By USMAN KHAN YUSUFZAI
On the evening of Sept. 11, a massive fire engulfed the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Karachi, killing at least 258 workers in the worst industrial accident in Pakistan’s history. All but one exit to the factory and all the windows were locked, trapping many workers inside. Several hours earlier, in Lahore, a shoe factory burned down, killing 25 workers.
Preliminary reports indicate that both the fires may have been caused by faulty electrical wiring; in the case of the Karachi fire, sparks from wiring may have caused a boiler to explode, igniting the blaze, although investigation results are largely inconclusive. The factory owners, Abdul Aziz Bhaila and his son Arshad Bhaila, were arrested in Larkana and charged with murder. The Sindh High Court granted them interim bail until Oct. 6.
Ali Enterprises produces garments, especially jeans and hosiery, for export to Europe and the United States. According to Pakistan’s National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), most of the workers at the factory were not registered for any of the government’s social insurance programs, which provide pensions, income support, and representation in labor disputes.
The factory was not registered with the Labour Department, which would typically provide for regular safety inspections. Industrial labor in Pakistan is governed by the Factory Act of 1934, passed under the British colonial government before the partition of India.
The fires highlight the appalling conditions faced by workers in the developing world, especially in industries that provide low-cost manufactured goods to Western distributors. As the profitability of production in developed countries continues its terminal decline, capitalists look to the labor forces of poorer countries, where workers can be paid far less and without labor protections that get in the way of the extraction of surplus and the pursuit of profit.
The result is a race to the bottom, in which smaller capitalists in the developing world compete with each other to provide export goods at the lowest possible cost, resulting in the extensive used of child labor, unpaid overtime, industrial accidents, and the ruined lives of countless millions of workers. The Pakistani garment industry is notorious for the use of child labor and the locking of workers in factories during the working day.
Several weeks earlier, the factory was given an SA8000 certification by Social Accountability International (SAI), indicating that it had “met international standards in nine areas, including health and safety, child labor, and minimum wage.” SAI provides monitoring services for labor conditions at low-cost suppliers in the developing world; it is primarily funded by corporate backers, which is a clear indicator that the organization is merely an arm of the capitalist class, rather than one that fights for workers’ protection.
In response to the fires, the Labour Party of Pakistan and the NTUF called for a general strike on Sept. 15. They were joined by several groups associated with Sindh nationalist parties who were already planning actions in response to a local government ordinance, leading to violent clashes with the police in Hyderabad and Thar. In addition, the National Students Federation organized an occupation of Baldia Town, the district in which the factory was located, which began on Sept. 29.
Photo: Rizwan Tabassum / AFP / Getty Images