Riaz Ahmad, 32, was a machine operator at Ali Enterprises, a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.
Ali Enterprises was major supplier of German discount clothing retailer Kik for ready-to-wear garments.
Riaz used to work the morning shift. On September 11, 2012 he left his house at 8:30 in the morning and promised his wife to come back by 4:30 in the afternoon.
It was raining heavily that day and he just overstayed at the factory. He made a last call to his wife at 5:45 p.m.
“He was coughing and told me that the factory was on fire. ‘There is no way to get out. If I don’t return, take good care of my children.’ This was last time I heard his voice,” said Riaz’s 30-year-old wife, Nazia Perveen.
Riaz Ahmad was among the 252 victims (the official estimate) who died in the Ali Enterprises factory fire on September 11, 2012, one of Pakistan’s worst industrial disasters in history.
However, Riaz’s family is among those 24 that haven’t yet received the corpses of their loved ones.
So far, 17 bodies are still placed at the Edhi morgue in Karachi, and despite conducting the DNA test three times, those bodies have not been identified yet.
In the last few months the families had refused to give permission for a mass burial because they first wanted the government to ensure they would get compensation.
“He used to earn Rs 30,000 (USD 300) and we were living a good life, but I lost everything after his death. I have to sell my gold ornaments and other stuff to make a living for my family. I have not even received compensation because my husband’s body has not been recognized,” Perveen said.
The trade union leaders said that at least 262 workers lost their lives in the fire, but the relatives of only 212 of the deceased have received compensation cheques so far.
The government has planned to issue death certificates to families of 17 more victims, and on Sunday 10 February families finally accepted to hold a mass burial for the charred corpses lying at the morgue.
But now the problem is that there are 17 bodies and at least 24 claimants.
“It means that only some of bodies had been recovered,” Shujaah Qureshi, a senior researcher at Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research.
In fact, some bodies might have turned into ashes because of the heavy fire and cleared with the debris of the factory
“So far 212 families received Rs 900,000 (USD 9000) as compensation. The German company Kik has also agreed to pay one million US dollars. We have tried to use this money to compensate the families with no compensation yet.”
He said that this factory fire in Karachi has not changed the situation for labourers much.
“After the accident, the government wanted to show some seriousness and ensure safety at the workplace, but soon business was as usual. Factory owners are too powerful in Pakistan,” he said.
Nasir Mansoor, Karachi-based head of the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), said that the government was an accessory to the crime against the workers.
“There were at least 1500 people working at Ali Enterprise, but only 190 of them were officially registered. Most of those in the factory were working on third-party contract and that is the reason we do not even know the exact number of the labourers who died on September 11,” he said.
Many lost their lives because they could not escape the blazing fire in the building that had only one accessible exit, since all of the other doors were locked.
Mansoor also said that the government had been supporting factory owners.
In December the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, asked that the case be re-investigated and the charges of murder against the owners of the factory be dropped.
On February 11, a Pakistani court granted bail to the two owners and two of their employees as well.
According to an anonymous government official, the factory administrative employees admitted that the factory doors were locked to prevent workers from leaving their place or to prevent theft of material or equipment.
“The premises were actually made for a small-industry hosiery unit, with an approved capacity of 250 workers maximum. But the factory owner expanded the hosiery unit into a leather garment and denim factory and constructed two extra floors illegally and hired 1,500 workers,” he said.