Deadly Denim: Pakistan Workers Burned Alive Making Jeans for Export
"You have ruthless buyers sitting in the U.S. who don't care what you do, as long as you do it on time… We take a hit every time we're late. That means lost margins. That means we do what we need to do to make our orders, fast. This factory owner may have been working extra shifts just for that purpose…" —Ali Ahmad, Owner of Nizam Textiles in Karachi, Pakistan
In the aftermath of the deadly factory fires in Pakistan on September 11, 2012, Pakistani unions have called for the factory owner and local government officials to be held accountable. ILRF expresses our deep sorrow for the pain, suffering, and loss of life caused by the owner’s, the buyers’ and the government authorities’ unconscionable neglect. We stand in solidarity with the workers of Pakistan, and support the demands of the unions. We also call on the brands and retailers that together buy $11 billion of Pakistani apparel each year to take responsibility for making Pakistani factories safe for workers.
More than 300 trapped workers were killed in two separate fires on the same day—289 workers in an apparel factory in Karachi and 25 workers in a shoe factory in Lahore—a day Nasir Mansoor, leader of the National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan (NTUF)—calls the “darkest and saddest day in the history of Pakistan’s labor movement.”
The Karachi factory, Ali Enterprises, operated illegally, without proper registration. When fire broke out—reportedly for the fourth time within two years—more than 600 workers were trapped. The main sliding door was locked to protect the merchandise; windows were barred with iron grills; stairs and doorways were blocked with piles of finished merchandise; and there were no emergency exits. None of the workers had appointment letters and most of them were contract employees hired by a third party. As contract workers they were not entitled to social security or workers’ compensation. None of these workers had the security to voice their fears about the risky working conditions they found themselves in.
Mansoor’s union, NTUF, demands the arrest of the factory owner for murder, and the resignation of several government officials for severe negligence. NTUF also demands compensation for the families of deceased workers and for injured workers; inspections of all factories in coordination with worker-representative bodies; the registration of all factories under the Factory Act; the abolishment of the contract-workers system; the issuance of appointment letters to all workers; and the provision of social security, old-age benefits, and worker-welfare programs to all workers.
Buyers, too, are culpable for the deaths of the workers and must take responsibility for workplace safety. The recent fires in Karachi and Lahore were not the first garment factory fires in Pakistan, not even the first fire at Ali Enterprises. In fact, Mansoor notes that rarely a month goes by without an explosion, fire or structural collapse in Pakistan’s garment industry. However, when only one or two workers die on the job, these incidents go unreported. “These factories are chemical bombs, waiting to happen,” he says.
The conditions in the Karachi and Lahore factories were reportedly typical of garment factories in Pakistan, and the risk of fire is equally high in many other facilities. Alarmingly, apparel factory fires appear to be increasingly globalized. For many years, we heard mostly about fires in Bangladesh where more than 100 reported factory fires since 1990 have killed more than 750 workers. Now, fires in Pakistan are being reported, and just one day after the Pakistani fires, a fire in a Moscow sweatshop killed 14 Vietnamese immigrants who were trapped behind a door that was locked and barred with a sledgehammer from the outside.
These fires are not the product of exceptional circumstances, isolated examples of especially greedy or negligent owners, or freak accidents that strike much like natural disasters with nobody responsible. The fires are the product of the failings of the global apparel industry. They are the logical result of the lethally low prices buyers offer the factories and the lightning-quick deliveries they require. When factory owners are squeezed by the buyers they are not going to invest in proper factories with functioning fire escapes and sprinkler systems and worker training on proper procedures in case of fires. On the contrary, they are going to rush to get orders done as cheaply as possible, no matter the cost to workers. If the buyers require compliance with labor and safety standards, the factories will find ways to create the impression of compliance because real compliance is not possible under the business terms they are given.
In the case of Ali Enterprises, the owner, one of the country’s major exporters of garments, was rushing to get an order ready in time for year-end shopping and was making his employees work overtime to avoid the high cost of air freight. The owner had reportedly obtained a fake certificate from an audit company to satisfy buyers abroad that the factory met required safety standards. Workers told The New York Times that managers had forced them to lie about working conditions to auditors representing foreign buyers. Do not complain or you will lose your job, they were told. This is typical in Pakistan, and typical in the global apparel industry.
The horror of this Pakistani fire is yet one more wake-up call for the brands and retailers that cheap products come at a steep price for workers—an unconscionably steep price. It is time for the brands to put workers’ lives ahead of brand image, and promote real solutions. The best model for real fire safety in the global apparel industry is one that has: independent factory inspections; freedom for workers to report on dangers in their own workplace and to have a voice in their workplace; a binding commitment from brands to work with suppliers to implement the program; and fair prices for factories so that they can invest in safety. So far only the Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation and the German retailer, Tchibo, have agreed to adopt such a program in Bangladesh. We call on all brands and retailers to sign on quickly and replicate the program in other countries.