The real criminals behind Pakistan’s factory fires

The deadly fire of 1911 — which killed 146 workers, mostly immigrant women and girls — and the ensuing publicity, encouraged union organizing and led to a certain amount of public regulation of conditions on the factory floor, including fire safety.

Fast forward 101 years, change the nationality and location, and an equally gruesome crime is committed not in the U.S. but in Karachi, Pakistan. Two catastrophes on Sept. 12 revealed that similarly horrible conditions still flourish, except that big capitalists in the U.S. and Western Europe — in search of greater profits — have exported most of the jobs — and the danger — to the developing world.

In Karachi, 295 people were either burned to death, died from smoke inhalation or were crushed to death as they tried to escape a deadly fire. Like the Triangle fire, it was a textile factory. Earlier the same day, over 25 workers were killed when a shoe factory burned down in Lahore, Pakistan. In both cases, the factories had contract relationships with upscale retailers in the U.S. and Western Europe.

The facts of the Karachi textile factory fire are nightmarish. It turns out that workers were unable to escape because the doors were locked. It was reported that this was to prevent them from leaving their shifts early, though it has also been said that it was because of a “fear of theft” of the clothing. (, Sept. 12)

There was no emergency exit, with other doors blocked by piles of finished clothes. Workers had to smash through iron bars on the windows and to jump several stories down to escape the flames. Unsafe chemicals in the rickety building made the smoke even more toxic.

Most of the workers were women. The dead also included seven children, many of whom accompanied their mothers into the factory, but at least one who was illegally employed.

Imperialism’s criminal connection

Reactions from most mainstream media have mainly been to attack the poor regulation and widespread corruption in the Pakistani government which led to the disasters, the worst industrial fires in that country’s history. Notably missing, however, is any mention of the transnational corporations whose insatiable drive for profits combined with their greedy capitalist partners worldwide to create the conditions which led to the fires.

Modern capitalist production is a global operation. Faced with increasing criticism and resistance, the transnationals go to great lengths to cover up their close connections to the sweatshops that provide them with lucrative profits. For this, they turn to so-called “monitoring” agencies to certify and then cover up their crimes.

This week it emerged that a U.S.-based monitoring group, Social Accountability International, had approved the safety standards at the Karachi factory just weeks before the fire.

Why would a monitoring agency “certify” a factory with so many violations? Below are some answers according to Al-Jazeera:

• The firm receives corporate funding and its board of directors includes figures with strong manufacturing ties;

• Tom De Luca, the chairperson of the board, currently runs his own consulting firm. He was previously vice president of imports and compliance for Toys R Us, working for the firm for more than 20 years;

• Dan Henkle is Gap Inc’s senior vice president for social responsibility; and

• The organisation also receives financial backing from 20 transnational companies that contribute between $10,000 and $65,000 annually to be corporate programme members, including the Walt Disney Co., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Gucci.

Both the greedy factory owners in Pakistan and elsewhere, and the criminals on Wall Street have the blood of innocent workers on their hands. They must, and will, be held accountable by the people.

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