Nasreen Imran, Baldia Town, Karachi

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The moment the paternal grandmother refused to acknowledge or bless the grandchildren, Nasreen knew that the life she once knew, and the home she had once considered as her own, was no more. Standing in the foyer of her husband’s family home, her husband Mohammad Imran’s coffin at her feet, she realized that her relationship with his family had died along with him.

Nasreen tells me this as I sit with her in the living room of the two-bedroom house she must soon vacate. Her two sons – Ali Imran, aged four, and Mohammed Farooq, aged one, are playing in the veranda outside, blissfully unaware of the disaster unfolding around them. Nasreen has nowhere to go, and no one to turn to. Her own father lives in a small rented house that he is afraid of losing because of a lack of money. Despite her husband’s twelve years as a mechanic at the factory, he left nothing behind, other than this rented house, and a life they had lived one day to the next. There was no pension to expect, nor any insurance to help.

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.

Nasreen Imran lost her husband, Mohammad Imran, in the fire. He left her with two small children – Ali Imran, aged four, and Mohammed Farooq, aged one,

“They did not even look at the children.” I hear her say from behind her covered face. It had been the most cruel gesture – a denial of their own blood lineage. Like so many other women in the neighborhood who had lost their husbands, Nasreen was sitting in Iddat – a four and a half month mourning period a wife observes after the death of her husband. It was one of the many duties she had performed as a wife. She had taken Mohammad Imran’s body back to his ancestral home and in the hope that she would be among family. She had been wrong. Now widowed, a mother of two, abandoned and without any money, Nasreen sits across from me – her fragile, bird-like figure bent as if under a tremendous weight, her eyes darting from side to side as if reading the patterns of the carpet, telling me these details in her soft, resigned voice – her epitaph to a life she once knew.

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Her father had waited. He had arrived from the family village once Nasreen had told him of Mohammad Imran’s death. He may have feared her fate, and arrived soon afterwards. He had heard that there may be some financial compensation from the government, and from private charity organizations. “It is the only hope we have.” He wasn’t certain because there had been no details and no one to ask. “I do not have the means to care for her.” He had solemnly told me earlier. We talked over hot cups of tea in the veranda, the two boys besides him, playing with toys on the charpoi. He had married Nasreen to Mohammad Imran five years ago, and believed that she was now his responsibility. Mohammad Imran’s monthly salary as a mechanic was Rs 25,000 ($ 250), and he would do better in the coming years. Now, she was back on his door, and once again a burden. He looked pensive, and worried, his brow furrowed over glazed eyes. The factory accident was tearing at the very bonds of family, destroying love itself.

His concerns, however, were very distant from the debates raging in the media and society, where voices were calling for stronger fire safety measures, criminal prosecution of the factory owners, and stricter adherence to work condition standards. His worries, and the public’s demands – him trying to cope with the details of bare survival, they focused on the formal rights and laws, seemed unrelated to each other, and unaffected by each other. “There was never a question of pensions, or insurance.” He had told me earlier. “They [the factory owners] never talk about that.” There were bags lying close to the main door. Most of the furniture had already been sold or given away. Mohammad Imran’s twelve years as a mechanic had nothing to show for it, and no one was even asking how that had come to be. The two children continued to play, racing small plastic cars with each other. In the coming months, the formal inquiries and court cases will skirt past their lives, afraid of what they may find if they looked at them too closely. “No one talks about that.”