After the Ali Enterprises factory fire: Proceedings against Italian auditor RINA

Pakistan – Textile industry – RINA

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.

Case

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.

Context

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.

Media

Memorial event on the 6th anniversary of Baldia factory fire in Pakistan. © Photo: ECCHR
Memorial event on the 6th anniversary of Baldia factory fire in Pakistan. © Photo: ECCHR

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documents (1)

Partners

  • Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association (AEFFAA)

glossary (4)

Definition

International Labour Organization (ILO)

The International Labour Organization is a United Nations agency with headquarters in Geneva. It is responsible for formulating and enforcing international standards on labor and social protection. These globally applicable minimum standards are designed to guarantee rights at work and promote humane and decent work for everyone.

Topics (4)

Insight

Social audits and certifications

Inspections, certifications, safety audits: what sounds helpful is often a sham. So-called safety and working condition audits are of little use to workers in global production and supply chains or residents of (agro)industrial areas. Instead of state inspections, for which there is rarely sufficient money or political will, private companies monitor labor, health and environmental standards.

This social auditing and certification system helps European buyers claim they are “doing something,” although in reality, it intensifies problems in the supply chain. By appearing to be a functioning, independent inspection of the supply chain, the system prevents the actors responsible – factory owners, manufacturers, distributors, and especially governments – from developing effective mechanisms to improve working conditions. The same applies, for example, to certifications of the sustainability of plantations, and the safety of medical products or hazardous structures such as dams.

However, repeatedly there are serious problems with inspections by private companies. Certifiers are sometimes commissioned and paid by the companies they inspect – undoubtedly a conflict of interest. Moreover, audits (also known as “conformity assessments”) often only provide snapshots of operations, especially when visits are announced, as is typical. In some cases, only issues with easily measurable indicators are examined, such as mandatory overtime and firefighting equipment. By making these visible and ignoring others, certifiers suggest that other problems, such as pressure on trade unions, discrimination or sexual harassment, do not exist. Inspection methods are also often problematic, for example, only using data from the inspected company’s management, interviewing workers in front of their superiors, or neglecting trade unions’ views.

ECCHR’s cases highlight a structural problem: in addition to their clients, certifiers bear responsibility for the environment and human rights, but it is difficult to hold them accountable. Particularly in high-risk industries such as mining and textiles, those responsible for safety, the environment and human rights must not be obscured by long and disperse decision-making chains. One possible solution is to create legal standards on quality control for social and sustainability audits, similar to those already in place for other types of certification.

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