More than 250 people died and over 30 were injured in a fire at the Ali Enterprises textile factory in Karachi, Pakistan, on 11 September 2012. Just three weeks before the fire, Italian certifier RINA Services SpA awarded the factory, which mainly produced clothing for the German retailer KiK, with the international SA 8000 certificate that is supposed to guarantee safety and other workplace standards. ECCHR and an international coalition of human rights organizations filed an OECD complaint against RINA in Italy in September 2018.
After lengthy mediation at the OECD Contact Point, those affected and RINA found a compromise: the auditing company was to pay 400,000 US dollars to the survivors and bereaved, and revise its global certification system with respect to human rights. The complainants already signed the agreement in March 2020. However, RINA delayed and eventually refused to sign in autumn 2020, thus denying its responsibility. This is an unsatisfactory end, especially for those affected, to a long legal process to address the Ali Enterprises factory fire in Europe.
RINA’s denial of its responsibility shows how companies should be legally obliged to respect human rights. The certifier could have prevented hundreds of deaths had it done its work properly. At the factory, many of the windows were barred, emergency exits were locked and the building had only one unobstructed exit, impeding employees from fleeing the fire. They ended up suffocating or being burned alive. OECD mediation procedures are clearly too weak to guarantee human rights, as there are no enforcement mechanisms and complainants depend on companies’ goodwill.
Those affected, supported by ECCHR, also submitted criminal complaints against RINA in Italy. In early 2016, the Genoa Public Prosecutor (Procura della Repubblica di Genova) ended its investigations arguing that no crime had been committed as the audit had been voluntarily.
Certification companies play a key role in exploiting workers from the Global South. Instead of state monitoring, which often lacks the necessary financial or political support, private companies are the ones to audit labor, health and safety standards. These private audits are widely criticized for having a flawed methodological approach. In many cases, the certifiers are employed and paid by the companies being audited, and employees’ interests are often neglected.
The experiences from the transnational cooperation between those affected, the Pakistani trade union NTUF, ECCHR, and other German and European partners will be published in an anthology in spring 2021. The book gives room for various actors from Pakistan and Germany to describe the case from their perspective, and analyzes the role legal interventions can play in defending social human rights in global supply chains.