Aruba, Bilal & Sanobar Ahmed, Baldia Town, Karachi

As I walk into the room, I see them sitting waiting for me. Sirjeel Ahmed’s mother Kausar Parveen, his sisters Aruba and Sanobar, youngest brother Bilal and a cousin, Imran all greet me politely and sit back down in silence. I take a place on the white sheet spread over the carpet and pull a cushion towards me. They simply watch me as I set my things down,  pull out my recorder and open my notebook. There is an air of expectancy about them, as if they have waited for my arrival, and are eager to get started. Kausar Parveen asks if I would like some tea, and without waiting for an answer, shouts to someone behind the curtain separating the room from the rest of the house, to prepare some. The room is surprisingly large, with high-ceilings, and a set of windows looking out towards the alley. But it is nevertheless dark in the room as the narrow alleys and closely built homes keep the sun out of the streets. It is just as well, for even though it is quite early in the day, the temperature outside is already near 40°C. We sit in a near circle, facing each other. They are just waiting for me to begin. It is all very formal. They know the routine. Dozens of journalists have passed through this rooms already. I fear that there will be no deviation from scripted responses. In fact, becoming impatient, and certain about what I have come to ask, Imran begins to speak. He knows the information a ‘journalist’ wants.

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.

Bilal, Aruba and Javed lost their brother, Sirjeel Ahmed, who was twenty years old, in the fire. The portrait is of Aruba Ahmed.

The average monthly salary for someone working at the factory can range from Rs 6000 ($60) to Rs 15,000 ($150), depending on the season, and worker’s skills. That the typical work day would be at least twelve hours and at times up to sixteen hours long. Most factories run double, if not triple, shifts and there is tremendous pressure on the workers to work fast, and long hours. It is no place for a young kid. But there are hundreds of them working there. Sirjeel had taken the job at the factory after great reluctance. He was applying for jobs at various IT companies in Karachi and wanted to spend his free time studying. But the family had financial needs, and he could not justify sitting at home. His tone is clinical and professional, and he sticks to the facts. There will be no emotional outbursts today, I think. But then Kausar, Sirjeel’s mother, begins to speak.

Bilal, Aruba and Sanobar say nothing. They are not introduced to me directly. I only know who they are when I ask about Sirjeel’s siblings, and their mother Kausar discreetly points to the children as she tells me their names. I want to speak to them, but I can’t find a reason to ask. After all, the adults are there to tell me what I need to know. I look at Bilal and then at Aruba, and try to imagine what Sirjeel must have looked like. “All the children are in school, though we are not sure how to pay for their education now.” Kausar sighs. I see Aruba and Sanobar adjust their dupattas as soon as they hear that the conversation involves them. The death of their brother must have deeply affected them but I know that I cannot  speak to them about it. I find myself concerned about trespassing cultural and social limits, a concern that I would not have had I been working in a foreign country perhaps. And then, as if she heard what I was thinking about, I hear Kausar add “Aruba is suppressing her feelings and trying to strong for the others.” Aruba turns to look towards me. “But she is not that strong.” No more will be said. I am surprised at my own reluctance to insist on more details. Sirjeel had been forced to work at the factory because the family needed a second income earner. Schools had to be paid for, private tutors arranged, and school books purchased. He was sent out there not because he had wanted to, but because he had to. Do they realise this? And if not, how do I discuss it with them without making them realise it?

I notice the large computer cabinet – the only piece of furniture in the room, standing in a corner. There is a made-in-China desktop computer, a set of stereo speakers, a camera and a gaming station, stacks of CDs, technical and software manuals, file folders, power chords and wires, pen-drives, hard-drives, notepads and other paraphernalia litter its top. This is where Sirjeel spent most of his time. It is where he was thinking about his future. Similar computer cabinets, with a desktop computer, monitors, attached microphones, headphones and cameras, are found in almost every home in this  community. They are the new essential consumer good. Families once placed refrigerators, and televisions in the living room where visitors could see them, but today a desktop computer taking pride of place.

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