Mohammad Mehrab, Baldia Town, Karachi

“I need to tell you more about my mother.” Mehrab’s voice sounds irritated. “She isn’t just this corpse you have come to ask about.” I feel the sting of his reprimand. We are walking through the streets of the neighborhood after spending some time speaking to his grandmother. “She was building something here. She was constructing her dreams for me and for her. I must tell you more about her.” He says this to me as we are walking back to my car through the narrow, crowded alleyways of the neighborhood. He had avoided speaking to at the house. I ask if there is someplace where we can go and talk, and he points towards a tea shop on the corner. We pull out two rusty metal chairs and order some tea. His face is stern, serene even. I remind myself that he is merely a thirteen year old child. He tells me about his mother.

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The day she died she had lived a life she had dreamed about. It is difficult to imagine a life spent working fourteen to eighteen hours a day, for barely Rs 6000 a month ($60 a month), and living in a one room house with her husband, mother and son, could be considered the things of dreams. But it had been for her, because she had done it on her own. Eight years earlier she had escaped from an abusive marriage, divorced her husband – an act of tremendous courage for a woman from deeply conservative Punjab, and make her own way somehow. Her husband’s family took everything from her, and threw her out of the house. She had nothing but her clothes and me, and an idea to find a better way to live. Some friends promised to take her to Karachi. She trusted them and went along, only to realize that they had tried to trick her into prostitution, and later even forcibly sell her. But a distant relative who met her in Karachi fell in love with her, and she with him, and he helped her escape yet again. Some weeks later, on the steps of the Hazrat Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine, they swore their love for each other, got married, and rented a house together. Mehrab and his grandmother joined them some months later. She had escaped.

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 reveal the precarious nature of the lives of the Pakistani working class. They also provide a starting point to understand how the law, legislation and policies of the State have weakened worker organization and resistance, and created a vulnerable and exploitable workforce to serve specific economic and political interests.

On September 11, 2012, Rashida Bibi’s daughter Rahima and her son-in-law Mohammad Nasser died in the fire. They leave behind a thirteen year old son, Mehrab.

“They both found jobs at the garment factory, and started to build a home here. She had finally found a life here, found independence and happiness here.” That was the family I had seen in the photograph of them taken at the tomb of Mohammad Ali Jinnah; safe, carefree and confident. “She had even started to dream about my future – a place in the national army, and a road out of this neighborhood and this life.” But the dream was a fragile one and on the night of the fire, all of it came to an end.

Mehrab has since dropped out of school and started working in a garment factory to help pay for rent and food. As I open the door of my car I ask what he plans to do now. He simply looks away.

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