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Pakistan Labor Groups Want an Accord for Fire and Building Safety, Too

Bangladesh isn’t the only country in need of a legally binding agreement to bolster workplace conditions in the garment industry.

Labor groups in Pakistan are urging brands and retailers to support a Pakistan Accord on Fire and Building Safety, much like the one its neighbor to the east established in the wake of the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, which killed 1,134 garment workers and injured thousands more just outside the capital of Dhaka.

Though the unprecedented rallying of support around the Bangladesh agreement befitted the catastrophic scale of the disaster, Pakistan is no stranger to industrial accidents, either.  

Indeed, the joint call led by Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research, the National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan and the Labour Education Foundation (LEF) arrives just one month after union groups commemorated the sixth anniversary of the Ali Enterprises fire, which caused the deaths of nearly 300 textile workers in Baldia Town, a northwestern industrial suburb, in 2012. Officials at that time called the building a “death trap,” with windows that were mostly barred and every exit save one locked.

Eyewitnesses recounted several workers leaping from the top floors of the four-story building in desperation, suffering broken bones or worse. Most of the victims, rescue workers said, died from smoke inhalation and many of the survivors sustained third-degree burns.

The fire, which began after flames from a boiler explosion ignited chemicals and stacks of cloth that were stored in the facility, occurred just hours after a shoe factory fire in the eastern city of Lahore claimed 25 lives. The International Labour Organization appealed for national action to prevent future disasters, asserting that the protection of workers’ safety and health is a “fundamental human right.”

Ali Enterprises didn’t hold up long to global scrutiny, however. Six months later, Rana Plaza happened, eclipsing all previous accidents in terms of magnitude—and media coverage. But Pakistan didn’t forget.

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“Since the date of the tragedy we, Pakistani unions and labor groups, together with our international allies, have been working towards fixing responsibly to all parties: brands, government, suppliers and auditing companies,” the LEF wrote in a post on Facebook. “Our first priority was to ensure that the victims and their families received financial compensation for their loss, as per international standards. While this objective has now been achieved, the safety crisis, however, remains. We continue to work together to ensure that no such tragedy happens again.”

Self-governance by businesses doesn’t work, it noted: Ali Enterprises had been audited before the disaster but “under a failed confidential, voluntary auditing model lacking union participation.”

At a meeting in September, union and labor organizers observed the myriad similarities between the dearth of workplace regulations in pre-Accord Bangladesh and the poorly implemented fire and building safety standards in current-day Pakistan.

Since 2013, the Bangladesh Accord has helped eliminate more than 97,000 identified hazards, including structural defects, compromised fire exits and inadequate alarms, according to the Center for Global Workers’ Rights at Penn State University. At present, 142 facilities have completed all remediation measures from initial inspections, and another 767 factories have completed more than 90 percent of safety efforts.

Pakistan wants to see similar improvements take place in the industrial zones of Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad, where “many factories are at risk of fire and other building safety challenges and workers do not have a safe escape route during a fire,” the meeting’s participants wrote in a statement. A number of these facilities, they added, supply to major international brands and retailers.

Union workers say they’ve reached “mutual agreement” that there should be an Accord for Pakistan, “along the lines of the Bangladesh Accord” but with a few additional elements, including equal or majority participation from local and global unions in program governance, protections for workers’ right to refuse dangerous work and the creation of a worker-complaint mechanism that investigates all complaints with option of judicial review.

Now brands and retailers just need to buy into the idea.

“We agree to develop a proposal for the details for a Pakistan Accord that can be the basis for negotiation as a next step,” the participants said.