On 11 September 2012, 259 people lost their lives, and hundreds more were injured, when they were trapped in the inferno that consumed the Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi’s Baldia Town. At the time, the sheer scale of the tragedy prompted a public outcry that drew attention to various safety lapses and instances of criminal negligence, on the part of the factory’s management, that exacerbated the crisis and contributed to the deaths of so many workers. In the aftermath of the fire, the families of the victims were promised compensation and vows were made to bring the factory’s owners to justice for failing to implement, and comply with, basic safety standards.

Unsurprisingly, over two years later, these promises have not been fulfilled in any meaningful way. Many of those owed compensation by the government and KIK, the German fashion brand that had outsourced production to the Baldia factory, have yet to receive any, and the sums that have been pledged for this purpose do not, in any case, amount to more than a pittance. Protests and marches aimed at getting the government and KIK to negotiate with the families of the victims have been met with delays and excuses, and it seems unlikely that any progress will be made in the near future. To add insult to injury the owners of the factory, initially arrested and brought before a court on charges including murder, were quickly released on bail, and have yet to be brought to justice for their culpability on the tragedy. As if that was not enough, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) tasked with ascertaining exactly what happened released a report earlier this week in which they alleged that the fire had resulted from a deliberate act of arson. According to the JIT, individuals associated with the MQM set fire to the factory after its owners refused to pay them Rs. 200 million in protection money.

Amidst all the grief and anguish that naturally accompanies news of the latest act of terror in Pakistan, it is often easy to forget that there are more routine, systemic forms of violence continually being perpetrated against the weakest and most marginalized sections of society. In the case of the Baldia factory fire, it is clearly evident that the lives of several hundred workers are of little consequence in the grand scheme of things; for all the pledges that were made to overhaul the system, enforce rules, and prevent such atrocities from happening again, nothing has been done. Work in Pakistan, particularly in the informal conditions that increasingly define low-paid wage labour, continues to be undertaken in an environment plagued by nonexistent regulation, official indifference, and the untrammelled pursuit of profit. It is a sordid state of affairs, one in which the interests of multinational capital, indigenous economic elites, and organized crime and politics intersect to perpetuate the exploitation of the working classes.

The case of the Baldia factory fire is symptomatic of a deeper malaise, and it is imperative that we understand the structural factors that gave rise to the tragedy and continue to ensure that nothing will change. Countries like Pakistan, possessing economies shaped by colonialism to produce primary products, and engaged in trade as part of a global capitalist system that is weighted against them, end up competing against each other in an endless race to the bottom in their attempts to attract foreign investment. This inevitably leads these countries to undertake measures that make their economies more ‘competitive’, with lax labour laws and a disregard for the environment generally being seen as an indispensible means through which to lower production costs and thus facilitate investment. For their own part, multinational corporations are more than happy and willing to exploit such conditions for profit. In Pakistan, evidence of this is not difficult to find. For example, Nestle has long been accused of plundering precious groundwater reserves in order to sell bottled water to the rich, with this seriously impacting the wellbeing of the communities dependent on this water for their survival. Coca Cola has been implicated in serious abuses of workers rights, with its management accused of using violence and strong-arm tactics to discipline labour. Similarly, Nike and other global apparel brands continue to make use of sweatshop and child labour in Pakistan, while global pharmaceutical companies continue to ensure that their monopoly on the production of expensive lifesaving drugs is maintained. The list goes on and on.

It would be ludicrous to expect these companies to behave in a more ethical fashion; for all the empty rhetoric about corporate social responsibility and moral standards, these companies are ultimately out to make profits and will do so as and when they can, through any means if necessary. This much is clear from their history not just in Pakistan but also in other parts of the world. Ultimately, the task of regulating the corporate sector and ensuring the welfare of the working classes is a responsibility that falls on the state. Here, however, the structural imperatives of capitalist accumulation, an unquestioning adherence to IMF-prescribed economic policy, and the political influence and power of the propertied classes, ensures that few, if any, barriers are ever erected to impede the pursuit of lucre by foreign capital and its local collaborators. Indeed, for all their differences, the main political parties in Pakistan are virtually unanimous in their support for privatization, their belief in less regulation of the economy, and their willingness to do whatever it takes to work with potential sources of foreign investment. Despite the manifest failure of neo-liberal economic doctrines and theories of ‘trickle-down’ growth around the world, the mainstream economic discourse in Pakistan continues to revolve around these discredited ideas.

It is in this context that we must scrutinize reports that the government intends to re-route the Pak-China Economic Corridor through Punjab and Sindh, rather than Balochistan and KPK as originally envisaged. The establishment of this corridor, which will link China to Gwadar and bring with it billions of dollars worth of investment in infrastructure, was seen as a potential means through which to bring economic development to some of the most socio-economically deprived parts of Pakistan. For the government, having the corridor pass through the Eastern half of the country makes it easier to ensure its security, given the presence of militancy in Balochistan and KPK, and also allows for existing infrastructure to be utilized as a means through which to get the project started. However, this approach is incredibly shortsighted, and reflects precisely the same kind of thinking that has historically given rise to ethno-national resentment in Pakistan; once again, it seems as if a predominantly Punjabi political and economic establishment is making use of its power to further enrich itself at the cost of the other provinces. Opposition from the ANP and different Baloch parties to the government’s plans is thus not unexpected.

There is, however, another aspect to all of this that must also be considered. As the government’s record in Saindak and Reko Diq has shown, the presence of Chinese investment does not, in and of itself, guarantee that it will prove beneficial for the citizens of Pakistan. While Chinese companies have profited to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars through their control over these mines, the federal government has received a much smaller share of the total. To make matters worse, Balochistan itself has only received 2% of the proceeds. As the government gears up to manage an influx of $45 billion worth of Chinese investment associated with the Economic Corridor, it is clear that much of this money will simply be used to further Chinese economic interests. In the absence of transparent monitoring and meaningful mechanisms through which to check rent-seeking and corruption, it is also obvious that select elements of the political and economic establishment will make a lot of money from this process. As always, ‘development’ will be of marginal importance.

Marx once argued that it was incredibly naïve to expect a capitalist state to undertake measures that ran contrary to the logic of the capitalist economic system. For him, calls for reform in such a context were meaningless, and that radical and substantive systemic change, emerging out of the mobilization of the working classes, was the only way in which capitalist exploitation, and the interests of the economic elite, could be effectively challenged. Absent such a movement, private gain will always trump public interest, the conditions that led to the Baldia fire will remain unchanged, and the plunder of Pakistan’s economy by foreign and domestic interests will continue unabated.