DETROIT: I was at work when I learned that a garment factory in Karachi owned by Ali Enterprises went up in flames, killing close to 300 people. I want to take a moment to reflect on that death toll. If we assume that each person killed came from an average family size of five members, then that comes to approximately 1,500 lives that have been irrevocably destroyed. After, perhaps, a week of public outcry, disgust and condemnation, what will happen to these families — after a week, month, a year? With no benefits and in an already-crumbling industrial and economic situation, hundreds of families in Karachi are left without their main breadwinners.
I was reminded of America’s worst industrial fire which took place in New York City in 1911: the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company had a textile factory located in the top three floors of a building on the Lower East Side and all of the employees were women, mostly teenaged immigrants. The employers would lock the doors, ostensibly because of suspicion of theft. On March 25, 1911, a fire started on the eighth floor and quickly spread to the upper floors, killing 146 women. People crowded the city streets to watch as many women jumped out of windows and plummeted to their deaths. The two owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were formally tried for manslaughter, though eventually acquitted. What happened next is of paramount importance: this devastation was a catalyst to permanently changing working conditions in America.
My purpose here is not to equate two events that are very different with regard to space, time, and history; but rather to point out that this event precipitated mass movement and concern in the people of America. That fire led to peaceful protests, demonstrations and demands for better working conditions. Reform does not transpire overnight, yet with persistence it did happen.
Fast forward to the incident in Karachi; what is disturbing for me is to hear arguments made to condone those who are completely at fault. To say that it was “simple negligence” shows a lack of concern and a complete denial of reality. Negligence suggests a degree of passivity that does not exist in such a situation. As the owner of a factory, one is responsible for one’s workers. If an owner chooses to forgo this responsibility, he is making a conscious decision not to provide safety measures. To say it is ‘standard practice’ to forgo such safety measures in Pakistan is also no defence, for it is analogous to saying that if any criminal activity such as murder or rape were standard practice, then any person committing either act would merely be ‘in line with such practice’.
It greatly saddens me to see the ever-increasing disparity between rich and poor and the licence that many rich factory owners believe this gives them to treat their workers so terribly, with utter disrespect for human life. This horrible, tragic incident will forever mar our history, and the least we can do is honour those who passed away by not accepting any justification for such awful and unethical working conditions.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 17th, 2012.