October 11th, 2012
10:25 AM GMT
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.”
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