The number of people killed in this week's garment factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan, is neither final nor official, but the operative description in most press reports is "at least 289"—which, according to NFPA's Fire Analysis & Research Division, would make it by far the deadliest industrial building fire in history.
That unfortunate benchmark had previously been established by the Kader toy factory fire, which killed 188 workers near Bangkok, Thailand, in 1993. Before Kader, the deadliest such incident had been another garment factory fire: the Triangle Waist Co. fire in New York City in 1911, which killed 146 people and led to sweeping reforms in workplace safety in the United States, including the creation of NFPA's Life Safety Code.
Last year, when I was writing the story for NFPA Journal that marked the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire, I was struck by the lockstep similarity of many of the deadliest garment factory fires over the last century, which now tend to occur in developing (and often struggling) nations from Honduras to Bangladesh: few accessible exits, locked doors, little or nothing in the way of fire protection systems, lax inspection, non-existent enforcement. Such conditions are part of the collateral danger associated with the global garment industry's so-called "race to the bottom," the ongoing search for manufacturing locations that offer the cheapest labor and the fewest regulatory concerns. Every day, millions of workers around the world walk into garment factories that can accurately be described as death traps.
That description is being widely applied to the Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi, which reportedly produced clothing for American and European labels. Reports estimate as many as 2,000 workers were in the multi-story factory on Tuesday evening when the fire began, but that only one exit was available—the rest had been locked. Most of the building's windows were barred. Some people were killed or injured trying to jump to safety, but most of the casualties were workers who, suddenly confronted by smoke and flame, had nowhere to go.
Early reports suggest the fire was caused by an electrical short, which would present yet another layer of regulatory need. "Wali Muhammad, a former electrical inspector, said that most accidental fires are caused by short circuits in equipment," The New York Times reported. "But since 2003, he said, inspectors had been forbidden by law from visiting factories in Karachi and Punjab; it was not immediately clear why."
Perhaps, but it doesn't require a conspiracy theorist to come up with some plausible guesses—none particularly flattering to factory owners or local officials—as to why such a law might exist.
The sad and unnecessary events in Karachi come at a time when NFPA is working with stakeholders around the world to adopt our codes and standards, and when it is partnering with other standards development organizations to promote the use of the most up-to-date versions of safety codes. If anything, the circumstances around the Karachi fire highlight just how advanced and forward-thinking those efforts really are, while people across much of the planet, for a host of reasons, still face staggering fire risks in the course of something as simple as getting up in the morning and going to work. For much of the developing world, the question persists: What will it take to spur the adoption of relevant codes and standards, and even more importantly, what will it take to ensure even a modicum of enforcement?
Meanwhile, opportunity loves a vacuum. The global garment industry has time and again proven itself predatory, unapologetic, and largely unaccountable for its labor and safety practices, and until it is met with code adoption and the will to enforce those codes, it will continue with business as usual, and at a terrible cost. Yesterday's Triangle becomes today's Karachi becomes tomorrow's new deadliest industrial building fire. As a Triangle survivor once put it, the fire still burns.