Seven years after a deadly fire ripped through Ali Enterprises in Pakistan, killing 254 garment workers and injuring 50, garment factories in the South Asian nation are no safer today than they were in 2012, a new report by several labor-rights groups warns.
“The total lack of adequate safety monitoring in the Pakistan garment industry has cost hundreds of lives over recent years,” said Zulfiqar Shah, joint director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, which co-authored “Pakistan’s Garment Workers Need a Safety Accord” with the Clean Clothes Campaign, the International Labor Rights Forum, the Labour Education Foundation and the National Trade Union Federation.
Most of Ali Enterprises’ victims were caught in a “death trap” of locked exit doors and barred windows, Pakistani investigators said at the time.
“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,” Shah said in a statement.
Although multiple initiatives have attempted to tackle workplace safety in Pakistan since the disaster, all of them have limited transparency and are unenforceable, the report said. More important, none have been developed with the input of unions or other grassroots labor-rights groups, which means that worker representation is missing “not only in their design” but also in their execution and governance. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s government inspectorates remain understaffed, underfunded and unable to “meaningfully cover a growing industry.”
“Pakistan’s garment factories continue to be death traps. 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,” said Nasir Mansoor, president of the Pakistani National Trade Union Federation. “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.
Instead of focusing on corporate auditing efforts that have largely flatlined, brands and retailers sourcing from Pakistan should back its labor movement’s calls for a legally binding agreement—similar to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh—to improve workplace conditions with transparency, enforcement, commercial obligations and worker participation at its core, the report urged.
“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 program,” said Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, referring to both the European-led Accord and its American-spearheaded counterpart, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Though similar at first blush, the two initiatives bore several crucial differences, accountability being one of them.
“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 groundbreaking new standard for a transformative transparent, enforceable and effective inspection and remediation system,” Zeldenrust said. “Any safety program in Pakistan must learn from and build upon those lessons.”
Pakistan’s national and provincial governments, too, must take a leadership role to ensure compliance in factories not covered under any Pakistani accord.
“In addition to action by apparel companies sourcing from Pakistan, it is important that national and provincial governments increase capacity, coverage and effectiveness in order to make sure that all garment factories and textile facilities in Pakistan become safer, not only those producing for the international market,” said Khalid Mahmood, director of the Labour Education Foundation in Pakistan.
Mahmood condemned the Punjab government’s recent decision to ban factory inspections, a move that he described as “illegal, unconstitutional and extremely dangerous for workers.”
“The Punjab government has justified this measure saying it would be good for business and employment,” he said. “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 labor department instead.”