Monday, September 17, 2012

250 Lost Lives: The Cost of Western Designer Clothes.


In a world where death and mayhem have become the order of the day, some tragedies still leave us breathless. The fire in the Karachi garment factory, Ali Enterprises, is one of them. The most heartbreaking aspect of this horrific incident was that this could have been prevented had a handful of people placed the value of human life over the importance of making a buck.

Over 500 people worked to put food on the table for their families in that deathtrap of a factory, including a 27-year old pregnant woman and a ten year-old boy. All the exits were locked for fear of theft by the owners who apparently thought that blocking exits was a better strategy than enhancing their close-circuit TVs. The only way out was a door operated by an electronic lock which failed because of the fire.

In Pakistan, laws protecting labor do exist. Pakistan is also a member of the International Labour Organisation's labour inspection convention. By these guidelines, the government should not only be committed to safety but also to regular inspections and to informing the workers of their rights. The Pakistani Constitution has a legislation on health and safety in the Hazardous Occupation Rule 1963, under the 1934 Factories Act which, incidentally, has a section on fire safety, added in 1997. But what good are these laws if there is no implementation. In fact, in a mind boggling decision by Punjab, labor inspections were abolished by executive order. This was meant as a step towards "developing an industry and business-friendly environment" . Sindh, obviously deciding that this was a great positive step, quickly followed suit--perhaps with the encouragement of wealthy and powerful industrialists.

Where was the oversight?  The The federal government has passed on the enforcement of labor laws and safety regulations to the provincial government. But, in a stellar example of avoiding responsibility, immediately after the tragedy, the Sindh Labour Minister, Ameer Nawab, claimed that Sindh Chief Minister, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, had stopped him from taking action against factories violating labour rules. Sindh minister of Industry and Commerce, Rauf Siddiqui, however did give his resignation, showing that he, at least, has a conscience.

The owners were apprehended but granted bail for eight days. Let me refresh your memory: these people are directly responsible for the death of over 250 people and many more injured. How were they considered eligible for bail?  They on the other hand are playing the victim, pointing fingers at invisible extortionists and shadowy threats. Adding insult to injury, the brothers who owned the factory, claim that the reason they wanted bail was to have time to spend with the families of the victims. How blind are they to the grief that they have caused? Did they ever think that the families of the people whose death they have caused might not even want to share this earth with them?

We have come to be part of a society where human life has very little value in the eyes of the people who hold all the power. The common man has become a disposable asset, replaced at a moments notice by the hundreds of thousands of people in desperate need. Industrialists believe that the growth of their bank balance justifies all means and any rough patches can be smoothed with money--whether used to grease palms or to wipe away the tears of grieving families.

The onus of this tragedy falls on so many departments. If one officer in one department had stepped up, these lives would not have been lost. But why should we blame just the Pakistani government? Ali Enterprises, the factory that burned down, was producing clothes for a “western supplier”. Why is there no mention of who they were supplying for? No one has come forward because the responsibility falls on them too. But whoever the buyers are, they know that owning up to the fact that their clothes were being manufactured in a sweatshop will not bode well for them. Outraged patrons will boycott their product  and they will also have to investigate the working conditions in all their other facilities.

Most designers outsource to developing countries to escape pesky minimum wage laws of their own countries. Respectable enterprises like Disney and high-end designers like Ralph Lauren and DKNY have all been guilty of using human misery to their advantage. One would think that a small percentage on the revenue will go a long way in making the lives of these workers safe and strict oversight might even eliminate disasters like the one in Karachi--a disaster made more tragic by the fact that it could have been prevented.

The Problem Lies Not in Our Laws, But in Ourselves.,-but-in-ourselves/d/8469 

The blasphemy laws of the Pakistani Penal Code have been the subject of fierce debate and the justification to needless violence since these amendments, under the regime of Zia-ul-Haq. Pakistan was born in the name of Islam and by its constitution, the Islamic way of life is to be propagated and protected. Pakistan was also born out of the dire need for religious freedom of the muslims of the sub-continent. This message was displayed proudly on the flag, where a white band proudly streamed next to the green band, declaring to the world that while Pakistan was a Muslim state the rights of all minorities would be protected. The constitution of 1973 declared Pakistan to be an Islamic state and its Article 33  protected everyone  by stating: “ it is the country's duty to discourage parochial, racial, tribal, sectarian, and provincial prejudices among the citizens.”

The changes in Blasphemy laws  brought about from 1982 to 1986 span over several sections in the penal code of Pakistan. In essence it protects any public outrage by forbidding the defiling of the Qur’an, places of worship or sacred objects, defaming the prophet Muhammad (SAW), derogatory remarks against Muslim holy personages, etc. It also increased the punishments of the offences.

Since then the statistics of people accused of blasphemy have  sky rocketed. Out of the four thousand accused, 1000 have had cases registered against them. Half of the cases are against non-muslims who, incidentally make up only 3% of the population. Then comes the part which made the world sit up and take notice--the vigilantism! Twenty of the accused were killed extra-judicially, some while in police custody. Even the accused who were not convicted were subjected to violent persecution with the local religious leaders calling, at times, to burn them alive--without an investigation, without a trial. Does that sound like the workings of a country governed by laws?

Several politicians, lawmakers and minority leaders have tried to argue all sides of these laws. They have tried to call for amendments of the blasphemy laws, others have called to abolish them altogether. Some have died trying, all have failed. My dissatisfaction is not with the body of these laws, so I will not present a case for the amendment or the abolishment of these sections of the Penal Code. My problem is with the enforcement of these laws which makes Pakistan appear as a hard-lining, unjust, unfair  state where human rights mean nothing. Where all you need is a grudge and a cold-heart to point a finger at someone and shout “blasphemer” to bring about all kinds of hurt upon them--whether the accusations are founded in fact or vendetta.

The implementation of these laws is a farce. The latest case of 11-year-old Reshma is a testament to this. The details of this case have been plastered all over the media so I won’t repeat them here. She was dragged from her house, wrenched away crying from her mother, without as much as a thought to whether she was guilty or not or what her rights were as a citizen of Pakistan.  Was it a mistake by a child suffering from a birth defect or was it the conspiracy of a malicious neighbor? Since she was a non-muslim, was the sanctity of the Quran ever explained to her? And the most important question of all--did we plant a seed of hatred and fear against Islam in non-muslims by the way we handled this and other cases like it.

Every muslim, in this world of Islamophobia, is an ambassador of Islam and every non-muslim can potentially convert to Islam. Shakespeare wrote “In time we hate that which we often fear.” We can go blue in the face trying to convince the world that we are a religion of peace but how can we ever hope to convince anyone when are actions are so unforgiving and violent.  

It should not fall upon the civilians of a country to enforce the law. That is the most egregious form of failure of the system. The result is total chaos as the power falls into manic and fanatical hands. Who protects the weak, who stands between the wolves and 11 year-old frightened little girls? The sad part is that her only protection is not the law and the law-makers but her neighbors who are questioning the accusations and have made a big enough fuss that the police have had to put the accuser into protective custody.

The fact that we have a constitution and a penal code declares to the world that we are a country of laws. It says that we have rules and regulations that govern our behavior, that we have a justice system that decides who is right and who is wrong.  So, in an Islamic State, the problem may not lie in the law that protects the sanctity of the religion but in the actions of the law-keepers. All accusations should be followed with a comprehensive investigation. All investigations followed with a fair trial. Accusations of a rabid crowd should not be taken as a verdict, not in a benevolent Muslim country governed by the laws of the Qur’an.

What Does the White Band in Our Flag Mean?

Being a minority of any persuasion is a trying time in a persons life. Since childhood our instinct is to blend in, to be part of a larger whole. We don't  want to be isolated by what makes us different, rather everyone wants to be included and accepted by what makes us similar. But still, as society dictates, some among us are unique--unique enough to warrant a classification of their own by virtue of beliefs, status or disabilities. These groups are the most vulnerable in any society simply because of statistics--they are in a minority. And in a progressive and humane world all vulnerabilities demand protection.

As elementary school children we were taught that the Pakistani flag is symbolic. The green represents the Muslim majority and the white represents the minority faiths. The crescent and the five rayed star represent progress, light and knowledge. Since  Pakistan was wrested away from a formidable power against monumental odds to protect the rights of the then Indian religious minority, the muslims, one would think that all minorities in Pakistan would be protected...especially if we specifically have a white band in our flag to remind us of our fight, our promise and obligation. Especially that!

While Islam is the state religion, article 33 of the Constitution of Pakistan declares that ‘the state shall discourage parochial, racial, tribal, sectarian and provincial prejudices among the citizens.’  Amendments made to the Pakistan Penal Code in 1986 during the Zia regime and the “Islamization” of the country strengthened the blasphemy laws and suddenly the 3% of the Pakistani population who were not Muslims--but still law-abiding Pakistani citizens--found themselves in dire straits. Since then around 4000 cases have been reported and around 1000 of them have been registered. The amazing statistic is that half of these cases are against non-muslims who make up only three percent of the population. According to Rizwan Paul, Executive Director of LFA ( Life For All),  “around 80 per cent of all these cases have been registered in only eight districts of central Punjab -- Lahore, Faisalabad, Toba Tek Singh, Gujranwala, Sheikhupura, Sialkot, Gujrat and Kasur”. This is not where it ends.  Around 30 of the accused were horrifically killed by crazed, puritanical mobs, some even while in police custody.

I am not trying to contest or even debate the blasphemy laws. My gripe is with the implementation and blatant abuse of these laws by misguided people with no knowledge, no authority and, most of all, no compassion in their hearts. People should not be living in fear of laws that are meant as protection and as a deterrent to exploitations. The common concept is that anyone, at any time can point a finger and yell “blasphemer” and the witch hunt begins. Some instances rivalling those in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 1600 where all you needed to burn someone at the stake was an accuser. Neighbors live in fear of neighbors. Accusations are often related to personal grievances, no evidence or witnesses are needed, all you need is a grudge and a cold heart.

But what of the fear of Allah? What about the consequences of bearing false witness? I hope these accusers have their fact sheets in order on the Day of Judgement when we all will have to explain our actions--those who caused such tragedies and those who stood by. And even if one person is accused wrongly and even if one person bore false witness, there will be consequences. Contrary to popular belief, we are all Allah’s creatures regardless of our caste, creed or religion!

Then we hear of  an 11 year old sufferer of Down Syndrome thrown in jail for an act that she may or may not have committed and, if she did commit the act, may not be aware of the gravity and implications of it. We learn that a young doctor  was accused because he tossed aside a card with the name of a medical representative on it and we wonder who protects them? Allah has promised that he will protect the Quran yet we take it upon ourselves to do the job and let misguided fervor throw us back into the middle-ages. On the other hand, we totally ignored the task that Allah has charged us protect those who cannot protect themselves. I hope that as a society we will have a comprehensive answer for that interrogation or a lot of us will be unpleasantly surprised when we end up in a place much warmer than we expected!