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September 14, 2018

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Waiting for justice

Waiting for justice

Six years on from the Baldia Town factory fire, the families of the 260 victims are yet to receive justice. Even now, after years of investigations and political interference, the case is still at the pre-trial stage as the statements of witnesses are being recorded. Of the nine people who were charged with responsibility for the fire, only two are in prison with the others either out on bail or having absconded from the country. Even now, with the authorities promising that the case will be decided before the next anniversary of the tragedy, there is reason to doubt that justice will ever be served. The investigation into the fire has been botched from the very beginning. Originally the fire was blamed on an accident and the only charges recommended were against the factory owner, a manager and gatekeepers for negligence. It took another three years for a Joint Investigation Team to submit a report to the Sindh High Court, claiming that the factory had been set on fire by members of the MQM in a dispute over the payment of extortion money. The timing of this report raised questions, and many feeling that justice has been so lacking for those who perished in the factory fire that one can easily believe that they were used as pawns in a political fight.

As lax as the state has been in bringing to task those responsible for the Baldia Town factory fire, it has been equally negligent in improving workplace safety. Even if the cause of the fire was arson, the death toll was made innumerably worse by the complete lack of safety regulations in the factory. There were no fire extinguishers, only one exit and the fire brigade took too long to respond. The fire service still does not have sufficient fire engines and its response time has not improved any since then. The unholy nexus of the building mafia and corrupt government officials has forestalled any attempts to make sure building codes are enforced. Factory workers are as vulnerable as ever, largely because their attempts to form unions to safeguard their rights are thwarted by greedy owners and an apathetic state. Working for poverty-level wages in dangerous conditions, these workers are daily risking their lives and yet are barely able to make ends meet. The Baldia Town factory fire may have been one of the worst such incidents in our history, but the chances of a repeat are as high as ever.

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