While standing outside the factory ruin, an elderly lady walked by. When she saw us looking at the building she came up and took my arm. Despite not understanding a word she said, she needed no translation. With tears in her eyes, the sorrow on her face said it all. My colleague translated later, not a day goes by that she doesn’t think of those poor souls who died in the factory, such a tragedy.
Two years ago today 11 September 2012, a garment factory in Pakistan’s capital Karachi caught fire and 259 garment workers died, the story much the same as before – a factory making garments for a cheap European brand.
I realise how hard it can be to identify with the seeming endless tragic stories we hear daily in the news, and how easy it is to tune out, it’s overwhelming, not encouraged by a sense of helplessness ‘Well, what can I do to change that?’. It’s easy and understandable to be somewhat defeatist.
While interviewing the families, I realised that the difference between being a defeated consumer versus an engaged consumer may well be the difference in these families receiving £25 compensation or proper compensation. Here, on whole, it was the difference between £0 and £1 million, and even so, two years later, these families have still not received full compensation.
I have yet to see a garment factory tragedy where the brand sourcing took initiative to engage with victims and their families. In fact, for the most part brands don’t even engage when approached by worker representatives, international NGOs and hard evidence. They do however engage when there is public outcry, and this is why it so important not to disengage, because sometimes it is the only avenue of justice for injured workers and effected families for decent compensation.
But why as consumers, should we bother engaging?
For me it is because, I interviewed a 14 year old girl who looked out her window one evening to see the factory her parents worked in up in flames. Rushing to the factory with her neighbour, amongst the hysteria, she then spent days trawling through 259 dead burnt disfigured bodies searching for both her parents. She found the body of her father and not her mother. Four months after the tragedy, her grandmother had been given £40 compensation for the body of her father, but nothing for the missing body of her mother. This compensation is the difference between Aruba dropping out of school to work to support her younger brother and sister 11 and 7, or continuing in education. At 14, already facing the grief of losing her two parents, she has now catapulted to adulthood, what does this future hold for her? In 2013, the brand sourcing at Ali Enterprises net sales amounted to £1.25 billion. To listen to Aruba’s story first hand is not only heart breaking, but the sense of injustice is infuriating. That no one involved has come forward to offer her support. Not the brand, not the factory owner nor the certifying body that had issued the ‘social compliance’ certificate just two weeks beforehand.
It is because, Syed spoke with vacant eyes of losing five of his six beautiful children. Four daughters and one son, the youngest 17 the oldest 25.
And it is because I sat opposite Shazia at 21, just a year or two younger then myself, who looked at me in disbelief and asked:
“We have sons and daughters and sisters who died in the factory fire, but nobody cries for us. Why? Because we are from the working class, and not the elite class. That’s why. We have no value. But we have hearts, not only rich people have hearts, we also have hearts and feelings. But nobody helps us.”
Her brother was working in the factory, he was identified by DNA testing. When they received his body, his head, both hands were missing and parts of his legs were missing. Her brother in law also died in the fire.
When Shazia asked me, why people did not care about their tragedy, it really hit home for me, I had no answer, and I felt a bit ashamed, ashamed that sometimes I’m ‘too busy’ to engage.
When it comes to civil wars and natural disasters, there is often little we can do but support aid NGOs. But when it comes to fashion supply chains, there is everything we can do, because business relies on consumer demand. We can lend our names to petitions, we can publicly question and hold business to account via social media, and we can buy better. To make a profit of £1.25 billion takes a lot of customers, and that is just one company of many, if we each put a small bit of energy into supporting organisations like the Clean Clothes Campaign, and shopping better, one purchase at a time you might be surprised what a difference it will make.
Today, my thoughts are with the victims and families of the Ali Enterprise fire.
For more information: http://www.cleanclothes.org/news/2014/09/11/two-years-after-fatal-fire-kik-still-has-to-pay-up
Clare Nally is People Tree’s Fair Trade and Sustainable Supply Chain Coordinator. She has a Masters in International Human Rights Law from the Irish Centre of Human Rights, NUIG and has spent a year working with the Dublin branch of the Clean Clothes Campaign, an international alliance of organisations set up to improve working conditions in the global garment manufacturing industry.
Photographs courtesy of Khalid Mahmood