German textile company KiK has released $5.15 million in compensation for a 2012 factory fire in Karachi that killed 260 people. KiK and the victims' families still disagree over responsibility of the catastrophe.
Nasir Mansoor, general secretary of the National Trade Union Federation in Pakistan, confirmed Wednesday that KiK (Kunde ist König, which in English translates into "Customer is King") has released $5.15 million (4.82 million euros) for the families of the Karachi-based Baldia Town factory fire victims. Mansoor told Pakistan's "Dawn" newspaper that the amount has been transferred to an International Labor Union (ILO) account in Geneva.
"ILO Country Director in Pakistan, Ingrid Christensen, will hold consultations with affected families on Thursday, February 9, with representatives of non-governmental organizations in attendance," Mansoor told Pakistani media.
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."
The transfer of funds was the result of an agreement between KiK and the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research (Piler).
"Initially, the company had denied to pay any sort of compensation but later it agreed to pay an amount when the stake holders, with the help of NGOs, took up the matter in Germany through media campaigns," said Mansoor, who, along with some victims' relatives, visited the German city of Dortmund in September last year.
"The German government also played its role in the agreement on the payment of amount to the affected families," Mansoor added.
KiK's latest move to compensate the families of the factory victims is not linked to the court case in Dortmund. The Regional Court of Dortmund issued an initial decision in September last year, accepting jurisdiction over the case and granting legal aid to the claimants to cover the lawsuit cost.
KiK says it is not responsible for the factory fire as it was an arson attack
"My 18-year-old son died because of 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.
"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.
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, lost their sons to the fire, while Muhammad Hanif, 26, is a survivor himself. They are seeking compensation and an apology from KiK. The German retailer says it is not responsible for the blaze, arguing that owners of the factory didn't follow the security precautions.
In June 2016, Khatoon and Khan came to Germany for consultations with civil society organizations and legislators. They were supported by the National Trade Union Federation's Mansoor and a number of international rights groups, including the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), Clean Clothes Campaign, and Medico International.
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 rights groups say the case was never about who caused the fire.
"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 ILO," Mansoor told DW.
Farooq Tariq of the Awami Workers Party told DW from the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore that most factory owners in Pakistan do 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."
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.
More than 1,135 factory workers died when the Rana Plaza complex came crashing down on April 24, 2013 in Bangladesh
"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."
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.
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. But we also 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 incidents like the Baldia Town factory fire shouldn't happen anywhere. "No mother should suffer the way I have."