Pakistan Factory Disaster

To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Scott Nova
Date:September 21, 2012
Re:Pakistan Factory Disaster

I write to provide information concerning the horrific factory fire at the Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi Pakistan on September 12, which killed more than 250 people. The blaze at Ali Enterprises is the deadliest factory fire in the history of apparel manufacturing and one of the worst industrial disasters ever.

Pakistan is a major supplier of collegiate apparel, with more than 50 apparel licensees sourcing there in nearly 150 factories. The industry there has been growing substantially as a lower cost alternative to China. Unfortunately, those lower costs are a product of some of the worst wages in the industry (less than fifty cents an hour) and a near total lack of labor law enforcement, leaving workers exposed to widespread labor abuse and severe safety risks.

Survivor accounts, and reports from local authorities, make clear that barred windows and locked exits were primary contributors to the vast death toll, that the factory had no meaningful fire safety protections, and that the building itself was illegally constructed. Local authorities, and credible journalistic sources, have also reported that the vast majority of workers were never even registered as employees by the factory and that many were being paid well below the legal minimum wage.

I want to draw your attention to two salient aspects of this tragic case:

  1. The factory was given a clean bill of health by the auditing system of Social Accountability International (SAI), in August, just a few weeks before the disaster. This “SA-8000” certification, issued by SAI’s accredited auditors, is supposed to be granted only to factories that meet the highest standards – including protections for worker safety. As the New York Times reported in a front page article yesterday, the fact that SAI auditors certified a plant so unsafe that hundreds of people were killed there within weeks of the certification is an enormous blow to the credibility of SAI and of the broader system of industry monitoring and auditing. As you know, the WRC has raised concerns for many years about the weakness of many industry-operated monitoring regimes (the absence of off-site worker interviews, the superficial nature of many industry audits, conflicts of interest). Ali Enterprises is by no means the first case where such weaknesses have proven costly to workers, but it is by far the worst. The events at Ali Enterprises reinforce our conviction that systems like SAI are not adequate to ensure basic protections for worker rights and safety – and our fear that deadly fires and other workplace accidents will continue to be a feature of global apparel production until and unless broader reforms are achieved.
  2. Although Ali Enterprises was a fairly large factory (more than 1,000 workers), and therefore had at least several customers, not a single buyer has come forward voluntarily to take responsibility and offer to aid the families of those killed. One brand has been identified, the large German retailer KiK, but that company only acknowledged its role after the WRC, working with labor rights groups in Europe, presented KiK with documentary proof of its relationship with the factory. To date, no other brand has identified itself as a customer. Needless to say, in a circumstance like this, any brand that was doing business with Ali Enterprises has a profound ethical obligation to step forward without delay, acknowledge its role, and take action to help the families of the dead and the surviving injured workers. It is deeply disturbing that none of the buyers have done so.

Ali Enterprises does not appear on the factory disclosure list of any university licensee; however, since most of the factory’s buyers remain unidentified, and since licensee disclosure is not always reliable, we cannot state with confidence at this point that there was no collegiate connection to this facility. We are continuing to work with other groups to identify buyers. If evidence emerges that any collegiate licensee produced at the facility, or when we get to the point where a collegiate connection can be definitively ruled out, we will of course inform you promptly.

The WRC is working with worker representatives and NGOs in Pakistan and around the world to ensure fair compensation for all those affected by the fire, to identify the brands who produced at Ali Enterprises, and to press the industry for the major reforms of safety practices that are essential in Pakistan. As you know, we also continue to work to address the grievous situation of fire safety in Bangladesh. We will continue to keep you posted on these efforts.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – which, until last week, was the deadliest fire in the history of apparel manufacturing – so shocked the conscience of our nation in 1911 that it helped spark a sweeping labor rights reform movement that imposed far stricter rules and enforcement on American manufacturers and revolutionized American workplace safety. One can only hope that out of this terrible human disaster in Pakistan will come a similar powerful impetus for reform of the contemporary, globalized apparel industry.

Scott Nova 
Worker Rights Consortium 
5 Thomas Circle NW 
Washington DC 20005 
ph 202 387 4884 
fax 202 387 3292 
[email protected]