Nasreen Khan, Baldia Town, Karachi

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She sees him in her dreams. He is young, but older than the age at which he died. He comes towards her, and asks after her, inquiring about her health, about his sisters and whether they liked the clothes he had bought for them. He is wearing fine clothes, his thick, dark hair brushed back from his forehead, and his skin glows from a light that comes from behind her. In some dreams he tells her how he had called out to her again and again as the fire raged around him. That he was thinking of her as it consumed him.

She thinks of him during the day, as she goes about the house doing chores, as memories of her son come rushing back. She remembers that he had left without eating his breakfast the morning of the accident. And how, eight years earlier she had beaten him severely for stealing a chapati because there wasn’t enough to offer visiting guests. He had been hungry, but had cowed under her blows, and quietly gone to sit in a corner promising her he would never do it again.

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.

Abdul Aziz Khan and his wife Nasreen Khan, lost their eighteen year old son, Atta-Ullah Nabil, in the fire.

Then there was the time she asked him to get some ice from the neighbors. There had been an argument, and he had returned in anger, shouting “Enough of this begging. Someday I will buy you your own refrigerator Ama!” She recalls the moment proudly. He left school and started working at the factory. But that was three years ago, and he never managed to get that refrigerator. “His death was his sacrifice.” She says, as if to herself. It is only later, when her husband tells me about the compensation money paid out by private and government charities, that I understood what she meant – Atta-ullah Nabil earned more in death than in life.

Abdul Aziz Khan bequeathed poverty – and its daily rituals of survival, to his son Atta-Ullah Nabil. His dismissal from his job five years earlier because of his failing health, robbed Nabil of his childhood. Abdul Aziz Khan had succumbed to a lung disease as a result of his work at a cotton mill in Tando Jam. He contracted Byssinosis – an occupational hazard for those working in an atmosphere filled with tiny cotton fibers that seep into the lungs, and permanently damage them. He was summarily dismissed, and asked to vacate the quarters where he and his family had lived. Unable to find other work, or make ends meet, the family left Tando Jam and moved into the slums of Karachi. “We came here from desperation.” He told me, coughing as he spoke. The polluted Karachi air had further exacerbated his condition, and his health continued to deteriorate. “My condition makes it impossible for me to work regularly.” He stutters, holding back another bout of coughing. Medicines are difficult to afford, and doctor’s visits beyond his reach. “We had to put our children to work.”

Atta-Ullah Nabil, then only fourteen years old, found employment as a ‘helper’ – an odd jobs boy, in a garment factory. “The mill owners were kind.” I hear him say. “They agreed to take on a small boy.” A strange kindness, I thought. But Abdul Aziz Khan saw it differently, and the factory managers had argued it differently. With medical bills, rent payments, utility and food bills piling up, the job was a godsend. “They were kind people – at times they would even help with small hospital bills for my care.” Thousands of children worked in the mills of Karachi, and Atta-Ullah Nabil would take his place among them. Factory owners had worked out ways to avoid the eye of the law, and the letter of the legislation. Besides, no one was looking anyways. But the family’s cycle of desperation continued, as Nabil’s Rs 6,000 ($60) a month was never enough to cover the pressing cycle of loans and re-payments. “He would also sell samosas on the street corner in the evenings.” Abdul Aziz Khan added, sounding proud of his son’s conscientiousness.

Now, with Nabil dead, and the compensation money they had received from private charities, invested in a tailoring shop for the other sons, they were barely holding on. Abdul Aziz Khan – fifty-five years of age, had returned to the factories, and was now himself working as a ‘helper’. On a good day, he could bring in Rs 300 ($3). Once again he was grateful for the kindness of the mill owners who had hired him.