Few lessons learnt two years on from Karachi factory fire

Pakistani employees working in a textile factory in Karachi on Nov 11, 2014,. More than two years after a fire tore through a Karachi clothing factory, killing 255 workers, no one has been prosecuted over the catastrophe. -- PHOTO: AFP
Pakistani employees working in a textile factory in Karachi on Nov 11, 2014,. More than two years after a fire tore through a Karachi clothing factory, killing 255 workers, no one has been prosecuted over the catastrophe. -- PHOTO: AFP

KARACHI (AFP) - More than two years after a fire tore through a Karachi clothing factory, killing 255 workers, no one has been prosecuted over the catastrophe, one of the deadliest industrial accidents in Pakistani history.

The abandoned hulk of the Ali Enterprises factory, which supplied cheap clothes to Western retailers, now stands as a monument to a disaster many would rather forget.

A little after 6pm on Sept 11, 2012, fire broke out in a factory storeroom housing jeans and T-shirts made by the 1,000-strong workforce for stores in Europe.

Trapped inside, one of the workers, Mr Riaz Parveen, rang his wife, Nazia.

"He told me, 'There's a huge fire in the factory, if I can't get out of here, I won't be coming home,'" mother of three Nazia told AFP tearfully.

Mr Parveen and his brother, Rafaqat, never came home. Their charred bodies were found in the ashes of the factory.

A judicial probe into the blaze was damning, pointing to a lack of emergency exits, poor safety training for workers, the packing in of machinery and the failure of government inspectors to spot any of these faults.

Two years later the victims' families have received a total of US$1.67 million (S$2.2 million) in immediate compensation paid by the factory owners and the German company KIK, which bought much of the production. Negotiations are still going on for long-term benefits.

Ms Nazia got the equivalent of US$7,000, which allowed her to buy a small plot of land in the city, but she is still angry at the factory owners and their European partners.

"The workers were paid barely 100 rupees (S$1.32) for making clothes that sell for much, much more money," she said.

"They're sucking the blood of the poor. We are illiterate and uneducated and they exploit this weakness. We realised this when they paid us the compensation."

A murder case was registered against the factory owners, but it has never come to trial. The delay has infuriated Mr Faisal Siddiqui, lawyer for the victims' families.

"It just shows you a complete breakdown of the criminal justice system but it also shows you that when it comes to labourers, it is next to impossible to get justice in Pakistan," he said.

With workers paid around US$100 a month, textiles make up more than half of Pakistan's exports, valued at US$13 billion last year and bound mainly for Europe.

This year Pakistan won the prized "GSP+" status from the European Union, a highly favourable tariff exemption regime that is a boon to textile exporters.

After the Karachi fire, the European Parliament told big brands to re-examine their supply chains in Pakistan and demanded the creation of a new effective and independent system to monitor factories. This has not been done.