Karachi factories safety standards appalling

Despite pledges to step up safety after massive fire killed 289 people in southern Pakistani city, little has been done.

In September, 289 people died in a fire at a garment factory in Pakistan’s commercial capital Karachi.

The tragedy was one of the worst industrial accidents in the country’s history. Investigators say the high death-toll is most likely because emergency exit doors in the five-storey building were locked and fire extinguishers were either non-existent or not working at the time of the blaze.

The father and son owners of Ali Enterprises, which produced clothing for international retailers, are currently in a provincial prison awaiting formal charges, which could include murder. 

Shortly after the fire, government and business leaders called the tragedy a “wake-up call” and promised better industry oversight and improved safety for workers. That’s when Al Jazeera began investigating whether conditions were actually getting better.

Over a period of several weeks, we secretly visited six garment factories, often gaining access with the help of employees worried for their safety every time they went to work.

What we discovered was unsettling: none of the six factories had fire safety plans and very few had operational fire safety tools like extinguishers or water sprinklers.

The conditions at Shadman Electronic Industries, which makes clothes for international companies in addition to electronics, were the most distressing.

Mobile phone video – secretly shot by an employee – showed emergency exit doors filled in with cement bricks, fire extinguishers missing throughout and exposed electrical wiring close to workspaces.

We took our findings to Kashif Khan, the owner and operator of Shadman Electronic Industries.

Here is a transcript of part of our on-camera conversation:

Al Jazeera: “You admit that your factories are not safe?”

Kashif Khan: “Yes. A little bit.”

Al Jazeera: “You admit they are not safe?”

Kashif Khan: “Yes, right now.”

Al Jazeera: “And that your workers potentially could have been in very dangerous situations. You admit to this?”

Kashif Khan: “Yes. We do.”

Al Jazeera: “And that you haven’t invested in trying to make your factory safe for workers?”

Kashif Khan: “Yeah. Yes.”

The secretly filmed video of Khan’s factory was given to us by a long-time employee whose name and identity are being kept secret to protect them.

In explaining why he was willing to risk his job to get us the footage, our source said: “After the fire at that factory where so many people died, my wife didn’t want me to work anymore . . . but factory work is the only work that I know, what else can I do? We have small children. I have to earn for them. So I made this video so that people will know the conditions we suffer in and maybe it will help change things.”

Kashif Khan told Al Jazeera he is now committed to improving safety at his factories and is hiring a Swiss consultancy firm to help.

For many of his workers, however, going to work every day remains a perilous proposition, until such time as those changes are actually made.