The Karachi Fire: Why Workers Need Comprehensive Systems For Human Rights Protection

The tragic fire that ravaged a textile factory earlier this month in Karachi, Pakistan and killed nearly 300 workers, many of them trapped behind locked exit doors, is a clear example of why a strategy of certification through audits alone is woefully inadequate to protect workers’ basic rights.  Audits can be a useful tool in helping to protect human rights, but only when part of a larger system of monitoring and enforcement in which workers participate in authentic and serious ways.  In the United States, only the Coalition of Immokalee Worker's Fair Food Program incorporates in one sustainable system all the accountability tools and strategies necessary to protect workers: financial as well as workplace audits and monitoring, an independent and confidential complaint resolution procedure with market based consequences and worker education.   

The Karachi fire resembled the landmark Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 in New York, though the Pakistani blaze killed twice as many workers.  As in the Triangle fire, workers in Karachi found exit doors locked, many windows barred, and tried to escape the smoke and flames by jumping from upper floor windows.  Most were trapped inside and died of smoke inhalation—many clumped together on lower floors.  Exits were locked, according to some, to prevent workers from leaving work early. 

The news that government enforcement of worker safety protections had grown lax was no surprise, but many were shocked to learn that Social Accountability International (SAI), a nonprofit monitoring group in New York, had given the factory a prestigious SA8000 certification on workplace conditions and worker rights just weeks before the fire.  In their published defense, SAI identified the very reason why workers must have the protection and assurances that currently exist only under CIW’s Fair Food Program: 

"[I]t is not unusual for social auditors to experience situations where true information about conditions is hard to uncover or intentionally falsified.  False documentation and pressure on workers not to tell the truth are regrettably common in some areas, and however skilled auditors may be in recognizing this, problems still exits.  These same problems face government inspectors as well." 

In contrast, the code of conduct that governs the Fair Food Program is monitored first and foremost by workers—not by social auditors or governments.  Under the Fair Food Program (FFP), every worker in the industry is first educated about the workplace code, and then protected from retaliation for making workplace complaints.   These complaints are the keystone to code enforceability, as they trigger investigations and dispute resolution by the Fair Food Standards Council—an independent third party.  Moreover, and perhaps even more important, violation of the standards can cost an employer—tomato growers in the FFP—the ability to sell its product to McDonalds, Burger King, Trader Joe’s, or other major brands that participate in FFP. 

Employment safety and health standards historically have been treated for too long as simply a cost of doing business for business.  Generally supportive of government budget cuts for enforcement agencies, many companies play fast and loose with worker safety, paying fines when caught, even shelling out settlement money when litigation ensues.  Yet on-site workers report that these skirmishes with the law do little to change employer behavior.  The FFP, however, is a system that makes human rights the business of the employer, or else it loses business.  This success was hard earned after many years of organizing, but the tragedy in Pakistan demonstrates that there are no shortcuts to ensuring human rights for workers and we must commit ourselves to the hard work of building on the ground responses to the savage abuses that are rife through almost every supply chain that feeds the profits of our U.S. retail giants.