Ali Enterprises Garment Factory Fire: Its Aftermath and Questions

AMC Recommended

AMC reprints here two important analyses of the fire that occurred at Ali Enterprises garment factory in Pakistan on September 11, 2012, which killed 289 persons. 

The first article is from Al Jazeera, and the second article is from The Nation. Both of these important articles deal with the layered and complex issues that surround CSR Audits and Safety Inspections. These are important documents for the industry to study, and learn from. 

The fire that erupted in the Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi, Pakistan, killed 289 garment workers.

The fire that erupted in the Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi, Pakistan, killed 289 garment workers.

Seeking justice for deadly Pakistan factory blaze

SEPTEMBER 11, 2015  By Tansy Hoskins

When the fire broke out at the Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi, Pakistan, there was no way for workers to escape the flames - no firefighting equipment, no safety procedures in place, and steel bars blocked windows.

 

Workers who managed to breakthrough the bars had no fire escapes to climb onto, forcing many to leap to the concrete three or four storeys below.

This was not an informal sweatshop in the back lanes of Karachi, but a large-scale factory with more than 1,500 employees in the heart of the Sindh Industrial and Trading Estate (SITE), one of Pakistan's largest industrial areas.

A commission set up by the Sindh High Court said fire - Pakistan's worst industrial incident - killed 289 garment workers and seriously injured 55 more. In the three years since the fire, the victims have encountered delays in their quest for compensation, and now there are reports that the factory owners have fled Pakistan.

Fourteen-years ago, newly married Shahida Parveen moved to Pakistan's largest city Karachi from Punjab with her husband, Muhammad Akmal. They rented a home in Baldia Town, and Akmal found work at Ali Enterprises. 

Over the next 11 years, he worked his way up the factory to become a supervisor. On September 11, 2012, Akmal took the bus to the factory, leaving his wife to care for their three sons, including their newborn baby Ahmed. 

The body of Akmal, who died that day in the Ali Enterprises fire, was never recovered. Parveen told Al Jazeera she hopes one day DNA testing will return her husband's remains to her. 

Akmal earned between $192-$278 a month, but Parveen now receives a pension of only $48 a month. To support her three children, she has had to borrow heavily - a situation, she said, is common for families of the fire victims.

"It is the duty of KiK to give long-term compensation because my husband was working in the factory for the last 11 years [of his life]," said Parveen. She has started a petition against the German company asking for proper compensation. 

"My little son always asks: 'Mama, when will Baba come back? Make a call, I want to talk to him.' They must ensure that this sort of incident must not happen in the future, because I don't want anyone else to suffer in the way me and my children are suffering," Parveen said.

Karamat Ali, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), has been working to secure long-term compensation from KiK, a company with net sales that amounted to $1.68bn in 2014.

Ali described how in the aftermath of the fire, KiK paid $1m in short-term compensation and signed an agreement to enter into negotiations with PILER for long-term compensation and support measures to avoid future tragedies. 

"KiK entered into preliminary negotiations and then they backed out," explained Ali. "They said 'We do not have responsibility for long-term compensation.'"

A spokesperson from corporate communications at KiK confirmed to Al Jazeera the payment of $1m, but added, "KiK disclaims any responsibility for the outbreak of the fire and, therefore, rejects the claims for long-term compensation."

It is a stalemate that is worrying campaigners.

"We're really concerned that KiK is engaging in stalling tactics and biding their time until no one cares any more," stated Ilona Kelly, the workers' safety campaign coordinator at the NGO Clean Clothes Campaign. 

"The whole reason KiK is a multimillion-dollar company is based on the labour of these individuals who died making their jeans, so why wouldn't they be responsible?" she said.

Thousands gathered to offer funeral prayers for the victims of the September 12, 2012 fire [Rehan Khan/EPA]

Ben Vanpeperstraete, the supply chain coordinator at global trade union IndustriALL, said compensation needs to be finalised.

"KiK needs to be compelled in one way or another," said Vanpeperstraete. "Either through public pressure, moral pressure, or legal pressure to sit around the table and negotiate in good faith a remedy that is acceptable to the victims."

But KiK defends its record, stating the company has "fulfilled its due diligence requirements with regard to Ali Enterprises".

"Several independent and unannounced audits between 2007 and 2012 have not given us any reason to believe that production conditions at Ali Enterprise were unsafe or risky," KiK stated.

Retailers seek to protect themselves by using private social auditing companies to inspect factories. 

Just weeks before the fire, the RINA Group, an Italian auditing company subcontracted to Social Accountability International (SAI), issued Ali Enterprises a prestigious SA8000 certificate and declared the factory safe.

Parveen said her husband never received any health and safety training at Ali Enterprises, even when a small fire occurred just six months before the fatal blaze.

"He came home late and said there was a fire in the factory, and his supervisor had asked him to shift equipment and clothes to the safe side. His hands were a little bit burned, but he said he managed to control the fire," Parveen said.

Families of victims say they still haven't received fair compensation [Fareed Khan/AP]

Fleeing the scene

In the aftermath of the fire, the owners of Ali Enterprises were arrested and subsequently freed on bail. 

Media in Pakistan now report that Abdul Aziz Bhaila and his two sons, Arshad andShahid, have fled Pakistan and are now residing in London.

It is alleged that a high-level investigative team flew from Pakistan to London to interview the Bhailas in early September as part of an investigation into whether the fire was an act of outside sabotage.

"How come these people, who were indicted for being responsible for more than 254 deaths, can be allowed to leave the country and live in London?" asked Ali. 

"Regardless of how the fire takes place, if you have not left any room for the workers to evacuate themselves, you don't have emergency exits, and you close the only door that was open and you lock it from outside because you think the workers will steal the finished products - it is irrelevant how the fire started because the workers would have gotten killed in any place."

The Pakistan High Commission in London stated it had no information about the Bhaila family or Pakistani investigators.

Al Jazeera

The fire's aftermath.

The fire's aftermath.

The Link Between USC and Garment Worker Factory Fires

Student activists are pointing out that one of USC's apparel monitors failed to address fire safety hazards that led to 289 deaths in Pakistan.

DECEMBER 19, 2012  By Maria Rodriguez and Sarah Newell  

The human toll of sweatshop abuse has proved severe in recent months. The Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh in late November claimed the lives of 112 workers, and two months prior, a factory fire at Ali Enterprises in Pakistan killed 289 workers, laboring overtime to meet deadlines for the holiday shopping season. Ali Enterprises’ death toll doubled that of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. Since 2006, more than 600 Bangladeshi garment workers have burned alive in factory fires while sewing clothes for companies like Gap, H&M, and Walmart.

After the Tazreen fire, members of the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation, an affiliate of United Students Against Sweatshops at the University of Southern California, held a vigil commemorating the workers who perished in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Students lit candles, read worker testimonies, and called on their university to take action against sweatshops by affiliating with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent organization that monitors factories producing university apparel. The students’ appeal responded to recent revelations that one of USC’s four apparel monitors failed to address the fire safety hazards that led to the blazes at both Ali Enterprises and Tazreen, and the death of the hundreds of garment workers trapped inside.

When Sweatshops Became Deathtraps

The problems underlying the proliferation of factory fires in the garment industry are twofold. First, fire safety costs money, and most brands are unwilling to foot the bill. The WRC estimates that it would cost companies like Walmart less than 10 cents per garment to make their contract factories in Bangladesh safe. Yet, in a 2011 meeting of retailers in Bangladesh, Walmart opposed safety improvement proposals, suggesting that because “corrections on electrical and fire safety” would require “extensive and costly modifications…it is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.”

Second, corporate-funded apparel monitors have failed at their stated mission to protect workers. For instance, just over two months prior to the factory fire in Bangladesh, multiple investigations were conducted at Ali Enterprises in Pakistan by corporate-funded monitors. One of those monitors, acting on behalf of Social Accountability International, awarded Ali Enterprises with SA-8000 certification, giving the factory a clean bill of health just weeks before 289 workers were unable to escape because doors were locked, windows were barred with iron grills, and fire exits were nonexistent.

USC’s Links to Corporate Monitors

USC contracts with four corporate apparel monitors for the production of its apparel. One of these monitors, UL Responsible Sourcing, was tasked by KiK, a German brand, to make sure Ali Enterprises in Pakistan was protecting worker safety. Despite conducting three audits of Ali Enterprises, UL Responsible Sourcing failed to detect and fix fire safety hazards at Ali Enterprises, resulting in the death of almost one-fifth of the factory workforce.

UL Responsible Sourcing also inspected the Trazeen factory prior to the fire on behalf of Walmart, however this was discovered only recently after a cover sheet from the monitor was found inside the factory. UL Responsible Sourcing refuses to release the contents of its audits despite calls from labor groups to do so. Worse of all, even if UL Responsible Sourcing found fire safety violations in the factories, built-in confidentiality clauses prevent its audits from being made public — meaning that workers can go for months in factories that are vertiable death traps without even knowing it.

Accordia Global Compliance Group, another USC-approved monitor, is responsible for a large number of Walmart’s supply chain audits. According to Walmart, Accordia found no problems at CJ’s Seafood – the Walmart crawfish packer in Louisiana that was fined, shortly thereafter, a quarter of a million by the US government for numerous labor rights violations. Five of the Tazreen factory’s 14 production lines were dedicated to Walmart apparel before the fire decimated the premises. However, because of the lack of transparency within the shadowy world of corporate monitoring, we don't know if Accordia also conducted an audit of the Trazeen factory.

USC’s apparel program is one of the largest in the world, and, like other universities, USC has multimillion-dollar contracts that it can leverage to force brands to be accountable to their workers. However, when USC contracts with corporate monitors like UL Responsible Sourcing, it props up a broken model that has cost the lives of hundreds of workers.

The Potential of Independent Monitoring and Brand Accountability

But there is an alternative. Over the last two years, the WRC has joined with USAS and the International Labor Rights Forum to press brands to sign comprehensive fire safety agreements, requiring worker and union input, transparency, fair prices to factories, and legally binding commitments to protect workers. PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger, and Tchibo, a German retailer, have already agreed to sign on to this life-saving fire safety program, while other brands like Gap and Walmart have refused any legally-binding commitments to workers.

Beyond this initiative, the WRC’s investigations have led to groundbreaking victories for workers rights. In 2009, Russell Athletic agreed to re-open a shuttered union factory and implement union neutrality throughout its plants in Honduras following a WRC investigation and a campaign led by USAS. Most recently, four universities have committed to end contracts with Adidas following the WRC’s finding that Adidas refused to pay $1.8 million in legally owed severance to its 2,800 former PT Kizone workers in Indonesia.

Ongoing Struggle at USC

Just this summer, the University of Texas—the largest university apparel licensor in the world—joined the ranks of the 180 universities who have affiliated with the WRC. Students at USC have fought for over a decade to persuade their university to align with the independent monitor, but to date, USC has refused.

In response to the Pakistan factory fire, Matt Curran, USC director of trademark licensing and social responsibility, noted that UL Responsible Sourcing did a one-day compliance assessment of the factory for KiK and that the assessment took place nine months before the fire occured and was the only time UL Responsible Sourcing audited the factory. Curran also pointed out that “the factory does not produce any USC products.” However, a representative of KiK, the brand that contracted UL Responsible Sourcing at Ali Enterprises, subsequently stateed in an email that there were actually three independent audits done. And in any case, the fact remains that UL Responsible Sourcing was hired to monitor both Ali Enterprises and Tarzeen, and it failed to prevent 401 workers from burning to death. By supporting corporate-funded monitors like UL Responsible Sourcing, USC is perpetuating a system that threatens the lives of workers everywhere, including workers in factories producing USC apparel.  

The Nation