Four firefighters died and more than a dozen were injured after a massive fire ripped through a garment factory in the Pakistani city of Karachi, eventually causing it to collapse, police and fire officials said Thursday.
The conflagration, which began Wednesday morning, appears to have started after sparks from a short circuit ignited clothing that was being stored on the premises, local media reported, though an investigation is underway. Central District Deputy Commissioner Taha Saleem told Dawn.com that firefighters struggled with dousing the flames because the building was in a “highly congested locality” with narrow streets. The blaze was nearly quenched on Thursday morning when the four-story building came crashing down. Four firefighters were immediately pulled out, while another 13 were taken to nearby hospitals to treat their injuries. Rescuers later recovered four bodies from beneath the rubble.
“It was immediately realized that four firemen were missing and they started searching but unfortunately, they have expired,” Saleem said. He said that the factory’s structure had probably been weakened by the heat and could no longer bear the weight of the accumulated water, clothes and machinery. A team from the Sindh Building Control Authority will be conducting a survey of the area before disassembling the wreckage with heavy machinery, he added.
“This is a continuous pattern in factories across Pakistan that fires erupt due to different reasons,” Khalid Mahmood, director of the Labour Education Foundation, a workers’ rights group based in Lahore, told Sourcing Journal. “Pakistan needs better implementation of safety and labor laws.”
The fire comes just months after the expansion of the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Garment Industry to Pakistan. As of February, 35 brands and retailers have signed the binding agreement, including Bestseller, C&A, H&M Group, Tommy Hilfiger parent PVH Corp. and Zara owner Inditex. Much like the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh that preceded it, the Pakistan Accord will support the inspection, remediation and monitoring of fire, electrical, structural and boiler hazards at hundreds of factories and mills. The goal is to raise safety standards in the country’s garment and textile industry so that disasters such as the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in neighboring Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,110 workers, and Karachi’s own 2012 Ali Enterprises fire, which claimed the lives of more than 250, will become things of the past.
“We are saddened by the tragic loss of life from a fire at a garment factory in Karachi,” an International Accord spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “This fire demonstrates the urgent need to ensure that factory buildings are made safe. While the cause of this fire is yet to be determined, the Accord signatories are committed to the goal of a safe and sustainable Pakistani garment and textile industry in which no worker needs to fear fires, building collapses or other accidents that could be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures.”
The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), the garment industry’s largest consortium of trade unions and labor organizations, said it has pegged the location, previously known as Sohail Weaving, as belonging to Usman & Sons, though the factory doesn’t show up on the textile manufacturer’s website. Neither Sohail Weaving nor Usman & Sons responded to requests for comment.
Activists combing the site said they found packaging material and merchandise for French supermarket retailer Auchan, as well as labels from homewares company Dunnes Home and hotel chain Hampton by Hilton. None of them have signed the Pakistan Accord. Auchan, one of the brands that produced goods at Rana Plaza and “should therefore be very aware of the importance of factory safety,” added its name to the 2013 and 2018 Accord agreements but not the 2021 International Accord, the CCC said. None of the companies replied to e-mails seeking a response.
Brands known to source from Usman & Sons, the CCC added, include German discount chain Aldi South and U.S. retailer Exist.
“Aldi South would be well advised to make haste to inspect all of its 50-plus apparel suppliers in Pakistan under the auspices of the Accord and in accordance with Accord safety standards to prevent further deadly incidents,” said the organization, a witness signatory of the Accord in all its iterations. “Exist has not signed the Pakistan Accord and should do so immediately.”
A spokesperson from Aldi South told Sourcing Journal that it’s horrified by news of the fire but that it hasn’t worked with Usman & Sons since last June. The retailer has also never conducted business at the site where the fire happened, which it identified as Usman & Sons Unit 2.
“As one of the first signatories of both the International (former Bangladesh Accord) and Pakistan Accords, the Aldi South Group takes the topic of fire and building safety very seriously,” the representative said. “We are in close contact with the International Accord Secretariat and our business partners to investigate the matter further.”
Exist, which is based in Fort Lauderdale in Florida, did not return voicemails left with one of its executives.
“This fire must be a wake-up call for all stakeholders, including all brands sourcing from Pakistan, the Pakistan employers, and the Pakistan government and governments of the countries where linked brands are headquartered, that there’s no room for complacency after the Pakistan Accord has been signed,” said Ineke Zeldenrust, the CCC’s international coordinator. “Work needs to start immediately to make factories safe.”
All brands that sourced from the factory, she added, should ensure “full and fair” compensation for the injured firefighters and the families of the dead.
“These deaths are horrifying, and there will be others because factories across Pakistan fail to meet basic fire safety standards,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, told Sourcing Journal. “ It is essential that brands sourcing from the country sign the Pakistan Safety Accord and that the program ramp up as fast as possible.”
Mahmood added greater freedom of association for workers would also keep them safer. He said that enforcement of labor laws has been deteriorating in Pakistan and that corruption, cronyism and the ruling classes’ “feudalistic” attitude are making it difficult for workers’ representatives to function effectively.
“It is very important that workers get freedom for voicing their concerns over safety issues in factories,” he said. “Safety committees should be allowed to be formed with free will and elections in the factories.”
In a statement, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif described the late firefighters as “martyrs” who died while trying to save the lives of others. After offering his condolences to the families of the victims, he told authorities to prepare a strategy to prevent similar incidents from happening.