Eight years after the Ali Enterprises factory fire in Pakistan, victims and their families are still fighting for justice

Saeeda Khatoon, who lost her son Aijaz in the 2012 Ali Enterprises factory fire in Karachi, stands by a photographic tribute to the more than 250 garment workers who lost their lives in the fire. (ECCHR)

On 22 September 2020, almost exactly eight years after Pakistan’s worst industrial fire officially killed 264 garments workers and injured over 60 others in the commercial capital of Karachi, an anti-terrorism court sentenced two men to hang for arson.

But for Saeeda Khatoon, chairperson of the Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association (AEFFAA), an organisation made up of some of the survivors of the fire as well as the families of its victims, the verdict was a “mockery of justice”.

Khatoon, who lost her only son, 18-year-old Aijaz Ahmed in the inferno at Ali Enterprises on 11 September 2012, a four-storey garment factory whose main client was the German budget clothing store KiK, tells Equal Times: “I had little hope that the courts would serve punishment on the factory’s owners, who were the ones responsible for the 260 deaths because of lax safety standards.” Still, the verdict was a huge blow for the families, survivors and supporters who have waited eight years for justice.

The fire started at 6pm but it took rescuers 24 hours to bring Aijaz’s body out of the factory’s dark, windowless basement, from where, it is said, no one came out alive. Elsewhere in the factory, hundreds of workers died trapped behind locked doors and barred windows, while others managed to jump from the few windows without metal grills. There was no fire alarm, no fire extinguishers and only one fire exit in a building where an estimated 1,500 people worked.

The fire that raged for three days was so intense that a number of bodies were burnt beyond recognition, and 16 people were buried unidentified in a graveyard managed by the NGO Edhi Foundation. The majority of the dead, including 24 women, were under the age of 30 and were poor migrants from other parts of the country.

Health and safety completely overlooked

An anti-terrorism court, set up in a judicial complex inside Karachi’s central prison for security reasons, found that the two men, Abdul Rehman (also known as Bhola) and Muhammad Zubair (who goes by the alias Chariya), set the factory ablaze because its owners had refused to pay 200 million Pakistani rupees (US$1.2 million) in extortion money.

The 146-page court verdict was based on the reports of forensic, chemical and ballistic experts as well as testimonies from over 400 witnesses in 171 hearings that spanned around eight years. No date has yet been set for the execution of Rehman and Zubair and they have the right to appeal.

Of the eight other people accused in the case, four factory guards were given life sentences for the part they played in the deaths by locking the factory doors. Four other people, including Rauf Siddiqui, the then provincial minister for commerce and industries, were acquitted.

Arshad and Shahid Bhaila, the factory’s owners, were initially arrested but later released on bail after which they moved abroad. They were questioned by investigators via video link from Dubai before being relieved from the case.

“Only the lower tier of perpetrators were punished while the factory owners have been provided a systematic escape,” says Khatoon. “The main question was not whether it was arson or an accidental fire, but the whole point was that a proper fire fighting system was not installed at the factory.”

She continues: “The government ruined our case which we had built after years of long struggle,” she says, referring to the Pakistani government’s joint-investigation team’s report on the fire which upheld that the factory was set on fire by extortionists belonging to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a powerful political party at the time, which virtually controlled Karachi. As a result, rather than an industrial accident, the case has been treated as an act of terrorism.

For AEFFAA and its supporters, the failure of the courts to charge the factory owners with any criminal liability makes it difficult to move forward: “Regardless of who caused the fire, people died because they could not find escape routes as all the emergency exits and gates were locked and the windows were grilled with iron bars,” says Khatoon. “We [the victims’ families] would have felt better if the court had not overlooked the lethal health and safety factors in the case.”

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Mirjam van Heugten, public outreach coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, a global grassroots network campaigning for better working conditions in textile supply chains, says the terrorism verdict was flawed. “All the victims could have been saved if not for the blocked doors, the barred windows and the failure of the audit industry,” she tells Equal Times.

“Neither the factory owners nor the main retailer, KiK, had an incentive to improve factory safety as the factory was certified as safe according to Social Accountability International’s SA8000 standard, issued by the Italian auditing company RINA,” she explains. The RINA safety certification was granted just a week before the deadly fire.

“The auditing system makes profits on the basis that companies need to show that they are doing ‘something’ in the field of workplace monitoring. It protects companies rather than actually changing working conditions for the better,” says Heugten.

The struggle goes on

At the time of Pakistan’s 9/11, as the fire is known, Khatoon was working as a nanny in a school. Now the 50-year-old widow is at the forefront of the fight for justice for those whose lives have been devastated by the disaster.

Her husband passed away when Aijaz was only two years old. Until his untimely death, Khatoon lived happily with her only son. Like the other family members of AEFFAA, Khatoon comes from an impoverished background, which in Pakistan, counts against you in the pursuit for justice.

Khatoon says she and the other families have left no stone unturned, but they have often been cheated and exploited, for example by paying money to spurious NGOs and government officials to get the compensation money owed to them. Then with the help of the National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan (NTUF), they formed AEFFAA in 2013 and have rallied in Pakistan and Europe for justice ever since.

Khatoon along with the relatives of three other victims filed a lawsuit against KiK in Germany in March 2015 and has made a formal complaint against the social auditing firm RINA. After four years of campaigning and negotiations by a network of Pakistani’s labour rights groups with their global partners, KiK agreed to pay US$5.15 million in compensation to the victims and their families in September 2016 through the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Due to the AEFFAA’s efforts, debate for legislation to ensure supply chain accountability globally started, and alliances among local, national and global stakeholders to push a pro-workers agenda emerged.

No lesson learnt

On the road connecting Karachi with Balochistan province, the pockmarked and crumbling structure of the Ali Enterprises factory not only offers a stark reminder of the carnage that took place that day, but it also puts the spotlight on labour conditions in Pakistan’s garment, textile and apparel industry.

In Pakistan, an estimated 2.2 million workers produce garments, 1.8 million make textiles, and 200,000 are employed in the footwear and leather industry. Combined it is the country’s second largest employer after agriculture and its largest export sector, generating US$13 billion annually.

However, none of that profit reaches the workers. Most workers are paid below the government minimum wage of 17,500 rupees (US$106) per month, which is already insufficient for a small family. They labour in dangerous factories where they are prevented from organising in trade unions. The workers that died and were injured on 11 September 2012, and in the various lesser-known factory incidents that have taken place since, are usually left without any compensation, even if they have life-changing injuries.

“Workplaces in Pakistan are still unsafe as the government, the factory owners and the international brands have learnt nothing since the Ali Enterprises factory fire,” Khatoon decries.

Although no official number is available, labour rights groups estimate that more than 250 workplace deaths have occurred in Pakistan due to unsafe conditions since September 2012.

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For example, on 21 September of this year, two workers were injured after the roof of a building of a factory collapsed in an area just a few miles away from Ali Enterprises. At the beginning of the year, at least 10 people were killed in a fire at a perfume factory in Lahore. And on the same day as the Ali Enterprise fire, 25 people were killed in a separate incident at a shoe factory, also in Lahore.

In addition, scores of non-fatal incidents go unrecorded.

Although Pakistan has ratified 36 ILO conventions, there is little by way of implementation by the government, and factory owners continue to ignore the laws. Poverty, illiteracy and a lack of rights awareness all contribute to the general acceptance of poor working conditions in the country.

Time for a ‘Pakistan Accord’

The coronavirus has only exacerbated these problems. When the government imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of Covid-19 earlier this year, garment factory owners used the crisis as an excuse to lay off workers and refuse to pay them their salaries.

The NTUF and other labour groups organised several protests against forced layoffs and months of unpaid salaries in Karachi. In one case in May, guards at a garment factory opened fire on the unarmed workers protesting for their salaries in the Korangi industrial area of the city.

“Instead of protecting workers’ jobs and providing them with relief during the pandemic, the government announced a number of economic packages for industrialists,” Nasir Mansoor, a NTUF leader, tells Equal Times. Although the redundancies were precipitated by the big global fashion brands that cancelled and reduced their orders at the start of the coronavirus crisis, it has been the workers – already underpaid and under-protected – who have borne the brunt.

Labour groups are calling for a ‘Pakistan Accord’ for workers’ safety in a similar vein to the Bangladesh Accord, which has been implemented since 2013 after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Some 1,133 workers lost their lives in the Rana Plaza building collapse on 24 April 2013. The shocking incident served as a wake-up call to the global fashion industry, and provided a much-needed sense of urgency in efforts to improve dire working conditions for the country’s workers garment workers. Within weeks, apparel brands had signed the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally-binding agreement that has improved fire, electrical, and structural safety in more than 1,600 factories.

Pakistan’s industries are in dire need to have an organised mechanism to ensure workplace safety and for this purpose, an agreement in the mould of the Bangladesh Accord should be made, according to Karamat Ail, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER). He also notes that most of the brands signed up to the Bangladesh Accord also buy garments from Pakistan.

For Heugten from the Clean Clothes Campaign “it is high time that multinational companies are held legally accountable for their behaviour in their supply chains, including attention for factory safety which is still very much lacking in Pakistan up to this day. This could be through mandatory human rights due diligence as proposed by EU Commissioner [for Justice] Didier Reynders or the supply chain legislation as discussed in Germany, as well as through regulation bringing legal liability of social auditing firms.”

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