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.

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