By Irving Feng
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia
KARACHI, Pakistan – Factory fires in Pakistan kill over 300 workers and raises questions about substandard worker safety and poor labor regulations.
A garment factory in Karachi was set ablaze and caused the death of what officials believed to be 289 workers from a nearby blue collar neighborhood. A second fire in a shoe factory in Lahore caused the death of roughly 25 workers. Officials investigating have yet to determine the cause of the fires but faulty wiring is believed to be the predominate cause of the fire in Karachi and sparks from a back-up generator is believed to be the cause of the fire in Lahore.
Survivors from the Karachi fire say the high death toll was due to a lack of available exists in the factory and barred windows. All exits, except one, in the factory were locked to prevent workers from leaving their shifts early and the barred windows, factory managers claim, were installed to prevent break ins.
Employees working on the top floors of the Karachi factory immediately began breaking the metal bars on the windows with tools when smoke and fire roared up the stairs. Some workers managed to break through the bars and jump out of windows multiple stories up and suffered broken bones from the fall. Those less fortunate scrambled for the single congested exist and were trampled and crush by the wave of panicking workers attempting to escape the flames. Officials say that the majority of the workers died from smoke inhalation and severe burns.
Survivors of the Lahore fire say that the main exit to their factory was also blocked, trapping unlucky workers inside. Due to rolling blackouts prevalent in Pakistan, workers at the Lahore factory attempted to start the back-up generator when the electricity went out. The sparks from the generator may have ignited nearby chemicals used to make shoes. The factory in Lahore was illegally set up in a residential neighborhood in the city.
Workers’ rights in Pakistan are guaranteed in their constitution. The Hazardous Occupation Rule 1963, under the 1934 Factories Act, provides legal protections for workers including an entire section, added in 1997, concerning fire safety. Pakistan has also signed the International Labor Organization’s labor inspection convention which mandates governments to inform their workers of their legal rights and calls for labor inspections and the proper reporting of any problems.
Despite Pakistan’s prior commitment to workers’ rights, an executive order issued under the Punjab Industrial Policy 2003 has abolished many of labor inspections which helped monitor and guarantee workers’ rights. The new executive order was aimed at bolstering a more business-friendly environment and increasing industry in Pakistan. These bans on labor inspections were adopted under fierce pressure by wealthy industrialists.
For further information, please see:
BBC – Karachi fire: Factory owners granted bail – 14 September 2012
The Guardian – Karachi’s factory fire exposes Pakistan’s lax health and safety regime – 14 September 2012
Al Jazeera – Hundreds killed in Karachi factory fire – 13 September 2012
The New York Times – More Than 300 Killed in Pakistani Factory Fires – 12 September 2012
Reuters – Fires engulf Pakistan factories killing 314 workers – 12 September 2012