Sep 17, 2012
Almost 300 textile workers were killed in a fire at a factory in Pakistan. Many who tried to escape were trapped because the plant managers ordered the factory’s main sliding doors locked so workers could not leave without permission. Workers were kept in the plant to help save stocks of stonewashed jeans manufactured there for stores in Europe.
“They prevented people from leaving, so they could save the clothes,” said one worker.
Those who tried to leave found only one exit available. Others took the only other route out, jumping from the few windows in the plant with no bars on them because they were on floors considered too high for people to leave from.
This workplace disaster was not an isolated incident in Pakistan. Twenty-five additional workers were killed in a fire earlier that same day at a shoe factory in another suburb of the same city, Lahore.
“Accidents” like these are hardly surprising. They are a predictable outcome of the drive for profit in a poor country that produces goods like fashionable jeans for richer countries using cheap labor. The textile industry accounts for 7.4% of Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product and employs 38% of its manufacturing workers.
Many workers at the Ali Enterprises jeans factory where the fire occurred worked 12 hour days for as little as $58 a month. That’s one-third less than Pakistan’s minimum wage. One worker who survived the fire said she was forced to lie about the number of hours she worked and how much she was paid under threat of losing her job.
Pakistan’s Constitution supposedly guarantees workplace safety, but it’s common knowledge that companies get around the laws by bribing officials. “The state inspectors can make a lot of extra money. They have lifestyles that go beyond their wages,” says Sharafat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labor and Research.
The high death toll from the fires produced an angry response from people in the area. It was enough to force the provincial labor minister to resign and the government to promise an investigation, for whatever that’s worth. The owners of the factory immediately went into hiding.
Unfortunately, “accidents” like these will continue as long as we live in a society that puts profits before human life and poorer countries remain under the thumb of the big imperialist powers.