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Pakistan investigates factory fires
More than 300 workers killed in Karachi and Lahore
By Zia Ur Rehman
KARACHI – The Pakistani government has ordered investigations to determine the causes of two September 11 factory fires that killed more than 300 people, including some workers’ children, in the country’s two biggest cities.
At least 289 people died in a fire at the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Baldia Town, Karachi, late September 11. More were injured after jumping out of the three-storey building’s windows. And 20- 25 workers are still missing, Khwaja Sohail Mansoor, a parliamentarian elected from Baldia Town, said.
Earlier, a blaze in an illegally built shoe factory in Lahore killed at least 25 workers.
President Asif Ali Zardari, expressing deep grief over the deaths September 12, called for investigations and ordered Punjab and Sindh authorities to ensure the best medical assistance to survivors, media reported, citing presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik September 12 ordered Sindh Police Chief Fayyaz Laghari to put the names of the Ali Enterprises factory owners on the Exit Control List to keep them from leaving the country. Police are combing the city for the factory owners, Shahid Bhela and two relatives, Laghari said.
The Federal Investigation Agency is investigating for terrorism links, Malik said. The Sindh government will give Rs. 300,000 (US $3,200) to families of the dead and Rs. 50,000 (US $530) to the injured, Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah said.
As for the Lahore fire, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has ordered an investigation. Rs. 500,000 (US $5,300) will be awarded to each bereaved family and Rs. 75,000 (US $800) and medical care will be provided for each injured worker, Express Tribune reported September 11.
Ali Enterprises workers had little time or opportunity to escape from the three-storey building's single exit, a survivor said.
“Two blasts were heard, and then within a couple of minutes, smoke filled all the floors of the factory,” said Muhammad Arshad, a factory worker who was rescued.
Many people had to jump out of windows, and dozens of jumpers suffered broken bones or worse, Arshad told Central Asia Online.
Reportedly, 700 workers were inside the sprawling factory. The victims included 17 women and seven children who had accompanied their mothers to the factory, according to media reports.
Rescue teams fought to reach the dead and injured, and more than 36 hours after the fire began, they were still exploring the factory’s gutted interior.
“Despite limited resources, fire-fighters would search every corner of the building so that nobody could remain inside the factory,” said Ehtishamudin Siddique, Karachi’s chief fire officer.
Most of the victims died of smoke inhalation in a basement. "The number of casualties is so large because there were no emergency doors or extra stairways in the factory and the main doors were locked,” Siddique told Central Asia Online.
Lahore’s fire began when sparks from a generator set off a chemical used to make shoes. Some workers suffocated, while others were burnt alive.
The two-storey Demand Shoes factory on Bund Road had only one point of entry or exit, said Asghar Hussain, a Lahore-based trade unionist who visited the site.
Factory owner Rajab Ali and his son Asa both died fighting the fire, Hussain told Central Asia Online by phone.
In Lahore, a number of illegally operating factories and small industrial enterprises shut down after the fire because owners feared pending action from district officials, the Daily Times reported September 13.
The twin tragedies will focus attention on weak workplace safety in a country that relies on low-cost garment and textile exports, observers say.
“As per the Electrical Rules 1973, it is mandatory for every factory administration to regularly get its electronic appliances and other such equipment verified from the department concerned and to ensure that hazards in the workplace are eliminated, minimised, or controlled,” said Sharafat Ali, an official at the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), a non-governmental labour rights group.
"In the Karachi factory (fire), there were no safety measures; there was no emergency exit. All the people got trapped,"Ali told Central Asia Online.
The number of Pakistani industrial accidents grew to 419 in 2008, compared to 354 in 2000, according to PILER. In 2011, the number of fatal accidents reached 101. Last February, 23 people were killed by an explosion, presumably due to a boiler or gas cylinder failure in a pharmaceutical factory in the Multan Road area of Lahore.
Few businesses obey safety and fire exit laws, preferring to take advantage of ineffective monitoring, said Muhammad Saleem, a Karachi-based health and safety analyst.
“Most of our factories and shopping centres have no safety mechanisms, which the authorities should review seriously; otherwise, it could cause graver tragedies in future,” Saleem told Central Asia Online.