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MOTHER COURAGE

Eight years on, families of the Baldia factory fire victims say they've only received "half justice".
Updated 11 Oct, 2020 01:14pm

An anti-terrorism court handed two death sentences in the Baldia factory fire case late last month. But families of victims say they have only received “half justice.” Saeeda Khatoon, a victim’s mother and the face of the affectees’ struggle, is not done fighting


Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Saeeda Khatoon stares at her blank television screen, hoping against hope that her cablewala will turn the cable back on soon. In the meanwhile, the landmark ruling pertaining to Pakistan’s deadliest factory blaze, which claimed hundreds of lives, including Saeeda’s only son’s, is being announced. An anti-terrorism court (ATC) rules that the Baldia factory fire was no accident but a case of arson. Two former activists of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) are sentenced to death and four gatekeepers at the Ali Enterprises garments factory in Baldia town are awarded life imprisonment.

Saeeda is unable to see these developments live. As she stares at the blank television screen, her own reflection stares back at her. It is a familiar sight. Over the years, Saeeda has grown accustomed to seeing herself on screen. In videos from the countless protests, the grieving mother can be seen giving impassioned speeches, year after year. “Humaray bachay chalay gaye, lekin hum abhi zinda hain [Our children may be gone, but we are still alive],” she says to a crowd, in a video circulated on Facebook. “We won’t let any child burn like this, die like this… we will fight.”

In another video on the YouTube page of ECCHR (European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights), a Berlin-based human rights group, Saeeda gives a message to KiK — the German company for which readymade garments were being produced in Baldia. “I would ask KiK to admit its wrongdoing,” Saeeda says. “We have lost many lives in this incident. If KiK accepts its fault, it will help the cause of the workers.”

Saeeda Khatoon at a court in Dortmund | AP
Saeeda Khatoon at a court in Dortmund | AP

“If KiK does not accept responsibility, it will be a shame,” she concludes.

Saeeda has also made several appearances on news programmes in Pakistan. And yet, at this historic moment, she is unable to tune in to the news.

She believes the television channels have gone off-air because the verdict is being announced. She claims that after the devastating Baldia factory fire, every time there is a factory fire incident in Pakistan, television channels go off-air in the neighbourhoods of the Baldia affectees. While the veracity of this claim can be questioned, it clearly indicates two things Saeeda believes to be true — one should always be suspicious of the rich and powerful; and those in power can go to any extent to avoid giving the working classes basic rights.

Over the past eight years, Saeeda has been fighting for these very rights. She chairs the Ali Enterprise Factory Fire Affectees Association, a group formed by the affectees so they can actively demand justice, rather than sitting on the sidelines.


THE PAST EIGHT YEARS

The pain is still fresh for the families of the victims | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star
The pain is still fresh for the families of the victims | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star

After the incident, Saeeda and the other affectees initially waited for justice to prevail.

At first, the police booked the factory owners under Section 302 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) for allegedly committing ‘premeditated murder’ of the workers. This was prompted by the fact that there were no safety arrangements in place at the industrial unit to cope with any such disaster. The factory’s four gatekeepers were also booked for abetting the crime by locking the emergency exits. They allegedly locked the exits fearing that the workers might take advantage of the chaotic situation and steal clothes.

The ‘premeditated murder’ charges were later dropped because of a lack of evidence. A controversy erupted when the police recommended a trial under Section 322 of the PPC instead, meaning that the murders were unintentional.

In 2015, the case took yet another turn. A joint investigation team (JIT) report was submitted to the Sindh High Court by the Rangers. According to the report, Rizwan Qureshi, an accused, had disclosed that a deliberate arson attack was carried out by a faction of MQM, after the factory owners failed to pay the party ‘protection money.’

According to others in the association, Saeeda has demonstrated “courage and bravery” by pursuing the case, even in the face of threats. Losing her only son is what has kept her going till now. It is difficult to threaten a woman who has already lost everything.

Qureshi claimed that Hammad Siddiqui, the then chief of MQM’s Karachi Tanzeemi Committee, had demanded 250 million rupees in protection money from the factory owners. The demand came through MQM’s then Baldia sector incharge Abdul Rehman, alias Bhola, who, upon the factory owners’ refusal, instructed Muhammad Zubair, alias Chariya, to set the factory ablaze.

On the day of the incident, Zubair, along with other men, sprinkled a highly flammable chemical inside the factory premises, which ignited the deadly fire. The workers died either from burning or inhaling thick smoke.

Rehman and Zubair were sentenced to death in the ruling last month. But the case against the main suspect, Hammad Siddiqui, will remain dormant until he is arrested or voluntarily surrenders to the police. The suspect is still absconding. The court had previously declared him a proclaimed offender, meaning that he is wanted in this case.

MQM-Pakistan leader Abdul Rauf Siddiqui and three other Hyderabad-based businessmen were exonerated in the case. They had been accused of receiving over 50 million rupees from the factory owners, under the pretext of giving compensation to the legal heirs of the victims.

After eight years, the families of the victims finally have some closure. However, they call it “half justice.” “The real culprits are the factory owners, Aslam Bhaila and his sons Arshad and Shahid,” Saeeda says. “The factory owners are responsible for the death of my son and 263 other workers,” she says as tears roll down her cheeks.

Mohammad Jabbar, a factory worker, shows a photograph of his son who lost his life in the Baldia factory tragedy | White Star
Mohammad Jabbar, a factory worker, shows a photograph of his son who lost his life in the Baldia factory tragedy | White Star

Arshad Bhaila and Shahid Bhaila are currently in the UAE. In July last year, they were allowed to record their testimonies in the case from the Pakistan consulate in Dubai. They had requested permission to do so citing purported threats to their lives in Pakistan.

Parents such as Saeeda, who lost their children in the fire, question why the factory owners’ lives are worth more than their loved ones’. Saeeda’s son died along with 40 other workers in the cutting department in the basement of the multi-storey industrial unit. “His body was found on the staircase,” Saeeda tells Eos. “This means that he was fighting to get out and save his life.”

Years later, Saeeda knows that if she wants to see change, she has to demand it herself. She and other families of the victims caught on pretty quickly. After the first year and a half, they grew tired of waiting for hollow promises of justice to materialise, and formed an association to get justice on their own.


FROM STAY-AT-HOME MOTHER TO CAMPAIGNER

Photo courtesy ECCHR
Photo courtesy ECCHR

Saeeda’s husband passed away when their son was just an infant. She had raised her son alone and he was her everything. The sole breadwinner. Her baby boy. Her burrhaapay ka sahara [support system in old age].

All her hopes and aspirations were related to him. She wanted to see him succeed. She wanted to celebrate his wedding. She wanted to hold her grandchildren. She wanted to see her family grow.

But her son was only 18 when he lost his life. “About 160 young men and six girls were burnt alive in the tragic incident,” Saeeda says, speaking about the youngsters who were part of the total death toll of 264. “They were all young and unmarried.”

Had Saeeda’s son lived, he would be 26 years old now. She would still be taking care of him like a mother does, but he too would be in a position to support her as she grows older.

“Every night, my son would come home at 9 pm and immediately ask what I had cooked for him,” Saeeda recalls. “On the day of the incident, I had made chicken karrahi, his favourite dish. But he never came home to eat it.”

“I have stopped cooking at my home since then,” Saeeda tells Eos. For the past eight years, families of other victims take care of her food and other needs. Without them, she would be completely alone.

It is for these families that Saeeda continues to fight.

Saeeda never imagined that she would be a campaigner and activist. While she was always a very vocal person, she was never fond of public speaking. She was also not very well educated and had studied only till grade eight in school.

After eight years, the families of the victims finally have some closure. However, they call it “half justice.” “The real culprits are the factory owners, Aslam Bhaila and his sons Arshad and Shahid,” Saeeda says. “The factory owners are responsible for the death of my son and 263 other workers,” she says as tears roll down her cheeks.

Indeed, Saeeda was not the first choice to chair the Ali Enterprise Factory Fire Affectees Association. Initially, another victim’s father was elected as the chairperson, in a general body meeting of the action committee. But the man could not continue in the position, while grieving for his son.

The association then elected Saeeda as the chairperson. Since then, she has been able to keep the affected families united. According to others in the association, Saeeda has demonstrated “courage and bravery” by pursuing the case, even in the face of threats.

Losing her only son is what has kept her going till now. It is difficult to threaten a woman who has already lost everything.


SUPPORT SYSTEMS

Rescue workers at the garment factory following the fire | AFP
Rescue workers at the garment factory following the fire | AFP

While the main driving force behind the Ali Enterprise Factory Fire Affectees Association has remained the affectees themselves, local workers’ rights groups, including the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) and the National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan (NTUF), have supported the affectees.

“Under a convention of the International Labour Organisation [ILO, a United Nations agency whose mandate is to advance social and economic justice through setting international labour standards] there should be ‘one-to-one’ dialogue between the legal heirs of the victims or survivors of any industrial disaster and the owners of the factories or their clients, who purchase their products,” NTUF general secretary, Nasir Mansoor, tells Eos. This is why, he says, NTUF helped the victims’ legal heirs form their “own association”, to deal with any bargaining with the factory owners, its foreign buyers and other stakeholders.

Mansoor gives the example of the 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse — a devastating incident where an eight-storey commercial building called Rana Plaza collapsed, claiming 1,134 lives. “What had happened is that several political leaders and non-governmental organisations were claiming representation of the affected families and survivors, instead of the legal heirs of the victims and the survivors themselves,” the trade unionist says.

It was thus important to amplify the voices of the families themselves in the Baldia factory fire case.

Apparently, in the 100-year history of the ILO, the Baldia factory fire incident was the first where the families were directly dealing with the factory’s owners and its foreign buyers through the ILO.


FIGHTING FOR THEIR RIGHTS INTERNATIONALLY

Saeeda Khatoon and other protesters hold a poster outside a court in Dortmund, western Germany | AP
Saeeda Khatoon and other protesters hold a poster outside a court in Dortmund, western Germany | AP

In 2016, an agreement of over five million US dollars was reached between KiK and the affectees. According to an ILO press release, the amount was decided as “compensation for loss of income, medical and allied care as well as rehabilitation, to the victims of one of the worst industrial accidents in Pakistan…” The company had already paid one million US dollars in emergency compensation in December 2012.

The press release added that, on the request of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Pakistani Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development, ILO had been enabling talks with the German retailer KiK and other stakeholders.

Saeeda regrets that neither state institutions nor factory owners in the country seem to have learnt much from the Baldia factory fire incident. Still, she hopes that the day will come when her struggle will bear fruit.

The affectees found support from other international human rights groups too. Berlin-based non-governmental organisation ECCHR, and Clean Clothes Campaign — a Netherlands-based group — helped Saeeda sue KiK and RINA, an Italian audit firm, in the international courts.

“Firstly, we filed cases in the German courts to seek an apology and compensation from the factory’s foreign buyer KiK International,” Saeeda tells Eos. But, in 2019, after a long legal battle, the court rejected the law suit, stating that the statute of limitations had expired.

“The second case was filed in Italian courts to seek an apology and compensation from the Italian audit firm, RINA, which had issued certificates to Ali Enterprises, declaring that the industrial unit met all international standards to ensure workers safety at the workplace,” Saeeda says.

She is optimistic that they will win the case against RINA in Italy.

In the meanwhile, Saeeda has also continued campaigning to build pressure on the local authorities, as well as the international buyer and audit firm.

“I visited Belgium, where I was invited to address a European Union session,” Saeeda proudly tells Eos. Saeeda was given seven minutes to speak at the EU session, but, when she started speaking, her impassioned speech continued for nearly 20 minutes. The attendees listened to the grieving mother speak, uninterrupted.

She took her son’s photograph with her to the EU. Indeed, she takes the photograph with her wherever she goes. She held the photograph outside a KiK outlet while protesting in Dortmund, Germany. It was with her when she sat in a regional court in the city. And it is with her when she speaks to the media at home in Karachi.

Speaking at the EU, taking a German company to court and speaking to the international media have all been big leaps for Saeeda, who had never had a passport or even travelled outside Karachi since childhood. Yet, she was not nervous when she travelled abroad or spoke up. The only pressure on her came from “some political groups” in Pakistan, who were trying to take “credit” for the affectees’ campaign. The only threats she receives are in Karachi, the city where she has lived all her life.


BACK HOME

Saeeda doesn’t quite know what place to call home anymore. For around five years now, she has not lived at her own house, because she says she receives threats for pursuing the various cases and raising her voice for the victims’ families. She usually lives with some relatives or another factory fire victim’s family.

“For three years, I could not sleep at night out of grief,” Saeeda says. “Then, I thought, there are so many other mothers like me, whose sons have also died in the tragic incident. Now, the families of all the victims know each other and have become a large family,” Saeeda says, as she prepares to leave for a meeting with her new family, the association.

The association is meeting trade unionists Karamat Ali from Piler and Mansoor from NTUF to discuss next steps after the ATC ruling.

Relatives of the victims place oil lamps on a 'memorial wall' | White Star
Relatives of the victims place oil lamps on a 'memorial wall' | White Star

Saeeda gets into a high-roof Suzuki sent by Mansoor, and picks up five members of the association from different bus stops. The association members discuss their talking points. After making multiple stops, Saeeda ends up at Muhammad Waseem Ansari’s house in the haphazardly organised Orangi Town. Ansari was Saeeda’s son’s direct supervisor at the cutting department.

“We think the factory owners are the real culprits,” Ansari’s 30-something widow Husna Waseem says, speaking with a noticeable Bihari accent. Most of the victims belong to low-income Urdu-speaking Bihari households. Husna’s youngest son Muhammad Hafeez Ansari plays around. Now studying in class four, he was just a toddler when his father died.

Husna says her brother-in-law went to the site and made a hole in a wall and got to the basement of the industrial unit, where Ansari worked. He brought out the bodies of around 40 victims.

“No one helped him,” Husna says. “He broke down the wall with a hammer all alone.”

Hundreds of bereaving family members like Saeeda and Husna soon gather at the meeting. They all have similar stories to tell. They have invited officials of the Sindh government to join them and listen to their woes. Saeeda has personally been promised that government representatives will show up.

They do not. Maybe eight years later, the Baldia factory fire is old news. But for the victims’ families it still feels like no time has passed; their wounds still feel fresh. Refusing to give up, they start their meeting.


MORE OF THE SAME

Photo by AFP
Photo by AFP

Senior trade unionist Mansoor says that nothing has changed in the aftermath of the Baldia factory fire incident. He says that, even after 264 people lost their lives, there is an “indifference” on the part of the rulers, state institutions and owners of factories. There has been no healthy discussion on the issue of worker safety, Mansoor tells Eos.

“There is no debate on what the working conditions in factories should be, how buildings should be built and equipped with safety instruments,” he continues.

Mansoor adds that some noise is made whenever any incident takes place in any industrial unit in the urban centres, but nothing is heard when some tragedy occurs in the rural areas. “Everyday incidents take places in the mines, but no voice is raised,” he says.

“Workers’ health and safety should be acknowledged as a right, not a privilege,” he says. “Because the same has been clearly mentioned in the local and international laws of which Pakistan is a signatory.”

Saeeda regrets that neither state institutions nor factory owners in the country seem to have learnt much from the Baldia factory fire incident. Still, she hopes that the day will come when her struggle will bear fruit.

Her son’s memories and this struggle are perhaps all she has left. After an event in 2017, she had told the media these activities are what have kept her going all these years. “Otherwise what has happened was enough for me to die.”

Saeeda is sometimes lovingly called ‘Mother Baldia.’ Through her activism she has kept the memory of her son alive. American writer N. K. Jemisin had once written, “There is no greater warrior than a mother protecting her child.” But in the case of Saeeda, this warrior is protecting her son’s legacy, and to ensure no one else’s child meets the same fate as hers. She is a true force, and she is not done fighting.


Header image: Saeeda Khatoon outside a court in Dortmund, western Germany, Nov, 2018 | AP


The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 11th, 2020