Quiet burns the fire: The Baldia tragedy
"What do you think it would be like to walk into a factory and see 259 bodies strewn on top of one another?” asked Shakeel as he stared blankly into space.
“I shrouded scores of them with my own hands,” he said.
His fingers nervously picked at loose threads in the carpet as his sons, both in their 20s, shifted uncomfortably in the background. They were surrounded by a dozen or so grief-stricken relatives of those who lost their lives on September 11, 2012 when a deadly fire broke out inside a garment factory in Karachi's Baldia Town. After a long pause, Shakeel broke his silence. “I sifted through the piles for hours, but there was no end [to my search]. It was only later when we transported the bodies to a hospital that I found out that my son was among them too. His remains were so charred that I could not recognise him.”
Two years after the incident, the relatives of the dead are as angry as they are heavy-hearted. Sometimes called Pakistan’s 9/11, the fire at the factory owned and operated by a textile exporter, Ali Enterprises, has left many unanswered questions in its wake. Why has it been left largely ignored? How have the deaths of so many people been brushed under the carpet by the state machinery that has failed to deliver both justice and compensation despite the passing of two years?
The Baldia incident holds the unfortunate distinction of being the deadliest factory fire in recorded human history. (Another fire the same day at a shoe factory in Lahore, which claimed 25 lives, only accentuated the tragic intensity of the deaths in Karachi.) The closest that another fire incident comes is the one that happened at Kader Toy Factory in Thailand in 1993, killing 188 people.
The Karachi incident bears striking resemblance to the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York which claimed 146 lives. The contrast between the two incidents is also striking. The New York fire led to a huge mobilisation among the labour force and consequently a drastic overhaul of the laws governing working conditions in industrial units (the building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is now declared a national landmark). Ali Enterprises in Karachi, on the other hand, remains abandoned; its blackened windows are a haunting reminder of dire working conditions and undelivered justice.
Payday might have come a day late — but it did come. On that September evening, workers at the factory were queuing up to collect their salaries. At about 6.30 pm, there were close to a thousand people present within the factory building.
As fires are a routine occurrence in most Pakistani factories, witnesses said they were not particularly panicked at first. The owners of Ali Enterprises – Abdul Aziz Bhaila and his sons Shahid and Arshad – are alleged to be known for forcing workers to salvage goods before getting themselves to safety (the echoes of these allegations were also heard during the proceedings of a judicial commission investigating the matter).
But what started as just another fire, resulting from poor maintenance of electric wiring, soon escalated to a full-scale inferno, leading to a rush towards the only open exit. Fearing that the workers may steal their merchandise or want to leave earlier than they should, the employers had shut down all emergency exits except one and boarded up the windows — something the owners of Ali Enterprises could not deny in their testimonies. As the workers were scampering to get out, they found the stairs and hallways blocked by large cartons of packaged goods.
While those working on the upper floors of the factory were being smothered by smoke and licked by flames, exploding boilers sent scorching water gushing out of the basement killing all those stationed there. The absence of any safety equipment, such as fire extinguishers or fire alarms, meant nobody inside the building could do anything to save their lives. While most workers haplessly watched as death rushed towards them, red and blazing in tooth and claw, some others tried to jump out of any opening they could find — those who did not die were left permanently maimed.
“We saw a young boy trying to jump out of an upper-storey window that was unbarred,” said a resident of Baldia Town, where most victims come from. He was part of the helpless congregation outside the factory. “[The boy] got caught in the window. Because the fire brigade had not arrived by then, we saw him slowly burn to death.”
The owners of Ali Enterprises have consistently claimed in their judicial testimonies that the fire was not caused by poor maintenance of the factory building and was, instead, ignited by extortionists. Lawyers for the victims, however, point out that all the three official investigations conducted so far – by the police, by a judicial commission and by the Federal Investigation Agency – state otherwise. These reports, citing a lack of evidence, rule out the possibility that extortionists set the factory on fire after failing to get the money they were demanding.
Although the factory is strictly off limits today, you can see gaping holes around windows broken by the fire department cranes that arrived on the scene an hour and a quarter after the fire had started. Witnesses who have been inside shortly after the fire was extinguished found nothing but rolls of burnt denim and pieces of twisted metal alongside human remains. Those who have seen the premises from inside on that fateful night could not sleep for days. “There were dogs surrounding the factory for days afterwards,” the relative of a victim told the Herald. “The stench of flesh was hanging thick in the air.”
Trial by fire
By the stroke of midnight on September 11, 2012, Arshad Bhaila and Shahid Bhaila had left Karachi for Larkana, where they received protective bail from a local court. Before it expired, they were able to get another protective bail from a court in Rawalpindi.
Before the expiry of the second bail, the brothers filed for pre-arrest bail at a trial court in Karachi. Their request was granted within two days. When, however, the hearing of a criminal case started against them before a magistrate, their pre-arrest bail was dismissed and they were arrested. Only their father, Abdul Aziz Bhaila, was granted bail due to a heart-related ailment.
Most people knowledgeable about the case confirm one thing: the brothers have been heavily protected by their fellows in the business community. At an event organised by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Karachi soon after the blaze, then-prime minister Pervez Ashraf was invited as chief guest and influential members of the business community appealed to him to withdraw murder charges against the Bhailas. Ashraf directed the chief secretary of Sindh to do the needful. The chief secretary, in turn, contacted Jahanzaib Khan, the investigation officer of the case, who then approached the trial court to say that the police was dropping murder charges.
The move immediately alerted activists. Public prosecutor Shazia Ahmed, officials from the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) and other civil society organisations approached the Sindh High Court and filed a petition against the decision to drop murder charges. A high court bench, headed by the chief justice, ruled that the government could not do that.
The period between the filing of the petition and the high court decision on it, however, turned out to be extremely important. It was during this period that the Bhaila brothers got out on bail because the police investigators had dropped murder charges in trial before the magistrate. “They had spent only about three to four months in jail when the investigation officer appeared in court one day with a well-rehearsed speech in favour of the accused,” said one of the lawyers for the victims, Salahuddin Panhwar. “Suddenly it became clear that the playing field had entirely changed.”
Since then, the Bhailas have remained free men in Karachi. There are (unconfirmed) rumours that they approached the German importer of their merchandise, KiK, to resume business activities.
By law, proceedings in a criminal trial cannot commence until the accused acknowledge that they have received a document, called challan in police jargon, including complete details of the charges they are being tried for and all the testimonies against them. In this case, this seemed like an uphill task as the police have struggled for more than a year and a half to record the testimonies of 800 eyewitnesses and to include them in the challan.
“We even approached the Sindh High Court, which issued three or four show-cause notices to Jahanzaib Khan for causing delay [in the challan process],” said Panhwar. Then he pointed to something more ominous than just the allegation of police colluding with the accused. “I have been harassed on several occasions over the case. There has been, and still is, a lot of pressure on me to drop it.”
The copies of the challan have finally managed to make their way to the court, which is due to provide them to the accused on November 15. “The trial might actually begin now,” said Panhwar, “unless another technicality is fished out of somewhere.”
Zulfiqar Shah, joint director at Piler, a Karachi-based organisation working on labour rights and pursuing the cause of the Baldia fire victims, was equally sceptical about the trial proceedings. “We will try our best for this to conclude, but the industrial lobby is strongly influencing the case,” he said. “The court has given orders which nobody is following. At the speed that this is moving, the trial may take years more to conclude.” Shah was also critical of the insensitivity that most business owners show towards the plight of their workers. If they do exhibit some empathy, he said, they will either have to spend money on safety precautions or shut down their factories. “That is why they do not want any labour laws to be enforced,” he said.
The state of inertia
While Prime Minister Ashraf was directing government officials to drop murder charges against the Bhailas, there were 17 bodies still unburied,” said a lawyer representing the victims’ families, Faisal Siddiqi. “Their charred remains could not be recognised and we were waiting for their DNA samples to be taken. In the end, we were forced to bury them in temporary graves [marked by numbers rather than names].”
Two years have passed and the DNA test reports haven’t yet reached the families of the victims. Many of them are losing patience. “They have taken blood from me thrice in the past two years to identify his body. How much longer must we wait?” asked Muhammad Jamil whose 20-year-old brother Wasim had died in the fire.
There are other reasons, too, for Jamil to feel frustrated with how the government is handling the aftermath of the incident. He told the Herald that he should have got a job as per a government promise to the relatives of the victims. However, he is surviving on odd jobs to pay his bills and provide for his three sisters and old mother. “My mother has been affected the most by Wasim’s death,” said Jamil. She wanted Jamil to go inside the factory after the fire to search for Wasim’s body. “Initially, I tried to calm her down but then I realised that she has lost her senses due to her pain. What can I say?”
The payment of compensation, too, remains a problem. By the middle of the last month, the Bhaila brothers had paid 55 million rupees to the families of the victims. They did not do so voluntarily but due to their legal obligations under the Workers Compensation Act.
As per Pakistan’s labour laws, the family of each victim are entitled to receive 500,000 rupees from the Worker Welfare Fund, a federal pension fund, as death grant. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced an additional 400,000 rupees for the family of each dead worker. So far, the federal government has provided only 400,000 rupees and has paid 100,000 rupees to each injured worker. The Sindh government also has paid 300,000 rupees to the heirs of each dead person and 50,000 rupees to every injured worker.
The government has agreed to pay 100,000 rupees more to the family of each person who lost his life but there is a lot of confusion over whether it will be in addition to what the government promised earlier. In the recent months, the government’s interest has sagged in rehabilitating the families who lost their earning hands in the tragedy. The government was initially very active in providing relief and compensation, claimed Siddiqi. “Over time, though, the public and media have lost interest, and so has the government,” he added.
Lack of official interest in rehabilitation, however, pales in comparison with official inability, or unwillingness, to enforce rules and regulations governing working conditions in industrial areas even when the violation of these rules was at the heart of the Baldia incident. The law states that no building in Karachi’s SITE area, where Ali Enterprises factory was located, can have more than two storeys but the Bhailas were able to construct a four-storey building. The other violation they committed proved to be a major reason why the fire spread so widely across the building they added an illegal wooden mezzanine floor which helped the fire to move from the basement, where it started, to upper floors.
The Sindh Building Control Authority, as its name suggests, is responsible for approving building plans all over Sindh, except in military cantonments. But Siddiqi said the authority had denied having jurisdiction in SITE. The provincial labour department, responsible for overseeing working conditions in industrial areas, could also claim that it did not have jurisdiction over the Ali Enterprises production unit since it was not registered with the department.
Another department, EOBI, had only partial jurisdiction since only 200 out of 1500 employees of Ali Enterprises were registered with it. “It is interesting to see the lack of coordination between departments of the same government,” Siddiqi observed.
Labour union activists told the Herald that avoiding registration with the government was a common practice among businessmen. They do so to avoid incurring additional costs on the safety of the workers as well as inspections of safety equipment, said Nasir Mansoor, deputy general secretary of the National Trade Unions Federation. “In Karachi, 92 per cent of the factories are unregistered.” And if they get caught for non-registration, all they have to do is pay 500 rupees in fine and resume business as usual.
A few months after the fire incident, Shahzeb Khan, the 20-year-old son of a senior police official, was gunned down in Karachi’s Defence area. The social and mainstream media immediately took up the dead boy’s cause and the subsequent public outrage resulted in the Supreme Court taking a suo motu notice of the murder to ensure a swift trial of the accused, Shahrukh Jatoi, the son of an influential feudal. The public support for the case later petered out after Khan’s family agreed to receive compensation money and leave the country.
Siddiqi, who also represented Khan’s family as a lawyer, wondered why the Baldia fire incident did not get the same amount of public support. “When I compare the two cases, the contrast becomes striking,” he said. “Khan’s murder case was wrapped up within six months because of the limelight it had received and the public pressure it had generated.”
On the other hand, “the Baldia fire never got the same level of attention despite the fact that it had resulted in hundreds of deaths”. This difference, he argued, could be due to “deeply-ingrained” class divisions in the society. “Few people in the upper strata of the society can identify with labourers in Baldia; fewer still are concerned about the dismal state of working conditions in the country.”
Others pointed out that lack of public pressure was one major reason why most aspects of the tragedy remained unaddressed. “If such a tragic incident had happened in the developed parts of the world,” said Thiruvalluvar Yovel of the Clean Clothes Campaign, “the pressure from civil society and consumers would have been much higher”. Such pressure, he told the Herald in an email, “would have resulted in tougher laws and compliance mechanisms”. His Amsterdam-based organisation is at the forefront of demanding justice for garment factory workers across the globe.
Workers of the world, unite
Pakistan has a labour force of 60 million people — or almost a third of the population — out of which only about five per cent have an employment contract. Fewer still are members of trade unions: two per cent of public-sector workers and even less than that in the private sector.
There are multiple reasons why labourers stay away from trade unions. During a passionate conversation over a cup of tea at the Sindh High Court cafeteria, Mansoor told the Herald that joining a trade union had been made near-impossible by factory owners. “If a worker so much as mentions a trade union, he is shown the door the same day.” According to him, workers are so scared of losing their jobs that nobody says anything when they see their colleagues being exploited or mistreated. “Nobody is willing to take the brunt for somebody else”.
In extreme cases, factory owners have been known to use strong-arm tactics to keep trade union activists under the thumb. Mansoor said there had been many cases of trade union members being jailed on charges of terrorism. “I know many such cases of workers who have been sent to prison; they are accused of threatening their employers with demands for extortion.”
In Mansoor’s opinion, the reason for such high-handedness is obvious. “This is what happens when you have an endless supply of workers, and little mobilisation among them.”
Recalling the mass dismissal of workers from a multinational soft-drink maker about three years ago, he said the public at large and the media also did not take interest in issues related to industrial workers. Even when the activists protested for weeks in front of the soft drink factory, he said, “there was either no coverage of the incident, or a complete media blackout”. This, Mansoor added, also showed him “the power such organisations can have.”
Referring to the Baldia fire incident, Mansoor said working conditions provided by Ali Enterprises were very poor. “Do you know how much money was found in the owners’ official account when it was frozen? 500 million rupees. Do you know how low the annual increase in wages at factories in Karachi can be? 15 rupees. The conditions in which workers live and work are appalling. You would not wash your hands with the water that they are forced to drink.”
Mansoor observed that there was very little awareness about labour rights. “They are neither taught in our school curriculum nor are they an integral part of our legal system. As a result, what should be viewed as the basic right of every worker is seen as a privilege.”
While trade unions in Pakistan in general and Karachi in particular have brought out many protest demonstrations demanding justice for the victims of Baldia fire incident, their activities have received little media coverage and even less support from the public. Next they sought solidarity from their international comrades. IndustriALL – a federation of trade unions that represents at least 50 million workers across the world – picked up the cause and contacted the highest Pakistani authorities to seek justice. In a letter to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, IndustriALL General Secretary Jyrki Raina wrote:
“The 2010 Pakistan Labour Policy has among its objectives the following: just and humane conditions of work be guaranteed to all workers. We very much would like to see this finally applied to the garment and shoemaking workers in Pakistan, who constitute 30 per cent of workers in the country and have some of the most inhumane working conditions.” There is no evidence that the government of Pakistan ever responded to this letter.
Whose responsibility is it anyway?
In a globalised trade regime, international buyers are expected to be as mindful of the working conditions in countries where they buy their merchandise from as factory owners and national governments in exporting countries. This has spawned an elaborate global system of certification and many organisations offer certification services to importers and exporters in order to ensure that trade does not involve exploitative practices.
One of these organisations, Social Accountability International (SAI), is based in New York and is well-respected for its SA-8000 certification. The purpose of this certification is to ensure that the exporter is following international rules and regulations on corporate social responsibility and accountability as far as working conditions are concerned. Ali Enterprises had that certification.
How did that happen? SAI delegates its work to 21 entities across the world which inspect and investigate production units before recommending or rejecting SA-8000 certification. In the case of Ali Enterprises, inspections and investigations were to be done by an Italian firm, Registro Italiano Navale (Rina), which subcontracted the assignment to its affiliate in Pakistan, the Renaissance Inspection and Certification Agency (RI&CA). Officials at RI&CA claim that two of their auditors spent 10 days at Ali Enterprises to carry out the required inspections and investigations. It was on their recommendation that Rina gave the factory a clean bill of health. The tragic irony is that Rina did so only 20 days before the inferno claimed 259 lives at the same industrial unit.
Some people seem to know about the flawed inspections. The mother of a victim recalled the time her son was instructed by his bosses to quote his monthly salary as 9,000 rupees instead of 6,000 rupees if “the foreigners come to visit”, otherwise he would lose his job. Pakistani activists and their foreign supporters have lodged a case of criminal negligence in Italy against Rina. They are also planning to file a civil case to make Rina compensate the victims and their families. The Italian firm had issued at least 100 such approvals for certification for Pakistani exporters. In the wake of the Baldia fire incident, however, SAI has cancelled all these and suspended further operations by Rina in Pakistan.
In a post on the SAI website, which tackles the Baldia fire incident, a representative of the company said, “Social standards, auditing and associated training programs have improved conditions at thousands of workplaces, but they are not a guarantee against poor management, accidents or corruption.”
The main buyer of exports by Ali Enterprises was a prominent German brand by the name of KiK; it purchased 70-80 per cent of the factory’s output.
Once the news of the fire incident became internationally known, many protests took place outside KiK shops in Germany. The most recent of these protests were organised by German trade unions to mark the second anniversary of the tragedy. “Consumer consciousness has increased in the 21st century and most people want to know where the product they are buying is coming from,” said Siddiqi. “The German government has also been very concerned over the issue,” he added.
Thomas Seibert, the South Asia coordinator of the human rights and relief organisation, Medico International, explained to the Herald why the Baldia fire “had, and still has, huge attention of the German public”. This, he said in an email, “is not only because of the dramatic loss of life, but because of deep anger and shock over the general working and living conditions imposed upon South Asian garment workers.”
There are (unconfirmed) allegations that KiK may still be exporting merchandise from other Pakistani manufacturers who treat their workers no better than Ali Enterprises did. If these allegations are true, they could well point out a major flaw in the laws governing international trade. “The liability of a buyer [in the case of an accident] is still not a part of international law,” Siddiqi pointed out.
KiK, however, has paid one million dollars in compensation — the largest compensation sum ever paid by a foreign firm in Pakistan. Siddiqi is due to visit Germany later this month with an international team of lawyers to negotiate with the firm for long-term support for the families of the victims. If these talks fail, said Siddiqi, a case will also be lodged against KiK in Germany.
Meanwhile, back at the Sindh High Court, a frustrated Chief Justice Maqbool Baqar continues repeating the same instructions to government representatives at every hearing. Well over a year ago, he had issued a verification order to the state-run DNA laboratory for the identification of 17 victims buried in unnamed graves. So far nothing has come of it. At a recent hearing he was so angry with the laboratory officials that he warned them that they would be either held in contempt or tried for being incompetent.
“It takes so much effort to get you to court in the first place and when you do come, you bring a pile of excuses,” said Baqar. “There is no substantial progress being made and the court cannot chase you for clarifications over trivial matters,” he added.
Seated on the last two rows of benches in the courtroom – and feeling rather out of place – were the families of the deceased. Nervously, they waited for the day’s proceedings to end so they could ask their lawyers about the progress. “Nobody in our families had even seen the Sindh High Court before this,” said Muhammad Jabbir, the head of a recently-formed committee of the victims’ families. They are likely to be at the court for many more hearings before they finally hear a judgment.
Trade unionist Mansoor argued that delays were expected in most trials involving a government department and the Baldia fire case was no exception. “There is a panel of six lawyers representing different departments in the case; they take turns to miss one hearing each,” said Mansoor. “As a result, the case never progresses.”
Jabbir – an elderly man who lost a 22-year-old son in the fire – told the Herald that presence at the court hearings involved costs. Most of the relatives of the victims are themselves factory workers and small traders and they have to forego a day’s salary or a weekly holiday to be present at the court. “Labourers will skip work and vendors will shut their stalls on the day of a hearing,” said Jabbir. “It is becoming harder to explain to them why the court keeps giving newer dates for hearings, or why it is so difficult for them to receive the compensation.”
Outside the courtroom, Aziz Bhai, the father of a victim, talked about how the owners of Ali Enterprises were providing monthly rations from a window in the factory to the families of the victims. “Additionally, the federal government is providing 3600 rupees in monthly pension to the family of each dead person and they are also receiving 750 rupees a month each from Sindh government.”
The five stages of grief
But the families claimed that the money being provided was not just inadequate, it also did not help them get over their grief. “The pension schemes have been announced only for a period of five years,” Aziz Bhai said, wiping his glasses while sitting at his home in Baldia Town. “What will happen to my family after that?”
He was diagnosed with diabetes days after his 19-year-old son Nabeel died in the factory fire. Since then, he has been losing his eyesight and one of his toes has come off after a minor injury. The compensation money he has received so far was spent either on his medical treatment or to marry off his daughter.
His wife has other things on her mind. “The only thing I keep thinking about is how Nabeel skipped lunch on that day because he was in such a rush to get to work,” she said, sitting under a picture of her son posing at the Quaid-e-Azam’s mausoleum. “I remember running out of the house as soon as I heard about the fire. We could not find him for a very long time until one of his friends pointed out the area of the factory where he used to work,” she said. “We razed a wall to get in and there he was.”
“We are angry,” said Aziz Bhai, taking over from his wife, “not because we lost our son, but because we all raised our children and handed them over to the factory.” He then remembered how Nabeel would even eat and sleep at the factory sometimes, like many others, to be able to do more work. “But the owners have not so much as enquired after any of the families even once.”
The sentiment echoes across the Baldia Town neighbourhood where the families of the victims live. Amid a thousand tears, many parents filed into Jabbir’s home on a recent work day clutching portraits of their young sons, each marked with the word shaheed — Urdu for ‘martyr’. All aggrieved parents spoke not of criminal negligence but of how a long-term relationship with the owners of the factory – however one-sided it might have been – was completely shattered in the aftermath of the fire.
“If I could say one thing to the Bhailas, it would be this: they were your sons too. One word of sympathy in two years would have meant a lot,” said an elderly man who had lost both his grandchildren in the fire.
As legal complications around the case drag on, the families are trying to pick up pieces and carry on. “God has been kind,” said one Jan Mohammad. “My son Faisal had been married for six months [before he died in the blaze] and left behind a three-month pregnant wife”. Six months later, she gave birth to a son. “Our boy never came back but his son looks exactly like him,” said Jan’s wife, holding up Faisal’s picture next to the toddler’s face. “Look, he has the same eyes, same hair, same features.”
The future of the past
Beyond such personal consolations, nothing seems to have changed. “Unfortunately there have been no changes in labour regulations or their implementation in Pakistan, not even in Karachi,” said Shah of Piler. “It is just sheer luck that incidents [like the Baldia fire] are not happening every day.”
This is in spite of the fact that problems of inhuman working conditions in factories in Pakistan have been discussed extensively over the last two years in mainstream European media which is one of the largest export markets for Pakistani goods. “These ongoing debates seriously started through the Baldia tragedy and the Bangladeshi [industrial] disasters,” said Miriam Saage-Maasz, a representative of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. “However, any initiatives taken have been very much slowed down by the business lobby and, unfortunately, there have not been any changes in labour laws or any other laws establishing buyer’s liability.”
In Baldia Town, the families of the victims are oblivious to these debates. The two-year-old tragedy has become so central to their lives that nothing else seems to matter. “One road [from my home] will take you past Ali Enterprises while the other will take you past the graveyard. There is no escape,” said Jabbir. “The only change that has taken place is that our houses are much quieter now.”
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.
This article was published in the Herald November 2014 issue. Click here to subscribe to the Herald.