Activism in Pakistan is generally inconsistent and sporadic. People stand up and raise their voices after tragedies and calamities have become front page news but very few individuals and groups persevere and continue with their efforts for their chosen cause.
The Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) is one such organisation, which has been working for workers’ rights in the country for over 30 years. Many of us were traumatised by the fire that took the lives of 262 workers at Ali Enterprises in Baldia Town last September, and demanded immediate action, like the arrest of the owners of the factory and revamping of the way the labour department works but soon moved on to other issues. PILER, which has been advocating greater investment in terms of interest and stakes in workers’ safety and well-being, sought another solution. While an indifferent state and an employer unconcerned with the safety of its workers bear major responsibility for the tragedy, it also tried to involve international buyers, who were a part of the supply chain and tend to benefit from the cheap labour provided by Pakistani workers.
The German buyer, KiK, was engaged in a dialogue to not only seek compensation for the victims of Ali Enterprises, but was also involved in a plan that worked towards building a long-term workplace safety regime for Pakistani workers. Clean Clothes Campaign, an international workers rights group based in Amsterdam, collaborated with PILER to commit a judicious compensation amount. KiK recently signed an agreement with PILER to make an initial payment to the victims and their families of one million dollars in order to provide immediate relief and to negotiate a long-term compensation package with all other involved stakeholders.
The compensation payment initially seeks to focus on those workers’ families, which have not received any assistance because the victims’ bodies were unidentifiable, and will focus in later phases on those rendered disabled and hence unemployable and others who have received some state compensation. PILER has requested the Sindh High Court to constitute an independent commission to oversee the compensation process and determine all necessary details for the purpose.
KiK’s initiative has helped establish the responsibility of buyers in the production system of Pakistan. This may be the first time that buyers have come forward to take responsibility and made a commitment to ensure future safety of workers. It works to their benefit as well because it makes more sense to invest in a prevention regime rather than participate in fire-fighting at a later stage after their reputation and credibility has suffered.
In addition, PILER has filed a petition, which demands that a judicial commission headed by a high court or a Supreme Court judge be constituted to give its findings on the causes of the industrial fire tragedy; assign responsibility and liability to government officials and departments responsible for negligence, and failure over a timely response to the fire; determine compensation for the families of the victims; and make recommendations for the avoidance of such industrial tragedies.
It takes sustained efforts to keep an issue alive and to ensure that things change. PILER’s effort tells us that we need consistent and continued effort if we want to see things get better and to also look at the bigger picture instead of focusing on narrow and short-term gains. Things will only change when people collectively ask the state to move away from non-issues and demand its attention and focus on the taxpaying, GDP-earning voters.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 15th, 2013.