The first time I met Saeeda Khatoon was at a general body meeting of the Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association at the PMA House, the Pakistan Medical Association’s office, in Karachi in 2014.
I was a rookie journalist. After her speech, I was intrigued and the desk needed quotes so I approached her. She was extremely busy. Everyone wanted to talk to them, and she was able to know all of them.
She seemed to be the most prominent leader among the affected families. They called her Saeeda Baj. I asked her to interview me and she gladly agreed. The long, dusty, and broken road that led to her home on Baldia’s hill took me to her house. The house had one room and contained an iron cupboard, sewing machine, a table and a water cooler. There was also a mat on her floor and a photograph of a young curly-haired man.
He was only 18 when he died in the fire that erupted at the Ali Enterprises clothing factory in Baldia, along with 260 others. This happened a few years ago. His name was Aijaz. However, his mother called him Ayan.
He would return from work and knock on the door to ask for food. They used to eat together every single day. He was no longer with her, so she didn’t feel the need to cook. She survived for a long time on biscuits and tea from a kiosk.
Since then, I have been following her. Her leadership was pivotal in the formation of the German Supply Chain Due Diligence Act. This law is now being reviewed at European level.
Saeeda Baji’s story
It was her son’s payday. As she was about to finish her dinner, she received a phone call stating that the factory had caught on fire and that people were trapped in it. After arriving outside, she was shocked to find that the factory had caught fire and people were screaming for help.
She ran from one hospital to the next, running from ambulance to ambulance. The dead body of her Ayan was found in the factory’s basement on the second day of the fire that was still raging.
After losing her husband just a few short years, she lost her only son. The mother and son duo found themselves in poverty after they tried to pool their resources to make ends meet. The money she earned as a child carer at a school did not cover her expenses. The compensation that the government promised to give the victims’ families was her only hope of survival. She ran from pillar-to-post in search of the compensation, but came back empty-handed.
She knew of an NGO that could aid victims. They asked her for Rs30,000 per family to register their case in the system. The NGO was eventually vanished after she and others paid it. Some blamed her.
She was aware that not everyone wanted to help them, but she was more interested in making a profit from their misery. So she decided to take matters into her own hands. Together with her colleagues, she established a group for families who were affected to wage a collective battle. With the support of lawyers, union organizers, politicians and other sympathisers they were able find some comfort in the form a compensation through the Sindh High Court.
The SHC money helped her purchase a small house, and she was also able to get pocket money as a pension for a few more years. She wasn’t convinced. She was seeking justice. But this was not what she wanted.
She wanted to prevent others from suffering a fate similar to hers. In speeches, discussions, and press conferences she repeated this sentiment. I could see her shaking her voice and her eyes becoming teary every time.
She was aware that the fight she was fighting had many sides and involved many people, including states and firms. She was threatened by certain social and political elements that she would stop fighting her cause. Undoubtedly, these elements were jealous of her and wanted to hijack the victims’ movement. She didn’t seem to be bothered.
She represented the victims at various levels, including before the Pakistani, German, and European Union. Because of her and her colleagues’ struggle, the victims received some more compensation.
But, the corrupt mechanism was due to weak social institutions, poor governing policy, and other factors. But she desired more. Perhaps she wanted more.
After KiK, a German brand that purchased clothes from Ali Enterprises refused to admit responsibility for the fire, citing an investigation report by Pakistani law enforcement agencies and security agencies indicating it was an arson attack. She filed a civil lawsuit against the brand in Germany, and a criminal case against the Ali Enterprises factory owners in Pakistan.
She claimed that people were killed because they couldn’t find an exit. This meant that no safety and health measures were taken in the factory.
In late 2018, her case was finally decided in a German court. Her lawyers offered her the chance to speak during proceedings. The court refused and started to pronounce its verdict.
The German language, Deutsch was used to order the orders. Although she didn’t know the language, her facial expressions indicated that she knew it. She was very upset on that day. She preferred conversation to isolation.
Saeeda Baji was a wonderful person who I had the privilege of meeting on numerous occasions. She was an active participant in demonstrations for labor, women, and human rights. She would always find me, or vice versa, and we would then catch up.
Sometimes, she could sound depressed and hopeless as she faced hurdles after hurdle. She persevered despite everything. She knew people looked up to and respected her. She was able to understand the struggles of each family and made every effort to help them.
One of her last efforts was a change in pension rules, which prohibited payments to the victims’ parents for a specified time. When she learned that Germany had passed a law requiring German companies to correct human rights and environmental violations in their supply chains, she was delighted.
In 2021, she spoke at an IBA (Institute of Business Administration Book Launch) about what the law would mean for her if it was implemented. After she finished her speech, Justice Maqbool Baqar (then Supreme Court) rose from his chair to applaud her.
These changes were evident over the years: her hair became silvery from black, her dupatta changed from burqa to dupatta and her face got wrinkled. Her ninth anniversary of the factory fire was the last time she saw me. She appeared a little weak. She explained to me that she wasn’t well and that doctors were trying find the cause.
I found out that she had been diagnosed as having cancer in November 2022. I considered calling her later. A few days ago, I came across a Facebook post that said she was being admitted to hospital for treatment. I thought I had called her but forgot.
On December 29, 2022, I got a text from her confirming that she had died. I thought about calling her again. It was too late. Now I wouldn’t be able speak to her again. Saeeda Baji, rest in peace. The writer is a former journalist associated with The News