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


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.

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

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.

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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.

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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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