KARACHI: The ninth anniversary of the tragic Baldia factory inferno in which over 260 workers lost their lives was observed here on Saturday.
Jointly organised by the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) and the Home-Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF), the gathering saw the parents, spouses, children, brothers and sisters of the deceased workers all with moist eyes sitting outside the ugly reminder of their loss, the now vacant Ali Enterprises building, a mere cement skeleton. The photographs of their loved ones they held up or close to their hearts.
Nasir Mansoor of the NTUF said that even though nine years had passed after the Baldia factory tragedy, not much had changed at such garment factories.
‘Garments factories are still death traps’
“They are still sweatshops, they are still death traps and prisons,” he said. “We have gone to every platform to seek justice for the workers who died here, and we have told the world about how factory workers are treated in our country because we are still fighting to get them justice here and internationally. Some 85 per cent of the stuff manufactured here in this factory was for a German brand,” he said.
‘All factories here are bombs, which can explode anytime’
“We are not concerned about whether the fire was caused or the result of a short-circuit. What we are concerned about is the working conditions in the factory. When the fire broke out, there was nowhere for the workers to exit the building. The extra exit points were blocked by the manufacturing raw material and the main exit points were locked to keep the workers inside until the end of the day when it was time to go. The windows were also sealed with steel bars fitted in them,” he said.
“This building also didn’t have any fire alarms and the fire extinguishers were either old, expired or the staff didn’t know how to use them. The result: almost all of them either suffocated or were burnt alive,” he reminded.
“And they didn’t even have proper jobs. They were all hired on contracts, which deprived them of their many benefits and funds. What is even worse is that many of them were underage, meaning that the factory owners are also guilty of child labour,” he said.
‘Nothing has changed’
Zehra Khan of the HBWWF said that they gather here like this every year with the families of the victims to remind the government that there is a need for attention here. “But nothing has changed. All factories here are bombs, which can explode anytime. And this is because the inspectors who are supposed to survey these factories to ensure good working conditions are taking bribes from the owners,” she said.
Habibuddin Junaidi of the Peoples Labour Bureau said that the poor and innocent workers had to lose their lives due to someone else’s incompetence. “But sadly, the Baldia factory incident was not the last. Similar incidents are still happening, such as the recent Mehran Town factory fire where some  workers lost their lives. There is no stop to them,” he said.
Karamat Ali of National Labour Council reminded that what happened at the Baldia factory nine years ago was a crime. “But the people who committed the crime never got punished. We need to unite and stand up against such criminals. We need to unite and organise ourselves. Ideally, there should be one such organisation for all garment factory workers and another for all labourers and workers,” he said.
Saeeda Khatoon of the Association of Baldia Factory Fire Affectees, who lost her young son in the blaze, said that she still remembered seeing off her son as he left for work on that fateful day nine years ago.
“It was the last time I saw my son’s sweet and happy face. Then I heard that there was a huge fire in the factory he worked and then I realised that he was taken from me forever. So today is not just a painful reminder of all that, it is also a reminder of not giving up the struggle, of raising our voices against the injustice and of demanding workers’ rights. The loss of our loved ones should not be in vain,” she said.
Later, all the family members and rights activists gathered paid tribute to the victims by showering their photographs with rose petals and by holding a vigil in their memory.