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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Deadly Pakistan Factory Fire Raises Questions Over Safety Inspections

A fireman tries to extinguish a fire which broke out in a factory on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012 in Karachi, Pakistan. Factory fires in two of Pakistan's major cities killed 39 people and injured dozens more. (AP)

A fireman tries to extinguish a fire which broke out in a factory on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012 in Karachi, Pakistan. Factory fires in two of Pakistan’s major cities killed 39 people and injured dozens more. (AP)

A leading trade union in Pakistan says factories in that country are more like death traps than work places.

Last month, nearly 300 people were killed when fire swept through the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi.

It turns out the factory had recently been inspected and had received the highest possible safety rating, even though faulty wiring and unsafe chemicals were found at the factory after the fire. And while the building was burning down, locked doors may have prevented some people from escaping. In fact, some workers jumped out of windows to escape the flames.

Once you’re delegating this authority to dozens of firms around the world working without any supervision, you are putting in place a system you cannot control.
– Scott Nova

The New York-based Social Accountability International certified the factory. The organization says its mission is to advance human rights of workers around the world.

But Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, said SAI and other monitoring companies aren’t reliable.

“While SAI claims that its mission is to advance the rights of workers around the world, what SAI really does is protect the reputations of apparel brands around the world,” Nova told Here & Now’s Robin Young.

Conflict of Interest?

Nova said that the monitoring companies suffer from a conflict of interest because they’re funded largely by the companies they’re certifying.

In many case, the factories choose and pay the monitoring agencies that issue the certifications.

Nova said that leads to certifications being given out that are neither safe nor responsible.

Outsourcing Safety Certifications

Just as global apparel brands are outsourcing production of their products to factories in places like Pakistan, monitoring firms are outsourcing safety inspections to companies around the world.

For example, SAI is based in New York, but it hires other firms to issue safety certification.

“Once you’re delegating this authority to dozens of firms around the world working without any supervision, you are putting in place a system you cannot control,” Nova said.

SAI officials say they have stopped working with the Italian company that certified the Ali Enterprise factory in Pakistan, and they are engaged in a broad review of the whole certification process.

Meanwhile, about 10,000 factories around the world currently have received this SAI certification.


  • Scott Nova, Worker Rights Consortium executive director

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  • Martha

    This is one extreme example of why I buy my clothes second-hand.  I don’t want to be a driver of this particular kind of global industry.  Can’t afford to buy from American manufacturers?  Buy at Goodwill, or hold a clothing swap with friends.

  • Jennifer Brownlee

    I believe that we can still have “cheap” clothing.  I want to know just how high the “profit margin” for these companies are.  I wonder if they existed on a more realistic profit margins then they can still produce clothing, even producing in the US again, and just still make profits.  Just not profits in the multimillions or billions.

  • Bruce D

    I don’t think consumers are saving a lot on the price of their jeans. In the 70′s, you could buy a pair of Levis– made in the USA, for between $10-20. Today, that same pair of jeans— made in a foreign sweatshop, sells for around $58. This is no bargain for American consumers, only for the corporate brand whose name is on the clothing. It’s a bum deal for consumers & especially for the poor workers.

  • Glen

    While the tragedy in Pakistan is heartbreaking we, as a country have suffered similar atrocities in our early history. A fire in the New York garment industry in the 30′s comes to mind, though the date may be in error.
    The interview with Scott Nova omitted the very influential aspect of a nation’s culture. Class separation is a dominant cultural phenomenon in Pakistan, as it is in many countries, including our own. While Scott Nova names Wal Mart as the largest evil retailer in opposition of unionizing workers he conveniently has omitted and ignores the cultural influence of these developing nations.
    It is not that long ago in the United States that Ceaser Chavez was staging hunger strikes and boycotts of the grape industry which was poisoning Hispanic farm workers in the fields so that the average citizen could enjoy unblemished grapes and fine wine. These class separations occur today and in all countries though in differing degrees. Time and education is the only way to institute change.
    That Mr. Nova should demonize job producing retailers for their corporate survival in a competitive global economy while expecting them to influence and change a nation’s cultural phenomenon centuries in the making smacks of a hidden agenda to unionize Wal Mart.

    • Anne

      I doubt there is any ‘hidden’ agenda of Nova’s to unionize WalMart.  I think he’d be pretty open about the need to unionize this mega-multinational that contributes to low wages in the US and abroad through its business practices and insistence on the lowest price and lowest wages in order to increase profit margin.  It’s a harmful business model.  Solidarity among workers (and consumers) is the greatest hope we have of overcoming such practices, which are bad for workers — and, ultimately, for all of us.  

  • John Caplan

    Unions need a certain level of law and order before they are useful.  If the Pakistani government is as corrupt as your guest claims I doubt unions there would be a more than a scheme to extort union dues.

  • Kary

    My sincere condolences go out to those people who lost love ones here. Factory owners like these ought to be ashamed. Also I applause News organizations like this for covering Real News. 
    Keep on telling the truth. 

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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