The fault in our factories

In November, Saeeda Khatoon flew to Europe to seek justice for the death of her son and 257 others, in the Baldia factory inferno of 2012. With the support of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a Berlin-based human rights organisation, four affectees, including Saeeda Khatoon, filed a lawsuit against German textile discounter Kik, in Dortmund, Germany. Plaintiffs maintain that, as the main buyer from the Baldia factory, KiK is partially responsible for inadequate fire safety measures at the textile factory. The fire alarms systems at the factory were nonoperational, fire extinguishers were scarce, emergency exits had been locked, windows were barricaded and flammable material had been stored along the escape routes. The Forensic Architecture Institute at Goldsmith University London reconstructed the architecture and layout of the factory and simulated the events on the night of the fire; results showed that that compliance with fire safety standards, as required by Pakistani law, would have saved most victims’ lives.

On 10th of January 2019, the court dismissed the lawsuit stating that the claim was time barred; there was a two and a half year delay between the incident and the filing of the lawsuit. The case was decided under Pakistani tort law following Article 4(1) of the Rome II Regulation. In 2015, during the compensation negotiations Kik had agreed to waive the statute of limitation; now, KiK argued before the court that the waiver is unenforceable under Pakistani law.

Regardless of the outcome of the trial, the journey of these plaintiffs to Europe was an opportunity to highlight the human right violations that European and North American transnational companies commit in the Global South. Their campaign has highlighted the dire need for holding local and transnational corporations accountable for the human rights violations in their operations as well as in their supply chains.

Indeed, efforts of such awareness campaigns are bearing some fruit. Many Western states have enacted mechanisms to check the human rights violations of transnational corporations within their territories. France has enacted and implemented loi-de-vigilance, a mandatory human rights due diligence law for corporations; the Dutch parliament has adopted the Wet Zorgplicht Kinderarbeid, the law requires companies to examine whether child labour occurs in their production chain; other states including Switzerland are en route the process of enacting similar due diligence laws. Despite such measures being taken in the Global North, countries of the Global South, such as Pakistan, owing to myriad socio-political reasons, have not been able to move out of their persistent inertia. Deplorable human rights violations of their workforce are still en vogue, yet the lack of action by these states is underwhelming.

While international civil society organisations like ECCHR, Medico International, Clean Clothes Campaign, and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung are facilitating the Baldia factory affectees seeking justice, the Pakistani state is absent from the picture altogether. Six years after the unfortunate incident, criminal proceedings against the alleged pyromaniacs are still sub judice; the affectees and their families receive no pension or stipend from the state anymore, neither were they offered any assistance, monetary or otherwise, in their journey to Europe.

Unfortunately, the Baldia factory fire was not an isolated incident in Pakistan´s context. Time and time again factory infernos and boiler blasts have claimed the lives of working-class men, women, and children. Over the years much has been said and written about such tragic, but preventable losses; litigation processes, public awareness campaigns, and safety inspections are kick-started in the aftermath of every fatal incident. Yet still, countless similar tragedies have failed to focus the state´s attention on the weak workplace safety regime in the country. Six years after the deadliest factory fire in Pakistan´s history, the working conditions have not improved; occupational hazards and criminal lack of safety measures persist just as shamelessly as they did in 2012. Not only has the state failed to implement laws and regulations which should prevent such incidents in the future, but it has also failed to set up a remedial system to legally and monetarily facilitate the victims of such incidents.

While our esteemed legislators are occupied settling scores, the plight of the working class has taken a back seat on their mandates; the 2018 ITUC Global Rights Index has awarded Pakistan the second-worst rating on its spectrum of worker´s rights and working conditions ratings.

As a state that desperately needs its industrial sector to stand up and lead the economy in growth, employment and exports, Pakistan needs to take the concerns of its labour force seriously. For any meaningful improvement in industrial safety, the state has to launch a holistic campaign focused on raising awareness, enacting legislation, and ensuring compliance. Majority of the workforce in Pakistan are barely educated, due to which most of the workers are not aware of laws on occupational safety and health, their legal rights, or available forums of redress. Legal awareness is necessary for workers in all sectors of the industry so they can affirmatively claim their rights. Launching a rights-based awareness campaign, rights-based education at local, provincial, and national level, therefore, seems as the first step towards ensuring better working conditions in Pakistan.

The global trend dictates that the era of corporate social responsibility is coming to an end. Numerous European and North American states have enacted laws obliging corporations to exercise vigilance regarding violations of human rights not only in their enterprises but in their supply chains as well. Job safety and health are too important to remain solely the responsibility of factory owners and transnational corporations. The era of consumerism has pushed factories to their limits, without adequate regulation of working conditions, the increasing demand and the quest for cheaper production will inevitably force factory workers into slave labour. The state must devise comprehensive legislation directed towards the welfare and safety of the workers. Pakistan´s legislation on factory safety dates back decades, in the meanwhile, the dynamics of global production and trade have changed significantly, the state direly needs to enact up-to-date legislation to safeguard its workers from corporate exploitation.

Lastly, the state and its relevant departments have to ensure that factories comply with the law. The existing laws, albeit outdated, contain some safeguards and occupational safety standards, but these laws have served little practical purpose due to the unwillingness and inability of the state to enforce them. Unregistered and unregulated factories continue to operate with impunity; the penalty for operating an unregistered factory is a meager amount of rupees five hundred. Regular factory inspections and audits are rarely undertaken, and when they are, wealthy factory owners bribe their way out of infractions. Meaningful enforcement of the law will only become possible when the executive, legislature, and judiciary come together with the common goal of ensuring worker´s welfare.

The elected government seeks to establish Pakistan as a welfare state; needless to say, the noble ideal of a welfare state cannot be realised if the rights of the working class are not protected. It is therefore high time that Pakistan and other states of the Global South take action, enact appropriate legislation and provide an effective forum for redress to prevent blatant human rights violations of their workforce.


The writer is a graduate of law from the
Lahore University of Management Sciences
(LUMS). He currently works as a legal trainee
with the European Center of Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Berlin.


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