Why Did Hundreds Perish in Pakistan Infernos?

A Pakistani fireman tries to extinguish a factory fire on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012 in Lahore, Pakistan. A fire that broke out
A Pakistani fireman tries to extinguish a factory fire on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012 in Lahore, Pakistan. A fire that broke out in a factory in eastern Pakistan on Tuesday after sparks from a generator hit chemicals used to make shoes killed dozens of people, a Pakistani police officer said. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Three hundred and twenty-five people are confirmed dead in two separate infernos in just under 24 hours, in the largest and second-largest cities of Pakistan. This is not the final death toll, as more bodies might be discovered. Parallels can be drawn to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that happened over a century ago. While safety standards have greatly improved in the Western world, most of those died in Pakistan were working in a sweatshop, presumably making wares for the rich Western clientele.

The gory dance of death began in Lahore, the second-largest city of Pakistan, where a fire erupted in an illegal shoe-sole-making factory. The production unit was located in a densely populated area, though the neighbors somehow managed to stay safe. The fire consumed the lives of 26 people -- men, women, and children.

Just a few hours after the incident, another fire erupted in Karachi, the largest city and the industrial hub of Pakistan. This time, the scale of destruction was massive. Two hundred and eighty-nine bodies have been recovered so far, and the toll may rise.

These lives could have been saved had there been occupational safety regulations in place. That is not the case, though, and the loss of so many precious lives bears testimony to the fact that the country has failed its people. The Karachi factory had only one functioning exit, and that, too, was shut down under mysterious circumstances when the fire broke out. A few managed to jump to safety, though they sustained major injuries in the process. The others, including women and children, were less fortunate.

There are a few occupational safety laws in Pakistan. The startling fact is that most of them were made during the colonial times, when the industrial revolution had not reached the shores of Pakistan. Still, the Factory Act of 1934 has a number of provisions regarding fire safety. None of these was met at the sites of devastation -- or at thousands of other factories, for that matter.

Why did this happen? The answer is not hard to find. Deep-running corruption in Pakistani society is to blame. Although there are many inspection authorities, none bothers to visit the industrial units. Political connections and bribes are enough to win the favors. Inspectors give a clean chit, and the factory owners continue making huge profits. It is the poor workers who suffer at the end of the day. They subsist on meager salaries and are always at risk of sustaining injuries or losing their lives.

Analogies can be drawn to the working conditions in Europe and the U.S. in the early 20th century. While unionizing and labor laws have ensured worker safety in these regions, the "Third World" is still afflicted with the curse. The West still shares some blame, though. The sweatshops in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and China largely cater to Western buyers. It is the buyers who can force the suppliers to implement safety regulations and pay their employees well. How is that going to happen, though, when even Apple (the epitome of modern consumption trends) gets components of its products made in Chinese sweatshops?