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Unsafe garment industry needs trade unions

12 September, 201411 September marked the second anniversary of the deadly fire at a factory owned by Ali Enterprises in Karachi. The fire was one of the worst industrial accidents in Pakistan; 259 workers died, many were seriously injured and 1,500 were left with no employment.

The factory was a disaster waiting to happen. Ali Enterprises was not registered under Pakistan’s factory Act; the building structure was not legally approved by the Building authority; the majority of the workers did not have appointment letters; all worked under an illegal third party contact system with working hours ranging from ten to 14 hours a day without overtime; the majority of workers were not registered with the Social Security Institute and Old Age Benefits Institute which is mandatory. And as there was no trade union, there was no right to collective bargaining.

In an ironic twist of events, the factory had received a clean sheet from an international social auditing company merely two weeks before the inferno broke out, certifying that all was according to standard.

The fire turned the factory into a death trap. More than 600 workers were trapped inside the factory which had no functional fire extinguishing system, all windows were closed and covered with iron rods and all exit door were forcibly locked preventing the workers to escape before all merchandise was recovered from the fire.

After spending five months in jail, the owners of Ali Enterprises were released on bail.

Few unions in the garment industry

The garment industry accounts for 65 per cent of Pakistan’s economy. 60 per cent of the country’s total workforce in the garment sector with everything raw cotton to ready-made garments.

The deadly fire two years ago sparked a small-scale debate on work safety and working conditions, but it in a country with 60 million workers without basic labour rights the discussion soon died out.

Traditionally, factory owners and local administration have come down hard on attempts to form trade unions. As a consequence, less than two per cent of the garment workers are unionised.

IndustriALL Global Union affiliate National Trade Union Federation, Pakistan (NTUF) joined forces with other labour and human rights organizations to find those responsible for the tragedy.

A commission was established to find cause and responsibility of the fire. A report was submitted to the government with the findings, but even two years after the tragedy the government refuses to make it public.

Some families of deceased workers have received partial compensation, while many are still waiting for the compensation. Following pressure from international and domestic trade unions and labour organisations, the German brand Kik, who sourced from the factory, has committed to provide 1 million USD as initial compensation.
Nasir Mansoor, Deputy General Secretary of NTUF says:

“We achieved this thanks to a great show of global solidarity, but we still have a long way to go. In countries like Pakistan where injustice becomes law, workers have no choice than to start resistance.”

IndustriALL Assistant General Secretary Monika Kemperle says:

“Unsafe textile factories are not only found in Bangladesh. The problems are many and complicated in Pakistan and there is no Accord on Bulding and Fire Safety to set legally binding standards.”

Increasing union membership and achieving collective bargaining are important steps. We support the work of our affiliate to make the garment industry in Pakistan safe.