Kausar Parveen Ahmed, Baldia Town, Karachi

RAA_JIP_10252012_BaldiaTown_0121 (small)People in the hundreds gathered outside the burning factory, all desperately trying to figure out how to save those trapped inside. Some are scuffling with the emergency services personnel, other with the police constabulary who are trying to gain control of the area. The fire rages, its flames pouring out through windows and doorways, making any chance of entering or exiting the building almost impossible. Ambulances come screaming in, and fire engines struggle to get past the traffic choked roads. Three hundred or more people are trapped within, and no one seems to know where to begin the rescue effort. Cordons are set up as more and more people arrive at the scene, and attempt to rescue people. People are tearing at the building with hammers, and fists. Scuffles break out as families and others are kept from breaking through the cordon and rushing into the building. The pleas of those trapped inside are heard over the arguments, abuse, screams and protests of the people outside. Emergency personnel are unsure what to do, as there are no emergency exits, and the windows are barricaded – the owners wanted to prevent theft of their goods. There are no sprinkler systems, nor fire extinguishers. Families receive telephone calls from those trapped inside, begging and giving them details about their locations. Outside, fire trucks are sent back because they arrived without water, while others had faulty taps and could not use their hoses. Police are beating back men who are trying to break down a factory wall, afraid that the entire structure will collapse. Rescue teams are standing around, afraid to enter the structure. Mothers and fathers are sitting across the street, beating their chests and pulling at their hair, begging some someone to do something. The building burns for hours. The fire crews continue their efforts. Ambulances disappear into the night with the corpses. As the night lengthens, the telephone calls from inside fall silent, as do the pleas. The people outside – resigned and defeated, can only stand and watch the flames.

On September 11, 2012, a fire broke out at the Ali Enterprises Garment Factory, in Karachi, Pakistan. A major industrial operation, Ali Enterprises had just weeks earlier been given a prestigious SA8000 safety certificate by the industry funded Social Accountability International (SAI). The fire led to the deaths of nearly 300 workers, and left many thousands of family members homeless and penniless. 

The stories of the families of those killed that night show the precarious nature of the lives of the Pakistani working class. They also give a starting point to understand how the law, legislation and policies of the State have led to creating a vulnerable, and easily exploitable labor force. They show the uses of the law to serve specific economic and planning interests, and weaken worker organization and resistance.

Hussein Ahmed and Kausar Parveen’s son, Sirjeel Ahmed, who was twenty years old, died in the  fire.

When she finishes, she leans back in exhaustion and wipes her face. There is silence in the room once again. My ear still rings from the sound of the screams.

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