October 11th, 2012
10:25 AM GMT
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Karachi, Pakistan (CNN) –Pakistan's textile and garment sector is a $12 billion a year industry, supplying many US and European retailers like JC Penney, Walmart and Sears.

But a recent fire at a Karachi denim factory that killed more than 250 people has brought to the forefront the issue of deficient labor and worker laws.

Three year old Muqadas thinks her mother is away on a long journey. Her father hasn’t found the strength to tell her that her mother will never come home again – she was killed last month in Pakistan’s deadliest ever factory fire.

“I’m all alone. This place feels empty without her,” Abdul Ghani told CNN’s Reza Sayah.

On September 11Ghani’s wife was among nearly 300 workers killed at Ali Enterprises when fire tore through the four-story Karachi denim factory.

Ghani worked at the factory too but when the fire broke out he was home for dinner.

Pakistani investigators say most of the victims were trapped behind locked emergency exits – serious violations of worker safety laws. The company denies the doors were locked and blames a late response by firefighters who, along with witnesses, say they arrived within minutes.

The workers on the lower level managed to get out. It was the workers on the top floor who were in trouble. The fire and smoke trapped them. Some jumped out from the windows out of desperation.

The fire was a huge blow to Pakistan’s textile industry, raising serious questions about worker safety standards and international monitoring.

Just weeks before the fire, US based watchdog group Social Accountability International certified the denim factory had passed worker and fire safety requirements.

But Ghani and other workers said most factory exits were often locked shut and at inspection time workers were pressured to say the right things.

“The owners told us what to say to the inspectors,” Ghani said. “If we didn’t do it, they said we would be fired.”

Two of the owners of Ali Enterprises are now in jail facing possible criminal charges.

Social Accountability International said it is investigating the inspectors it authorised to check the factory. In a statement the watchdog group described its inspections as “imperfect”, often hampered by “false documentation” and “pressure on workers not to tell the truth”.

The textile industry in Pakistan makes up more than half of the country’s exports generating hundreds of millions of dollars around the world.

Arshad Vorsha, head of a textile factory association, said the deadly fire is a wake up call for factories to improve worker safety

“We have no option left. We have to considerate it seriously and as an industry we're going to prove it within days,” he said.

But a visit with an owner of another of Karachi’s garment factories showed the industry still struggles to meet basic fire safety requirements, with fire extinguishers showing they were out of date, though the factory said this was a printing issue on the label. Some fire alarms at the factory also failed to work properly.

Any possible lapses in safety measures are a reminder of the potential dangers that remain in Pakistan’s factories, dangers that robbed the Ghani family of a mother and a wife.

“I wish this kind of tragedy never happened to anyone else,” Ghani said. “I wake up every night thinking about my wife.”

Filed under: Along the silk roadBusiness


soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. rmsbl4

    This sounds more like a fire safety law problem rather than a labor law problem.

    October 11, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  2. Fanam

    I have lived and worked in Pakistan. Compliance is a big issue there. You can find number of factories who are certified by various certifying boides while the actual situation is totally different in the factories. Many Pakistani Auditors take bribes to provide certificates while lot of non comformity still exist. I have witnessed auditors who have given social compliance certificates to manufacturing facilities without even visting the production floor or meeting the workers. Unfortunately these are Internationally recognised companies having their local offices in this country. If you need a genuine audit done in Pakistan, you need to have honest people doing the job. I agree with the statement given by some in above article that workers are given question and answer sheets prior to the audit. Since labour laws are very poor, they are fired from the job where jobs are a day dream for many. If you have money, certifications are at your door step in this country. There are very few genuine companies who at least make some efforts to do these honestly but majority do to get more business. There are factories who operate their effluent treatment plants only when the buyers visit the factory or during an audit.

    October 11, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  3. Raza

    Pakistan has a system which is built around corrupt and corruption. This system is reinforced with world's top most corrupt bureaucracy leading offices like police, politics, law, education. For example, education system produce millions of crack pots yearly that have no future because education system is made to produce crack pots only. Hence, there is only non conformance and system is built around it with purpose :) for only 0.01 percent % .

    October 11, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  4. akhan49

    Employees do not have any protection whether they are serving in factories or offices in hazardous and life threatening environment. White color or blue color jobs there are no protection or employment benefits. No written agreements are undertaken by employers what about rules and regulations of Employment Act under the Law. Who cares – at least you have a job and earning something to drag on your living.

    October 12, 2012 at 4:08 am |
  5. ali raza lashari

    Pakistani industries are facing so many problems among these problems violation of labour laws is very common, and what happen in Karachi it is infornt of world .why still it is hidden that who was behind this case?.who is responsible for the death of hundreds of peoples who were victimized in this tragedy, why still govt is not checking to other factories.
    lam requesting to Pakistani govt and pakistani industrial owners that please do some thing that we should not face such thing in near future.

    November 3, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  6. Leandro

    Andy,Since we're delving so dlepey into this topic, I'd like to tread into another territory that isn't covered by employement statistics. I call it the willfully unemployed, and I know of no way to track it. I'll give two examples.I know two people very well who work hard during the summertime. They put in long hours for 9-10 months of the year to make a hefty paycheck. One of these guys is a construction worker making in excess of $50,000 per year, and the other is a agricultural insurance adjuster who makes just under $50,000 per year. What do they do in the winter? They collect unemployment. I don't think that this is a just policy. These people are prefectly able to work during the winter months. Stop and Go is always hiring, but they refuse. And it's not like $50,000 a year is enough to live on. However, these seasonal employees tend to get lumped into the unemployed sector of the populace at large.The second category of people are the ones who refuse to take employment because their paychecks would be comparable to what they make on unemployment. So a person can only make $20,000 to $25,000 a year working at Stop and Go. When they are collecting that with their unemployment check from their $50,000 a year job, where is the incentive to go back to work?We will never know how many people people fit into these categories, but it raises yet another important point. Why are we incenting people to not work? I can understand if there are simply no jobs out there, and I know that there are parts of the country where that is the case (Michigan, Rhode Islan). However, 90% of this country has an over-abundance of work available. The problem is, many middle class families have to much pride to work those jobs even if it is only temporary.

    November 5, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  7. NYC fitness events

    The recent fire at a Karachi denim factory that killed more than 250 people has brought to the forefront the issue of deficient labor and
    worker laws. I bet you the factory was only 20,000 square feet.

    February 18, 2014 at 3:12 am |

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