In September 2012, 259 people lost their lives and around 600 more were injured when a factory run by Ali Enterprises in Karachi’s Baldia Town caught fire. In the four years since then, families of the workers who died in in this incident have ceaselessly sought justice for their loved ones, engaging in regular bouts of protest and litigation to hold those responsible for the blaze accountable. Earlier this week, the International Labour Organization was able to reach an agreement with KiK, a German clothing retailer that was the factory’s largest customer, that would see the company provide 5.15 million dollars in compensation to the families of those killed in the fire. This decision, coming after years of campaigning and pressure, is welcome but ultimately insufficient, while KiK’s decision to pay compensation will see each affected family receive Rs. 1.7 million, the company has steadfastly refused to admit any liability for the fire, and continues to resist attempts to have it also pay damages for pay and suffering. Independently of this agreement, members of the Baldia Factory Fire Association, comprised of relatives of the victims, have taken KiK to court in Germany, and have received an initial ruling establishing that the company can be tried in a German court for human rights violations abroad.

This is an important precedent to set, and one that shines a light on the predatory and rapacious nature of global capital as well as the role played by pliant and often incompetent local governments in facilitating that continued exploitation of labour. According to reports issued by the Joint Investigation Tribunal set up by the government of Pakistan to ascertain the circumstances under which the Baldia factory fire took place, the blaze was an act of arson perpetrated by members of the MQM after the owners of the factory refused to pay them protection money. The notion that the fire was a deliberate act of sabotage, rather than something emerging out of poor working conditions or inadequate safety procedures, is the principal reason why KiK has continued to insist that it cannot be held responsible for what happened.

However, it is important to remember that while KiK and the owners of the factory might not have lit the spark that triggered this tragedy, their negligence and callousness was directly responsible for the massive loss of life that took place. As investigations in both Pakistan and Germany have revealed, the Ali Enerprises Factory had virtually nonexistent safety mechanisms in place to ensure the welfare of those working within it, despite possessing several international certifications that claimed otherwise. While KiK and the owners of the factory might not have been able to control for an act of arson, they certainly could have mitigated the loss of life by ensuring that more rigorous standards of safety and welfare were enforced.

KiK bears some responsibility for what happened precisely because it could have demanded that the owners of the factory adhere to the same levels of safety enjoyed by workers in Germany and much of the Western world, with failure to adhere to such directives leading the company to take its business elsewhere. Indeed, many around the world agree that multinational corporations have a duty to ensure human rights are not violated by actors participating in their global supply chains, with cases like Nike and GAP (exploiting sweatshop labour), Starbucks (refusing to pay coffee growers fair prices), and various mobile phone companies (using rare earth minerals mined from conflict zones) being just some examples of companies being subjected to boycotts and protests for their failure to prevent such abuses from taking place.

In some instances, these companies have been induced to reform their practices but it unfortunate that this has not been the case more generally. Ultimately, it is the relentless quest for profit that drives companies to exploit labour to as great an extent as possible, squeezing wages and cutting corners to boost margins, and it is not coincidental that the shift of manufacturing and production to the developing world has been facilitated by the poor formulation and implementation of regulations that would safeguard workers and the environment. As poor countries around the world compete to attract foreign investment, they are often engaged in a self-destructive race to the bottom whereby the creation of an atmosphere conducive to the influx of capital often involves compromising on, or turning a blind eye to, the continued abuse of the working classes.

Here, the responsibilities of the Pakistani state become clearer. It is telling that while the government has focused almost exclusively on how the fire started, questions of compensation and human rights violations are being considered by a German Court and an international organization like the ILO; for all the sound and fury that has accompanied the government’s statements on the Baldia fire, nothing concrete has actually been done to provide the families of the victims with justice. Those accused of starting the fire have yet to be tried and punished for what they allegedly did, and the owners of the factory have not been held accountable in any meaningful way. More importantly, there is virtually no discussion or debate over the issue of workers rights and welfare. Very few protections exist for workers in Pakistan, and even fewer are effectively implemented and enforced. Workers across Pakistan work for low wages in conditions that are often dangerous, and the task of preventing this from happening is one that the government continues to shirk.

Despite continuously mouthing platitudes about their desire to help the poor, all of Pakistan’s mainstream parties have done nothing to ameliorate the condition of the country’s toiling masses, preferring instead to engage in pointless bickering amongst themselves while their members continue to pursue their personal enrichment. Were it not for the efforts of a small number of trade unions, NGOs, and activists, the deepening exploitation of the working classes would go largely unremarked. As the government and opposition gear up for yet another showy round of mud-slinging and sloganeering over the Panama Papers, we would all do well to remember how little both sides care for the people they ostensibly represent.