Fashion’s victims: A death trap factory in Pakistan
How much did your jeans cost? Behind the price tag, the clothes we wear come at a much deadlier cost for the people who make them.
Accessible stairways. Sufficient exits. Clearly marked escape routes. A working fire alarm. Just some simple measures which could have saved the lives of 258 employees of the Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi, Pakistan.
When a fire broke out in the textile factory on the evening of 11 September 2012, employees had nowhere to go. They were trapped in a maze of blocked emergency exits, barred windows and doors that led nowhere.
So, who bears responsibility for what happened?
The factory produced textiles for multiple retailers, but German discounter KiK bought up to 75% of the factory’s products and was its main client.
As the ‘big boss’, KiK had the power to demand better fire safety standards. KiK claimed that it had regularly visited the factory and even asked auditing companies to assess the working conditions. That means KiK knew – or should have known – about the conditions at the factory.
So, it’s a clear-cut case, right? Well, not so fast.
Instead of taking responsibility, KiK, the factory owners, the Pakistani authorities and the Italian certifier RINA – which issued a certificate confirming the factory’s high safety and social standards just weeks before the fatal fire – all pointed the finger at each other.
Eventually, KiK agreed to pay 1 million USD as emergency relief while also denying responsibility for the deaths. For the workers and families affected by the fire, this was a slap in the face.
In 2015, four affected people, with support by German NGOs ECCHR and medico international, filed a case against KiK at a German regional court, demanding 30,000 euro per plaintiff in damages. The court dismissed the claim based on a technicality in Pakistani law.
The bottom line: no court has ever ruled on whether KiK shares at least part of the responsibility for the deaths and injuries.
This is just one example of the ugly underbelly of global supply chains: around the world, workers are slogging away, forced into excessive overtime, denied sick leave, and even threatened and intimidated when they claim their rights.
These violations are woven into the production of the t-shirts and jeans we wear, and this terrible cost of clothing is packaged as a fantastic offer.
So, can things ever really change?
Yes – the answer is always yes. A strong EU due diligence law can lay out the obvious in a concrete law: companies bear the responsibility for harm that happens anywhere in their supply chain.
While KiK has agreed to pay an additional sum to the victims’ families, it still takes no responsibility.
The law can also empower those who suffer from bad business practices to get justice in European courts. Like many who survived the blaze at Ali Enterprises, Muhammad Hanif can no longer work because of his chronic heart and lung problems. It should not take this long for KiK to apologise and pay for damages. It should not take any time at all.
Simply put: workers are people. So it’s time that companies start treating them as such, and not just profit-making machines to build their business. And if the companies won’t do it themselves, we need a law to make it the only option.