In the wake of a devastating inferno that claimed the lives of nearly 300 garment workers at a Pakistani apparel factory a week ago, the International Labour Organization has appealed for national action to avoid similar tragedies in the future. The United Nations agency pledged Monday to not only provide assistance to the families of the victims but also implement a plan to protect workers’ health and safety. The ILO’s call to action came just as it emerged that an industry-financed factory-monitoring group gave the apparel plant a clean bill of health just last month. On September 12, a fire swept through the Karachi facility, trapping hundreds behind locked exits and resulting in the deadliest industrial disaster in Pakistan’s 65-year history.
Much like the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire 100 years ago, several workers were forced to leap from the top floors of the building. Most, however, suffocated from the smoke before the flames left their bodies charred beyond recognition. “Protection of workers’ safety and health is a fundamental human right,” says Seiji Machida, head of ILO’s SafeWork Programme. “We need to reinforce measures to protect workers’ lives from hazards in the workplace. We would like to call for national action to improve the protection of all workers.”
“Protection of workers’ safety and health is a fundamental human right,” says Seiji Machida, head of ILO’s SafeWork Programme.
Francesco d’Ovidio, ILO’s Pakistan country director, flew to Karachi on Friday to meet with Ishrat Ul Ebad Khan, governor of Sindh province, and discuss how the ILO can offer support and aid to the victim’s families. “The ILO is ready to offer immediate- and medium-term assistance, including skills-training scholarships to members of the victims’ families and link them with decent jobs,’ d’Ovidio says. “We will help enterprises put in place a safe work culture in workplaces through the rapid training of labor inspectors in Sindh.”
But the revelation that Social Accountability International, a New York-based nonprofit monitoring group that obtains much of its financing from corporations, certified the factory mere weeks before the accident calls into question current mechanisms of auditing, particularly in a country where corruption, political interference, and lackluster management are the rule rather than the exception, according to the New York Times.
Eileen Kohl Kaufman, executive director of SAI, told the newspaper that inspectors spent four days at the Karachi factory. Because this was an initial audit for certification, however, the facility’s managers had been warned ahead of time. Future inspections would have been without advance notice, she added.
Not all international rights campaigners are fans of the 15-year-old industry initiative. “The whole system is flawed,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a university-financed monitoring group based in Washington, told the Times. “This demonstrates, more clearly than ever, that corporate-funded monitoring systems like SAI cannot and will not protect workers.”
Others claim that independent audits are not enough. “Even after a decade or more of such private monitoring efforts, these programs—no matter how well-funded or designed or how well-trained their auditors are—simply do not in and of themselves produce sustained and significant improvements in labor standards in most supply-chain factories,” Richard M. Locke, a professor of political science at the MIT Sloan School of Management who has written extensively about monitoring, told the newspaper.