Last year Mohammad Ali finally bought the small house in the congested Muslim Mujahid Colony where his family had resided for year as tenants. The day the final payment was made, he sobbed.
Like any other household in this part of Karachi’s Baldia Town, located on the fringes of SITE Industrial Estate, people make ends meet by doing odd jobs or working on minimum wage in factories.
Those living on rent often miss out on monthly payments. Consequently, they are abused and threatened by the landlords on a regular basis and Ali’s case was no different.
But one day, once the landlord had left following the usual bickering, Ali’s younger 23-year-old brother Israr swore he would buy that house.
And he did, from the compensation his family received after his death at the Ali Enterprise garment factory, which was gutted in one of the worst industrial fires in September 2012.
“How can I ever thank him?” said Ali. “How can my family forget the sacrifice? How can we back out from this fight now? There is no turning away from this struggle.”
Ali was among the relatives of 250 workers killed in the factory fire who had gathered at the Pakistan Medical Association this Sunday to give their consent to start a law suit against the German discount retailer KiK, which sourced products from Ali Enterprise.
This would be the first time a German retailer is being taken to court over allegations that it didn’t care about the conditions of the overseas facilities where its products were made, lawyers say.
“The odds are against us,” said Dr Miriam Saage-Maaß, Legal Director at European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, an NGO representing the victims and their families.
“We cannot guarantee anything or even state the probability of winning this case but I have hope.”
The law suit seeks immediate compensation of Rs432,000 or $4,320 for every worker killed in the factory.
“It won’t be an easy journey. A case like this can drag on for years,” she told PMA’s jam-packed auditorium. “But we can go through this if we stand together.”
KiK, which is part of Tengelmann Group, has already given a total compensation of $1 million to the families.
Pakistan’s National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) Deputy General Secretary Nasir Mansoor said the amount translated into between Rs450,000 and Rs500,000 per household.
“But that was just an interim compensation. When the agreement was signed the company had promised a bigger package.”
By its own account KiK was the single largest purchaser from Ali Enterprise, buying 75% of the garments manufactured in Karachi – a fact that has raised hopes of the lawyers.
KiK was also one of the many international retailers doing business with factories housed in Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza building, which collapsed in April 2013 killing over 1,000 workers.
But in that case, involvement of multiple discount stores based in different countries has made legal proceedings difficult.
There is another side of the equation. In countries like Pakistan where textile remains the mainstay of the economy, employing the largest chunk of workforce, reduction in fresh orders can have far-reaching consequences.
KiK itself is scouring for new suppliers in less riskier markets.
The recent revelation by Sindh Rangers that Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) workers set fire to Baldia factory because of a dispute over protection money could not have come at a worst time.
“Whoever may have caused that fire, the fact remains that most of the workers were burnt alive and suffocated because windows were sealed off with iron grills and there were no exits,” said Mansoor of NTUF.
“It was negligence on part of the owners of that factory and whoever was doing business with them. We won’t let this fact be lost amid this controversy.”
Published in The Express Tribune, February 10th, 2015.
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