On September 11th 2012 a fire broke out at Ali Enterprises, a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan. This devastating fire killed 262 garment workers, it was the largest industrial garment factory fire in history.
The fire began on the ground floor of the factory, due to the lack of emergency exits the fire quickly blocked the only entrance to the cutting department located in basement, as well as blocking the only exit to the 2nd floor. The factory itself had no fire escapes, only one open exit and all the factory windows were barred shut, these were the two major factors contributing to the huge loss of life in the factory.
In February 2013, a mass funeral was held for the still unidentified workers. Around 20 bodies were buried together as despite DNA tests, the bodies were burnt beyond recognition.
The Ali Enterprise factory was supplying goods to the German brand KIK. KIK is Germany’s seventh-largest textile retailer. This low-cost retailer of clothing operates over 3200 stores in eight European countries. In 2010 turnover at KIK exceeded 1,69 billion Euros. Although it claims to operate a code of conduct for its suppliers, this incident has highlighted in the most tragic way possible the failure of brands like KIK to adequately monitor their supply chain.
Ali Enterprises was awarded an SA8000 certificate. The SA8000 is an internationally recognised standard, developed and promoted by Social Accountability International (SAI). The certificate applies to all industrial sectors and is supposed to guarantee that production takes place under decent working conditions. It includes respect for human and labour rights, a prohibition of child labour, and protection of health and safety in the workplace among its requirements.
Ali Enterprises had received an SA8000 certification for decent working conditions from the SAAS-accredited Italian auditor Registro Italiano Navale Group (RINA) only one month prior to the tragedy. SAI, the governing body which oversees the registration of auditors and certifying bodies has suspended its work with Italian based RINA Group who were directly responsible for accrediting the factory.
A full report by SAI and RINA is yet to be published to explain how a factory with barred windows and insufficient exits was granted a certificate which guarantees decent working conditions.
After much campaigning, finally in January 2013 KIK signed an agreement with the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) to make an initial payment to the victims and their families of US$ 1 million for immediate relief, and to negotiate a long term compensation package with all other involved stakeholders. The initial payment is to be used to compensate the families of those victims who have not received any government compensation as the bodies have not been identified due to the severity of the burns and the decomposition of the bodies. “KIK also expressed a willingness to compensate workers who faced severe injuries in the fire leading to disability and loss of future employment. The remaining workers will be assisted in the next step after a compensation amount is agreed upon through a consensus between all stakeholders including employers and other international companies,” added Karamat Ali.
Ineke Zeldenrust, International Coordinator at CCC: ‘We welcome this agreement and look forward to having the full compensations and relief package, which we estimate will be at least EUR 20 million, to be negotiated soon. We continue our campaign towards other international stakeholders, notably auditing organisations SAI and Rina, to also take their responsibility and pay their share of the compensation needed.”
The National Trade Union Federation in Karachi state that although the high death toll at Ali Enterprises had led to extensive coverage of the fire, this is not an isolated incident but a regular occurrence in an industry that is poorly regulated and largely non unionised.
The fire follows a pattern of negligence occurring not just in Pakistan but throughout the garment industry. Brand and retailers must therefore take more action to address the root causes of such disasters. Brands and retailers need to take responsibility for improving conditions, enforcing international labour standards and need to work with worker representatives to address safety issues in every country they source from if future tragedies are to be avoided.