In Karachi, Pakistan, 11 September 2012 is ingrained into people’s minds as the day on which over 250 people did not return home to their families after a long day of work. A fire in the Ali Enterprises garment factory had spread rapidly, fed by the bales of finished product laying around, a stairwell that soon functioned as a chimney, and wooden structures inside the factory. Hundreds of workers were trapped in a building with barred windows, non-existent fire exits, and only one stairwell – filled with smoke. Many workers stood no chance of escaping from a building that was manifestly unsafe, even though it had been certified in the weeks prior to the tragedy.
This was the largest industrial incident in Pakistan’s history – and the deadliest fire in a garment factory anywhere – but it was not some freak accident. It was enabled by inadequate or absent national inspections, as well as a social auditing system that frequently fails to uncover safety violations and often falls short on addressing those that it cannot ignore. Factories and apparel companies continue to hide behind the false and too often fatal assurances created by an auditor visiting the factory and giving it his blessing.