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Pakistan Factory Fire Brings Working Conditions to Fore

As new information emerges, WRAP launches Pakistan fire prevention program.

Arshad and Shahid Bhaila, who along with their father Abdul Aziz Bhaila, owned Ali Enterprisea, the Karachi factory that burned down last week.

WASHINGTON — Safety standards in the global apparel industry are under the microscope once again.

In the wake of the tragic fire in the Asian nation that killed nearly 300 workers at a garment factory and intensified scrutiny over nonprofit monitoring and factory certification groups, one U.S.-based certification group plans to roll out a fire safety training program in Pakistan.

The fire ripped through Ali Enterprises Inc., a jeans manufacturer based in Karachi, Pakistan, last week, leaving 289 garment workers dead. The incident sent shock waves throughout the entire global apparel industry and raised questions about the safety of garment workers stitching clothing for European and U.S. brands in Pakistan and around the world. It also led to the resignation of the Sindh Minister for Industry, the arrest of the factory owners for attempted murder and brought more attention to the monitoring and certification companies used by hundreds of U.S. and European retailers and brands.

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WWD has learned that the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production organization, which has certified more than 10,000 factories in 72 countries, plans to launch a fire safety training program in Pakistan, building on programs it has run in Bangladesh, according to WRAP chairman Charles Masten. He said WRAP hopes to work with the Pakistani government and local trade groups to implement a training program in the near term.

WRAP had certified Ali Enterprises in 2007, 2009 and 2010, but the company’s certification expired at the end of 2011 and was not renewed this year. Masten, who noted that no violations were found in audits of Ali Enterprises, said the “common denominator” in fire safety compliance with core international standards for all brands, retailers, auditors and certification companies is that entrances and exits are not locked in foreign factories. Workers who survived the Karachi fire said employees could not easily escape the building because the doors were locked.

“I can feel comfortable that when that auditor went into the factory on that day and completed an audit, all those entrances and exits were not locked,” he said.

But Masten acknowledged that all bets are off when the auditors leave a factory.

“An audit is a snapshot when you go in there,” Masten said. “All hell can break loose as soon as the auditors leave. That is the reason that with all WRAP agreements up front, we let them know we will come back unannounced at any time we want to see if they are adhering to our principles. We don’t even tolerate doors being obstructed with big shipments that prevent workers from getting in and out of the factory.”

Ali Enterprises did receive certification in August from an independent auditor, RINA Services, showing it complied with core international labor standards, including health and safety requirements. The Italian auditing company has since suspended all auditing activity in Pakistan and launched an internal investigation. RINA was accredited and supervised by Social Accountability Accreditation Services, an independent company based in New York, which is undertaking its own internal investigation.

Eileen Kohl Kaufman, executive director of Social Accountability International, the company that established the separate SAAS accreditation company, said: “We are rethinking everything. This is a terrible tragedy. It is horrible. We hope our investigation, SAAS’s investigation, RINA’s investigation and the investigations by many NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], trade unions and the government of Pakistan will result in an understanding of what exactly happened so that everybody connected in any way can try to prevent future occurrences.”

SAI officials said in a statement on its Web site that social audits based on certifications are “imperfect at best.

“It is not unusual for social auditors to experience situations where true information about conditions is hard to uncover or intentionally falsified,” the statement said. “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 exist.”

Kaufman said the company has been involved in fire safety training programs in Bangladesh and is open to collaborating on new initiatives in Pakistan.

Details about which brands Ali Enterprises was producing began to emerge this week. German apparel and nonfood discounter KiK, which operates 2,600 doors in Germany and 3,200 doors in Europe, confirmed Ali Enterprises produced jeans for the chain. KiK noted it requires all contractors to conform to elementary labor laws and safety standards, which are examined by external, independent and accredited agencies.

KiK said it conducted three audits of Ali Enterprises through UL Responsible Sourcing Inc. After failing to meet fire safety requirements in the first audit in 2007, the factory took necessary actions, as confirmed by a report from Dec. 30, 2011. KiK said it is investigating the tragic event and has been provided with daily updates by its local purchasing agency. The retailer will also be meeting with UL Responsible Sourcing this week. KiK, which is among Germany’s 10 largest retailers, has previously come under scrutiny regarding the labor standards of its contractors in Asia. In reaction to the Karachi fire, KiK said it began setting up a relief fund last week.

In related news, German retailer Tchibo said it has reached an agreement with trade unions and social standards advocacy groups such as the Clean Clothes Campaign to implement a fire and building safety program in Bangladesh apparel factories. Tchibo is the second company to commit to the program, which was first agreed to by PVH Corp. in March.

“We take the risks very seriously and see the need to join forces at a multistakeholder level in order to achieve a sector-wide change in Bangladesh,” the company said Thursday.

Since 2006, more than 600 garment workers have died in Bangladesh due to unsafe buildings.