In Pakistan, the families of 250 workers killed in a factory fire in 2012 are taking their case to the international courts.
The victims’ families are planning to sue a German-based firm, which it says has benefited from the cheap and substandard conditions of the global textile industry.
Naeem Sahoutara has this story from Karachi, where the tragic incident occurred.
It’s traumatic for 43-year-old mother Saeeda Khatoon to recall the night the Ali Enterprises factory caught on fire.
“All night I ran from here to there. I shouted, ‘Our children are dying inside the factory.’ I tried my best to save our children,” she recalls, “But the police kept us away from the building. It was 10 a.m. the next morning when I found my son’s body at the mortuary. On that day even the skies were crying.”
Saeeda’s only son, 17-year-old Aizaz Ahmed, was burnt to death in the deadly fire that ripped through the factory on September 11, 2012.
More than 250 employees died inside what was the worst industrial disaster in the country’s history.
With weak labor laws, families of the victims blame poor safety standards for the deaths of their loved ones.
For a start, they say, the doors of the factory were locked from the inside when the fire broke out.
“The doors were locked from inside and we hold the factory owners responsible for that,” says Saeeda, “For the last three years and nine months we have been trying to seek justice, protesting on the streets and outside the press club.”
To meet deadlines the workers were forced to work nights inside locked premises. Trapped inside, most died from inhaling the toxic fumes.
Then Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf promised justice for the families, but the police dropped charges of pre-meditated murder against the factory owners, allegedly on a directive from the PM.
Factory owner Abdul Aziz Bhaila, and his two sons, fled to Dubai after the Sindh High Court released them on bail.
After waiting for two years for justice, the victims’ families formed an action committee to demand compensation.
This May Day in Karachi they rallied to remind the government of its unfulfilled promise.
Among them was Kulsoom Bibi. The body of her son Shahbaz Ahmed, she tells me, was never found. All she knows is that he went to the factory that day and never returned.
Most of the workers at the Ali Enterprises factory were the main breadwinners of their families, taking home US$5-6 a day.
The families did receive $20,000 each in compensation, in part due to the $1 million dollars provided by a German based company, KIK Texilien.
KIK Texilien, the only foreign buyer of the products made at the Ali Enterprises factory, also promised more financial aid would follow. But that was before it learned the fire was allegedly started after its owners failed to pay extortion money to a criminal gang.
The court is yet to rule on whether the fire was deliberate, but labor groups say what is most important is the lack of safety.
“Trade unions have been pushing for minimum wage and payment for overtime, but now we are struggling to ensure workplace safety to start off with, so that workers who go on their jobs return home alive,” says Nasir Mansoor, the general secretary of Pakistan’s National Trade Union Federation.
“Every day workers leave their houses to die. It’s becoming a death trap!”
Despite the tragedy, Nasir says substandard working conditions are yet to improve.
“In various factories they work under virtually slavery,” he says, “There are no emergency alarms, no fire extinguishers, safety instructions are in English or in language so difficult the workers won’t have read them once in 20 years... In my forty years as a labor activist, working conditions have never been so low.”
Just three weeks before the tragic fire, an Italian-based audit firm called RINA, issued a SA8000 certificate to Ali Enterprises.
The certificate of compliance is granted after an audit of a company’s policies, procedures and documentation, to ensure a safe workplace.
It’s the reason why the victims’ families have decided to sue the two European companies involved, KIK Texilien and RINA.
“We have filed a cases against KIK in the Germany and against RINA in Italy because our children have been killed in such a brutal manner,” says Abdul Aziz, the general secretary of the Baldia Factory Fire Victims Association.
He lost his 18-year-old son Attaullah Nabeel in the tragedy.
“I’m a 56-year-old and I was given my son’s pension for only five years, which will end in 2017. What will happen to me afterwards? I’m suffering from blindness already. My life has been ruined,” he says.
Parents like him have asked the courts in Germany and Italy to order the companies to pay compensation equal to that paid in their own countries.
In the case against KIK, the first hearing is scheduled for late June or early July.