the Hosiery Garment General Workers’ Union, Sindh, said her organisation was still looking for the remaining families of the victims. “So far, there are problems in the dispensation of the money. Some women got married and changed their surnames on the CNIC, due to which the court refused to pay them the compensation,” she said.
She explained that of the 64 families still unpaid, 37 men, women, and children, who had lost their parents, did not possess their CNICs. Eight other people left the country. Of them, three women got married and moved to Dhaka, Bangladesh, two men left for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, two others for Qatar, while another family recently moved to Afghanistan, according to Rehana. Then there were two women facing issues at home over handing money to the rightful heir, she said. Besides, she added, 17 people had relocated over the past three years, causing the authorities to either wait for their return or look for an heir they could dispense the money to.
When Rehana was sent by the worker’s union to Baldia Town for an inquiry, she found out that most of the 17 people had relocated to Punjab while the remaining were “not interested” in the compensation itself. “They say there’s no use taking the money. So, we are still waiting for them to either change their minds or provide a solution as to who should be compensated,” Rehana said.
Soon after the factory fire, details began to emerge about what exactly happened that evening. It was revealed by the surviving factory workers that the doors of the factory were bolted and later, that the factory was not even registered with the Sindh labour department.
As the days went, further information about the factory came to the fore. Since the factory was in violation of the building plan, site inspections, leave alone surprise inspections which were discontinued by the government, were not carried out. As a result, 1,500 workers were left at the mercy of the factory owners.
In February this year, as the city went into an outrage over an excerpt from a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) report, pointing towards arson by a political party over non-payment of extortion as the main reason behind the inferno, rights activists thought it would shift the blame from the persisting problem — lack of safety and precautions for labourers — on others.
Shujauddin Qureshi, executive director of Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, said: “What boggles my mind even today is that the accused in the case, whose statement based on mere hearsay was bandied about so much, is nowhere on the scene any more. Apparently, he was given a bail and shortly afterwards moved abroad.”
Nasir Mansoor, general secretary of the National Trade Union Federation, said: “It rests on the court to decide whether the fire was accidental or arson. At the same time, whether accidental or arson, what should be focused on, is whether the factory had all precautionary arrangements for its 1,500 labourers? The answer to that is a clear no.”
At present, Rehana claims, her biggest struggle during her daily 9 to 5 routine is to look for the families of the victims. So far, the families of the victims have been paid in three instalments: Rs700,000 from the Sindh government, Rs400,000 from the German company KIK, which is the only instalment the company is willing to pay, according to NTUF, and Rs500,000 from the death grant paid by the owners, Rehana said.
“You should understand why we insist on compensating the families,” explained Rehana, “these people belong the poorest of neighbourhoods. Soon after getting the first instalment, most of them fixed their homes or saved it for their children’s future. Since justice is still a long way to come, payment of compensation is the only hope for them.”
But for many of the remaining 64 families, probably the wait was too long to bear.
Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2015