An Inevitable Short Sightedness

Victim: Mohammed Imran..Survivor: Nasreen Imran, Ali Imran (4) and Mohammed Farooq (1) (Asim Rafiqui)

The young sons of Mohammed Imran, Ali Imran (4) and Mohammed Farooq (1). Mohammad Imran died in the fire that engulfed the Ali Enterprises garment factor. Karachi. Pakistan

What was perhaps most surprising was the short-sightedness of the community and official response to the Baldia Factory fire accident. Certainly monies were immediately made available for the survivors of the affected families, but it was the nature of this money, and its intent, that left me largely perplexed.

First, there was the assessment of a garment workers’ life that was set at Rs 400,000 ($4175.00) by the state, and at about Rs. 300,000 ($ 3,100) by the provincial administration, and about Rs. 200,000 ($ 2,000) by the local government itself. Its difficult to fathom the calculus that was involved, but never mind. I was more intrigued by the fact that the only response from the official state and local bodies was a lump sum payment based on the number of family members who had perished in the accident. The Germans didn’t do much better, with KIK, one of Ali Enterprises principal customers, offering about $2000 per family in some sort of relief.

That is, there was absolutely no realization of the long term needs of families that had basically lost their principal earners. In a locality like Baldia Town, one of dozens of randomly planned and necessary communities that have sprung up all around what was once the city of Karachi, people work because they must. Every job that is held here hold in its hand the lives of many, and even the loss of one family member cripples that family’s ability to maintain their already limited and desperate lives.

I can’t help but see this as intentional. The rush to make quick cash payments to individual families ensured that there was no possibility of winning people over to collective action. By dividing the families and effectively bribing them with desperately needed funds, the officials of the State, and well wishers, were ensuring that no questions would be raised about the slow but determined erasure of labour welfare and rights that has occurred in Pakistan in the last few decades. The fragility of life here in the slum of Baldia Town is a consequence of political and economic policies and choices. Paying out quickly helps ensure no one begins to ask ugly questions, and no one can organise the people here to seek collective restitution, better worker rights, and a fair wage.

This lack of awareness mirrored the attitude of garment factory owners who intentionally used ‘contract’ workers to avoid having to provide social security, pension, health and other benefits to their workers. Paying them on a ‘by the piece’ basis, and hiring and firing workers purely on the basis of order, with little or no sense of the worker’s broader individual and human needs, the management operated with no sense of responsibility or accountability towards its employees. An attitude encouraged by the official bodies of the state and the province itself. The same state and provincial bodies that outlaw unions, that discourage factory inspections, and are generally run by or are beholden to the same industrialists who run these very factories. The workers stand no chance.

The profits of expendability define the place of the worker in what is one of the largest industries in Pakistan. I met a number of families whose sons and daughters had spent over a decade working in these factories, and had done so without any promise of long term financial support or accountability. They had done so knowing that they could be fired on the whim of a manager. They had done so knowing that the same whim allowed their 10 year old children to find employment and start to bring in much needed funds into the household. The entire system works on the manufacturing of fear. A fear of hunger, a fear of homelessness, a fear of violence, and a fear of dying.

There has been a surprising lack of soul searching amongst the paragons of industry here. In about a month since the disaster the focus has remained on finding bodies and matching DNA reports. But no meetings of Pakistani industrialist, governing bodies, industry associations and labor organizations have been held or planned to discuss how to not only avert such catastrophes in the future, but to question the state of the industry’s labor practices and exploitation. Perhaps the cash payments were offered so quickly in the hope of silencing real questions, or any question of the status quo that is incredibly lucrative for some, and incredibly crippling for the many.

In the street and homes of Baldia Town, the families of the victims too either failed to organize or were discouraged from doing so. The edge neighrborhoods of Karachi are deeply divided along political lines, and nother can trasnscent these it seems. Not even life and death. Or perhaps the sheer ethnic and cultural diversity of the residents of a town like Baldia prevents their organization and coordination. Or perhaps it is the deep desperation and poverty that will not allow a family to worry about anything beyond their next meal, or their next breath.

But there have been few collective protests or petitions to the government or the courts for redress, recourse and restitution. I met individuals working on behalf of families – Imran Javeed, who lost his brother in the accident, being one such young man helping families coordinate receipt of aid and monies. But there was little that the local political organizations, of the labor organizations, were doing on the streets.

There have been no memorial meetings. No candle light vigils. No music concerts in memory of those who perished. No delegation of parliamentarians. Not even one of citizens of the city. Our artists, intellectuals, celebrated writers and glitterati where no where to be seen in Baldia Town. There have been few voices arguing for women’s rights here, even though the majority of workers in these factories are women. Perhaps we have to wait for an Oscar winning firm to start to think about these questions. There was no crossing of class, social or political lines.

There has been what can only be described as a collective silence.

I am not sure what to make of all this. I outline some of these facts not because I want to judge my society, but because I am trying to understand what this largely blase response to the largest industrial disaster in Pakistan’s history says about us as a society, and a community. I am trying to understand what it all says about where we are.

In a fascinating piece written by Professor C. M. Naim (University of Chicago, Emeritus) wrote a piece called Two Fires where he excavated the history of a garment factory fire that occurred in New York City on November 25, 1911. What was striking about the piece was how it compared the public outrage and calls for action and change in the aftermath of the New York fire, and of course, the deafening silences in the streets of Karachi. As Professor Naim points out:

The…fire took the life of 146 persons, but it found a place in American history due to the improvements and advancements it brought into the lives of working men and women all across the country. Consequently, it remained on record the most devastating work-place incident in the United States for 90 years, until the World Trade Center buildings came down on September 11, 2001. Equally significantly, it created new social and political ties among the working classes, immigrants, and the liberal elite in New York and in other urban areas that had large immigrant populations;

As I visit families in Baldia Town, and try to understand the lives and their attempts to overcome the consequences of this disaster, I am beginning to see and understand how so much can hang and depend on so little. Most of the workers made anywhere from Rs. 5000 to Rs. 12,000 a month at these factories. Some were luckier and may have made twice as much. But at that level, with no long term arrangements for their lives and those of their families, these paychecks were merely enough to keep families from hand to mouth.

 (Asim Rafiqui)

It is that state of life that the economics of our ‘globalization’ and ‘competitive’ presence in the international economy demands. Its where we have chosen to put ourselves. For with each investment in a garment and textile factory, an investment that depends on the presence of tens of thousands of desperate, uneducated, displaced workers from all areas of the country, also requires a dis-investment in other options. The entire system depends on the lack of options, lack of means of betterment, and disinvestment in alternatives. I will write more about this in coming posts.