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Seven years after deadly fire, not much has changed in Pakistan's garment industry

By Simone Preuss


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Business |REPORT

While the garment industry worldwide is by now well aware of what transpired on 24th April 2013 when the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 workers in the five garment factories it housed and injuring 2,500, few are aware of Pakistan’s worst industrial disaster that occurred just a few months before: On 11th September 2012, a fire broke out at Ali Enterprises, a garment exporter that manufactured jeans, knitted garments and hosiery for buyers in Europe and North America and employed up to 1,500 workers at times.

When the fire broke out, between 300 and 400 employees were working inside. The fire ignited chemicals kept in the factory and spread fast; too fast for the 289 workers who could not make it out and died of either smoke inhalation, burns sustained or the ensuing stampede as all the exit doors were locked and many windows barred by iron grills. Seven years on, sadly, not much has changed as the report “Pakistan’s Garment Workers Need a Safety Accord” recently published by the Clean Clothes Campaign and other stakeholders found out.

Hundreds of lives have been lost in recent years

“The total lack of adequate safety monitoring in the Pakistan garment industry has cost hundreds of lives over recent years. Even measures that could be put into place immediately, such as ensuring workers are never locked inside factories and removing stored product away from emergency exits, could have made a difference, saving hundreds of lives in the Ali Enterprises fire and the many fires since,” said Zulfiqar Shah, joint director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, in a press release published on Wednesday.

“There is no dignity of workers. We have to face insults everyday. They call us names and shut the gate on our face. Two days back, a few of us were shut out because we had complained against the attitude of the management… There are no fire alarms or safety systems. We are not provided any gloves or masks… A worker lost his leg during a workplace accident. He was given no compensation,” said a 21-year-old woman who is a packer according to the report.

No worker representation in Pakistan

The report highlights that although multiple initiatives aimed at addressing workplace safety have been initiated in Pakistan since 2012, all of them have limited transparency and none are enforceable. Most importantly, none of them have been developed with the participation of unions or other labour rights groups in Pakistan. “Worker representation is missing not only in their design, but also in their implementation and governance,” states the Clean Clothes Campaign.

“The biggest hurdle in unionization is that they expel workers seeking to organize. Even if they see two people talking to each other, they expel them from work,” says a 40-year-old woman who works as a clipper in one of Pakistan’s 300,000 textile and garment factories. The textile and garment industry is the largest manufacturing industry in Pakistan , employing about 45 percent of the labour force, which is one of the largest in the world. It accounts for 70 percent of the country’s exports and 8.5 percent to the GDP.

No large-scale involvement of international stakeholders

While efforts in Bangladesh have become a model for nascent garment industries elsewhere, almost-neighbour Pakistan seems to have missed the boat when it comes to the involvement of the international community. “Pakistan’s garment factories continue to be deathtraps. Seven years after this horrible fire, it is high time for companies whose clothes and home textiles are made in Pakistan to start taking safety for workers seriously. All stakeholders in Pakistan’s textile and garment industry, locally and internationally, must take responsibility to ensure safety for these workers, putting the people who make their products at the centre of their safety efforts,” urges Nasir Mansoor, president of the Pakistani National Trade Union Federation.

Instead, brands and retailers have continued to use the same corporate auditing schemes that have failed to meaningfully improve the industry or prevent mass casualties in the past - even Ali Enterprises successfully cleared an internationally recognised safety test just weeks before the fire. “Pakistan’s government inspectorates remain understaffed, underfunded and unable to meaningfully cover a growing industry. In the meantime, workers continue to risk their lives in unsafe factories and mills every day,” finds the report. [Ed. note: There are currently 547 labour inspectors for roughly 300,000 factories according to Le Monde.]

Legally binding agreement is need of the hour in Pakistan

The solution seems straight-forward: Do what was done in Bangladesh and form a legally-binding agreement between apparel brands and local and global unions and labour rights groups to make workplaces safe in Pakistan as well. “Such an agreement must draw upon lessons from the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which amounts to putting transparency, enforcement, commercial obligations, and worker participation at the centre of the programme,” advises the report.

“We have seen in Bangladesh, where two safety initiatives emerged at the same time, that worker-involvement, transparency and a binding nature are vital to creating a successful safety programme. While the corporate-controlled Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety never involved independent worker-representative groups in its design, development or governance and refused to require legally-binding commitments from companies, the Accord set a ground-breaking new standard for a transformative transparent, enforceable, and effective inspection and remediation system. Any safety programme in Pakistan must learn from and build upon those lessons,” agrees Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign.

Agreement should cover all factories, export and non-export oriented

The report also recommends that Pakistan’s national and provincial governments take a series of steps to enhance compliance in garment and textile factories that would not be covered by the foreseen labour-brand accord, namely those not producing for the international market. Unfortunately, current developments seem to be going in the opposite direction with the government of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, deciding this month to ban factory inspections.

“The Punjab government has justified this measure saying it would be good for business and employment. Can industry in Pakistan really only develop by violating workers’ rights and increasing the risk of factory incidents? We condemn this decision and demand the Punjab government to lift the ban on factory inspections and invest in its labour department instead,” demands Khalid Mahmood, director of the Labour Education Foundation in Pakistan.

Self-monitoring is not enough

Lastly, the report states that governments in countries that headquarter major garment brands and retailers can and must end unaccountable self-monitoring by major actors in the garment industry by putting in place mandatory human rights due diligence legislation, thus enforcing supply chain accountability. To make a real difference in the field of worker safety, social auditing firms must furthermore be held liable for faulty audits that may cost lives.

The full report “Pakistan’s Garment Workers Need a Safety Accord” by the Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights Forum, Labour Education Foundation, National Trade Union Federation, and Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research is available online at www.laborrights.org/pakistansafety.

Photo source: “Pakistan’s Garment Workers Need a Safety Accord”

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