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Pakistan's Fire Tragedy

November 14, 2012

The death of more than 300 garment workers in a September 11 factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan has exposed the total failure of the provincial Ministry of Labour, the major buyer sourcing from the factory, and a US-based multi-stakeholder initiative to ensure respect for the country’s health and safety laws.

Preliminary reports suggest that the owners of the Ali Enterprises, some of whom have since been arrested, were guilty of criminal negligence. Blocked staircases, locked doors and the lack of emergency exits prevented workers from escaping the burning building. As a result, many died of smoke inhalation; others suffered serious injuries when they jumped from upper-story windows.

Failure of international buyers

Equally responsible for the tragedy was the German discount chain, KiK (Customer is King in German), whose jeans were made at the factory. Although the company claims that extensive auditing has been done at the factory since 2006, newspaper reports suggest that numerous health and safety hazards, including unsafe electrical systems and poorly lit emergency exits were well known, yet KiK appears to have done little or nothing to eliminate these hazards.

To date, KiK has offered to pay US$500,000 in compensation to some of the victims’ families. According the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), a contribution of at least $26 million will be needed to fully compensate all the families of the dead workers.

The lack of employment contracts and the failure of the employer to register workers with the Social Security Insti­tute or other government programs are making it more difficult, however, to identify all of the victims. Only 190 of the factory’s 1,500 workers were legally registered with the country’s social security system.

Failure of auditing organizations

In light of these violations, the fact that the factory was certified in August 2012 by Social Accountability International (SAI) as meeting international labour standards has also raised serious questions about the effectiveness of SAI’s monitoring and certification program.

Although the SAI-accredited European auditing organization that granted the factory its SA8000 certification has reportedly suspended it SA8000 certification activities in Pakistan, SAI has refused to release the audit reports or a list of the companies sourcing from the factory, citing confidentiality agreements.

MSN is joining with other international and Pakistani labour rights and trade union organizations in calling on KiK and other buyers to ensure that the victims of the fire and their families are fully compensated, that workers who survived the fire are paid their wages during the time of the closure, and that credible measures are taken to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

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