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Asia

Pakistan's 'industrial 9/11' - Families seek compensation from German retailer KiK

A fire in a Karachi factory, which produced clothes for the German company KiK, killed over 260 people in 2012. The victims' families are in Germany to pursue their case against KiK in a Dortmund court. DW spoke to them.

"My 18-year-old son died because of the capitalist greed. He was my only son, the only breadwinner, who lost his life in the Baldia Town factory fire," Saeeda Khatoon, a 49-year-old Pakistani woman from Karachi, told DW in the German town of Bönen.

Over 260 people died on September 11, 2012, when a textile factory in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi caught fire. The blaze was able to spread quickly partly because the safety standards were blatantly violated by the factory owners, and the emergency exits were blocked or even locked. The incident was dubbed as Pakistan's "industrial 9/11."

"My son was earning only around 10,000 rupees (84 euros) per month, and that too after working sometimes 72 hours at a stretch," Khatoon said.

But what is Khatoon now doing in Germany?

The Ali Enterprises garment factory, where the deadly fire broke out, made clothes for the German

budget clothing

store KiK (Kunde ist König, which in English translates into "Customer is King").

Saeeda Khatoon (L) and Abdul Aziz, affectees of the Karachi garments factory fire in 2012, are in Germany to file a case against KiK company (Photo: DW/S. Shams)

Saeeda Khatoon and Abdul Aziz Khan demand 'justice' from KiK

Victims' families arrive in Germany

On March 13, 2015, Khatoon and three other people affected by the fire filed a case against Kik at a regional court in Dortmund. Like Khatoon, Muhammad Jabir, 62, and Abdul Aziz Khan, also 62, have lost their sons to the fire, while Muhammad Hanif, 26, is a survivor himself. They are seeking compensation and an apology from KiK.

Khatoon and Khan are currently in Germany for consultations with civil society organizations and legislators. They are supported by the National Trade Union Federation in Pakistan and a number of international rights groups, including the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), Clean Clothes Campaign, and Medico International.

"People in Germany knew about it from the start after the incident appeared in newspapers and on TV," pointed out Carolijn Terwindt, legal adviser to the ECCHR, adding that KiK procured nearly 70 percent of Ali Enterprises' products.

"When you control the making of the products, you control everything," Terwindt told The Express Tribune in Karachi.

Nasir Mansoor, deputy head of the National Trade Union Federation, is of the same view: "The multi-national companies should be held responsible for what is happening down the chain. They must ensure the working conditions at their manufacturers are up to the standards approved by the International Labor Organization (ILO)," Mansoor told DW.

Workplace safety

Initially, KiK established an emergency fund to support the families of the victims with a total of $500,000 (439,000 euros), and was even considering doubling the amount. But it backed out from its promise after a Pakistani investigation claimed the fire was an arson attack carried out by a local political party.

But Remo Klinger, the litigants' attorney in Dortmund, said the case was never about who caused the fire. "We are concerned about the lack of safety arrangements (inside the factory)," he said.

Klinger also points out that the buyer is "legally bound to ensure the workers at the production unit have access to health and workplace safety." KiK, in his opinion, did not follow the procedure.

Farooq Tariq of the Awami Workers Party told DW from Lahore that

most factory owners in Pakistan did not follow labor laws.

"According to our survey, there are more than 300 factories operating in the residential areas of Lahore, yet none of them obey labor laws and conventions," Tariq claimed. "They do not allow labor inspection in their factories, which, in my opinion, is essential to safeguarding the safety and rights of the workers. Sadly, the government protects the factory owners."

Profiteering

Karachi-based trade union activist, Sartaj Khan, believes the responsibility of industrial disasters like the Baldia Town factory fire in Karachi and the

Rana Plaza blaze

in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka lies with the capitalist system.

"Countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan face tough competition from other markets that provide cheap labor to international companies. They compromise on safety measures to reduce their services cost. It works well for international retailers as they are there to make a profit," Khan told DW.

"But at the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the local governments to make sure that the labor laws are properly implemented in these factories."

A KiK store in Germany

KiK says it is not responsible for the factory fire as it was an arson attack

Khan said the issue should be seen in relation to the global financial crisis.

"Local and international companies are not making as much profit as they did in the past; therefore we see an increase in the exploitation of workers. Now, the workers have to work for longer hours for less money," Khan said, adding that such incidents would continue to happen if the workers didn't unite against the factory owners and pressure their governments to ensure better pay and security at work.

Litigation status

The Dortmund court has not yet taken up the case. It is currently examining the evidence from both the affectees and KiK representatives.

But Nasir Mansoor of the National Trade Union Federation is hopeful that the court will start the proceedings soon.

"We expect the hearing to begin in September. The court has sought different opinions from the lawyers. We are having consultations with many political parties in Germany," Mansoor told DW.

Abdul Aziz Khan, who also lost his son in the Baldia Town factory fire, appealed to the German public to support their cause and put pressure on the companies and the government.

"We are thankful to the German people for their support. It is because of them that we are here. But we expect them to demand from their companies that they ensure workplace safety in the factories that manufacture products for them," Khan said.

Saeeda Khatoon says the litigation would set a precedent. "260 people died in that factory, trying to escape the hellish blaze but couldn't. This shouldn't happen anywhere. No mother should suffer the way I have."

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