Mohammed Zaheer, Baldia Town, Karachi

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Farhan Zaheer began working at the garment factory at the age of eight. His father, Mohammad Zaheer, confesses this to me, his face torn by shame as his eyes suffer the sight of my shocked reaction. Farhan was paid Rs 300 ($3) a month to start, and used as a ‘helper’ – an odd jobs boy, on the shop floor. “I had to put him to work.” His eyes search my face as if for a sign that I understand his decision, and the reasons he made it. An eight year old child is only barely learning to think abstractly, apply simple logic skills, and reason deductively. He is just starting to tell the difference between the good and the bad, and to take responsibility for his actions. An eight year old is petulant, careless, sloppy and easily distracted. He is learning strong motor skills, is improving his hand to eye coordination and engaging in sports. He can count to ‘1000’, and begin to write complete sentences using proper grammar. An eight year old child is expressing independence, but not without the constant assurance of his parent’s presence. At eight years of age, Farhan Zaheer, however, was working eleven hour shifts at a major textile factory, and supporting a family of nine.  He was among dozens of other children working there, and among thousands across the industry. “They worked these children to the bone.”

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.

Mohammad Zaheer and his wife Shenaz Zaheer, lost their twenty-year old son, Farhan Zaheer, in the fire.

They also hid the children from the international inspection agencies, shoving them into toilets, or basements, and pushing forward those of legal age for the inspectors to see and speak to. They made them sign – these illiterate children who do not know better, documents showing working hours 50% less than the real hours, and salaries 100% more than the real salaries. “Can you imagine his state at the end of the day?” I hear his voice break. As I raise my eyes from my notebook, I see him holding back tears. “There was nothing I could do.” He pleads, looking at me as if I was the inquisitor. Throughout of interview, his eyes have searched my face, as if trying to read every subtle reaction. What is he looking for? Did he fear the listener’s righteousness, or their outrage? Was he looking for atonement from those he met?

It isn’t atonement he seeks. It is simply financial help for him and his family. It takes me some time to realize this. “Sometimes you speak to the media, and a generous soul can read about our plight.” He tells me directly. “I want someone to read this interview, and be moved to reach out and help us.” It isn’t absolution he seeks, it is simply a life line. His five daughters are grown up, and they must be married and settled in their own homes. But that requires money and resources. His two sons are working – both at another garment factory, but they don’t earn enough to cover the expenses of the house. His home is too small for a family of nine, but the rent is high, and he cannot afford to move to a larger house that he desperately needs. His asthmatic condition continues to deteriorate, but there is no money for medicines. The girls have started to teach at a local madrassa – the same one they attended as children, and bring in some money to help the family.

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“My sons have worked in these factories since childhood. And Farhan died while working for them.” There is anger there too. They owe him and he isn’t blind to the injustice of the situation where his entire family is in free fall and there is no one to account for it, no one to question, or to demand from. He, however, knows that there nothing will be forthcoming. Farhan’s mother Shenaz, who has been with us throughout the interview, sitting pushed against the wall with her daughter Asma lying close to her, listens to every word and absentmindedly kneads her daughter’s legs. “He worked for them for twelve years.” It was the one things she repeated again and again, as if to underline the righteousness of their unspoken and unmade demand. The State and private charities gave the family Rs 900, 000 ($9,000) for the death of their son. That money will soon be gone just covering their daily expenses. “I need someone to help me here.” He pleads. Deep, sharp veins crisscross his face as he clenches his jaw, as if holding back a scream. “A home, or my daughter’s future, anything!” It isn’t absolution he is searching for from me, but some sign that what I am doing here will change his life.