12 Sep 2012

Hundreds dead in Pakistan factory fires

Devastating factory fires in two of Pakistan’s biggest cities have killed 314 people. Many lost their lives because they could not escape the blazes in buildings without basic safety features.

Hundreds dead in Pakistan factory fires (Reuters)

The horrific death toll highlights the poor state of industrial safety in Pakistan, where buildings are often old and unsafe and where many factory owners work outside the law.

The worst of the two fires, which both began on Tuesday night, was in a garment factory in Karachi. At least 289 people are reported to have died as fire-fighters battled the flames for hours.

The other fire broke out in the eastern city of Lahore, in a four-storey shoe factory. The blaze killed 25 people, some from burns and some from suffocation, local police chiefs said.

The factory was illegally set up in a residential part of the city and fire-fighters said most people died because the main escape routes were blocked.

It was a similar story of blocked exits and lacking safety equipment – like alarms and sprinklers – in the more deadly Karachi fire, one of the worst industrial accidents in Pakistan’s 65-year history.

The owner of the factory should also be burned to death the way our dear ones have died. Nizam-ud-Din, whose nephew died in the Karachi fire

According to senior government official Roshan Ali Sheikh, the Karachi factory only had one accessible exit, and all of the other doors were locked. Workers on higher floors of the five-story building struggled to make it out of windows that were covered with metal bars. Many were injured when they jumped from the building, including a 27-year-old pregnant woman who was injured in the fall.

Mr Sheikh said he expects the death toll to rise further as rescuers pull bodies from the wreckage.

“It is a criminal act to lock the emergency exit doors, and we are trying to know who did it, and why?” he added.

Relatives of the victims blamed the factory owners as they gathered to mourn their loved ones (Reuters)

Relatives of the victims blamed the factory owners as they gathered to mourn their loved ones.

“The owner of the factory should also be burned to death the way our dear ones have died in a miserable condition,” said Nizam-ud-Din, whose nephew died in the fire. Sheikh said that the factory managers have fled and are being sought by police.

‘Not surprising’

Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf has expressed his shock and grief over the deaths in the two cities – but campaigners for better conditions for workers in Pakistan and elsewhere told Channel 4 News the deaths were not surprising given the state of many industrial locations.

“The information we are getting confirms the usual pattern of locked exits, an untrained workforce, barred up windows – and an unnecessarily high death toll,” said Ineke Zeldenrust of the Clean Clothes Campaign.

She said that in many factories across south east Asia there were two key problems: firstly, the substandard buildings which house the factories, and secondly the lack of freedom for workers to speak out about their concerns.

In Pakistan the risks are higher as many businesses are forced to use their own generators to provide electricity to avoid blackouts. A spark from the generator igniting chemicals used in the shoe-making process is reported to have caused the Lahore blaze.

Many workers do not have contracts, so compensation is also an issue – and Zeldenrust said so far this seemed to be the case in Karachi and Lahore.

“On the one hand, there’s a sub-standard building and no respect for safety regulations. On the other there is a climate that is repressing freedom of expression, making it impossible for workers to ensure their own safety,” she said.

At the moment, the Clean Clothes Campaign is trying to ascertain which brands use the factories in their supply chains.

“Our understanding at the moment is that the Karachi factory was exporting to the US and Europe, but we need to confirm this,” Zeldenrust said, stressing the responsibilities of big international brands towards workers at their suppliers – not just to point out problems, but to help fix them.

“Brands say it is a local issue but it is their responsibility to stick up for their own policies – which is that they want their workers to be safe. This is a global pattern and it is their responsibility to make sure that they give orders to suppliers who can guarantee the lives of the people who produce them,” she said.