Who is the King of Pakistan
The "customer is king" - even if it costs life
In September and November 2012, two textile factories burned down in Pakistan and Bangladesh, killing over 350 people. Then, in April 2013, the Rana Plaza building complex in a suburb of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, collapsed. 1113 workers were killed here and more than 2000 people were seriously injured. Within eight months, 1,500 people in Pakistan and Bangladesh lost their lives in the production of clothing intended for the European and North American markets. These factory accidents are often spoken of as tragedies, suggesting that they were unavoidable accidents. The opposite is true. When the fire broke out in the Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi on September 11, 2012, the windows were locked with iron bars and the few emergency exits could not be opened. The only escape route for the workers was the main exit. It was impossible for over 250 people to leave the building in time; they died in the flames, suffocated or drowned in the extinguishing water that collected in the basement.
These people would not have had to die if basic fire protection regulations had been observed. But the competent authorities in the Pakistani Ministry of Labor did not have the capacity to monitor the safety standards in the many factories in the industrial center. Like many other factories, the Ali Enterprises factory was not even registered with the relevant authorities.
The Pakistani state is doing little to remedy this grievance. The shortcomings in the enforcement of existing occupational safety laws are due not least to the structural adjustment programs of the IMF in the 1980s and 1990s, which also urged Pakistan to streamline state institutions and cut staff, which is still having an impact today. At the same time, neither the Pakistani government nor the employers are interested in protecting their workers. In the metropolis of Karachi there are many people who are urgently looking for employment, so that the individual can easily be replaced and there is always someone interested in poorly paid work under problematic conditions. In addition, the labor force is hardly organized, only a fraction of Pakistani textile workers are members of a trade union.
And yet the Karachi disaster is not only a Pakistani problem, but also a consequence of the global networking of economic processes: The main buyer of Ali Enterprises' production between 2007 and 2012 was the German textile discounter KiK. The "KiK Textilien und Non-Food GmbH" based in Böhnen was founded in 1994 by Stefan Heinig together with the Tengelmann group of companies. The abbreviation KiK stands for “customer is king”, the company is considered the largest German textile discount chain with over 3200 branches in various Central and Eastern European countries. After the fire, a KiK manager confirmed in a “Spiegel” interview that Ali Enterprises had grown “big” through the business relationship with KiK. Because the production for KiK required at least 70 percent of the capacity of Ali Enterprises.  The company was therefore heavily economically dependent on its German client. For KiK, however, the burned down factory in Karachi was only one of over 500 suppliers. In view of the high number of deaths caused by the Ali Enterprises fire, KiK found itself in moral distress and initially paid one million US dollars in emergency aid to the relatives of those killed. But the company still vehemently denies any legal responsibility.
This case proves all doubts about the voluntary corporate social responsibility (CSR): KiK had the factory checked four times by an audit company between 2007 and 2011, including compliance with maximum working hours, the prohibition of child labor and fire protection . According to these reports, there was a problem with excessive overtime, which despite the apparent violation of KiK's code of conduct, nobody at KiK took offense. The fire protection, on the other hand, was assessed by the auditors in 2011 as perfect. The Italian certification company RINA came to the same conclusion just a few weeks before the fire in July 2012. The fact that the windows were barred and the emergency exits were blocked shows that adequate precautions had not been taken in the event of a fire. But what is the value of job security audits and certifications if workers have to die in this way?
KiK washes its hands in innocence and claims that at the company's headquarters in Böhnen, no one could have suspected that something was wrong with fire protection. As full-bodied as KiK is committed to protecting basic labor rights in its sustainability reports and to NGOs, the company rigorously rejects any legal responsibility towards the workers with reference to the social audit reports. After the collapse of the factory complex, audit reports also appeared here. Among other things, TÜV Rheinland examined individual production facilities in the Rana Plaza building for German textile companies for compliance with social standards. None of the known audit reports indicated that the building was dilapidated and that additional floors had been added without corresponding structural calculations and legal building permits. The Karachi and Dhaka disasters give the lie to the social audit business.
A system of organized irresponsibility
In such moments, global production chains once again present themselves as systems of organized irresponsibility. The fire in Karachi and the collapse of the Rana Plaza are social consequences of the shift in production processes in the textile industry from Western and Central Europe to the global south. Like most European and North American clothing companies, KiK no longer produces the clothing itself, but has a global, flexible network of independent suppliers. The companies decide from order to order which factory is to be awarded contracts and under which conditions. If the requested quality is not delivered at the requested price within the stipulated period of time, the next order goes to one of the many competitors. As production steps become more flexible and the possibilities of control and influence are distributed among various actors (local factories, local occupational safety authorities, auditors, international buyers), it becomes more and more difficult to identify who is ultimately responsible for the weakest links in the supply chain, who Workers.
This is exactly what some of those affected now want to do. The employees and survivors we met on our trips to Pakistan and Bangladesh are very different from those in the pictures immediately after the fires and building collapses there, which mainly showed helpless, desperate victims and the chaos of inadequate emergency supplies. Now those affected who have banded together are demanding compensation and justice. Individually and in different groups they fight for their rights and for justice.
Dedicated Pakistani lawyers represent the interests of relatives in criminal proceedings against the factory owners in Pakistani courts. It is not least thanks to these lawyers that, for the first time in Pakistan's history, a factory owner was held in custody for several months because of an industrial accident. Furthermore, an administrative law suit was filed as a public interest litigation with the High Court of Sindh. In this lawsuit, the NTUF union asserted that the criminal investigation should be extended to the officials responsible for inspecting textile factories, the auditing company RINA and the purchasing company KiK. During our visits we discussed with the organization of those affected about the advantages and risks of lawsuits in Germany against KiK and against RINA in Italy. Nevertheless, the group nominated ten aggrieved members who are to symbolically sue KiK on behalf of all those affected. And finally, Mohammad Jabir, Abdul Aziz Khan, Saeeda Khatoon and Mohammad Hanif reached it with our support on March 12, 2015, two and a half years after the fire at the Ali Enterprises factory, which had cost some of their sons' lives and others their health , Sued KiK for compensation at the Dortmund Regional Court.
The erosion of law
Under the conditions of our current economic system, such conflicts arise again and again between the economic interests of transnational companies and the human rights of those affected. Often there seem to be insoluble contradictions between the two. Even if there may be other examples, companies aim to make a profit. They are supported by the idea of the free market, which regulates itself and therefore does not require any external corrections. In the opinion of many company representatives, anyone who advocates the establishment of human rights rules does not understand anything about business. A central argument has already been named: here the attempt to establish standards for the protection of people and their environment and their implementation, there the prevailing idea of deregulated, worldwide free trade, which accepts standards only as voluntary in the sense of corporate social responsibility.
In the industrialized countries of Western Europe, it was above all the workers 'movements in the 19th and 20th centuries and, following them, social movements such as the opponents of nuclear power and environmentalists, who politically fought for workers' rights and environmental standards within the nation states. When class compromises were made, a more or less democratic legal framework could develop. In times of great crises and wars, things look different. Capitalist economic activity was and is not necessarily tied to the political form of bourgeois-democratic society. At the same time, the global and digitized economy is loosing its ties to the nation state and national law.
In the global south, the situation is different anyway: During colonialism, millions of people were killed and entire countries were robbed. The deformations of societies and the economy continue to have an impact today - also because local elites are only looking for their own advantage. In large parts of Asia, despite and because of the huge wave of industrialization, immense social inequalities still prevail today. In the last few decades, the global economic system has established and cemented structures that withhold social human rights from large parts of the population of the south, such as the right to food and water, to decent housing, health and education. In addition to these structural human rights violations, dramas such as the murder of trade unionists in the Argentine military dictatorship in the 1970s and in Colombia's civil war in the 1990s and 2000s, or the poison gas dump off Ivory Coast in 2006.
Fight at all levels - locally, nationally and internationally
A politically organized international that is fighting for human rights, as it is called in the song of the socialist workers' movement, is currently not in sight. After the end of the 1968 movement, real socialism and the Cold War, the great utopias no longer seem feasible. Even in countries with a long trade union tradition such as Germany or Great Britain, the unions are fighting for their political influence. Nevertheless, active trade unions will continue to be a driving force in the fight for human rights in working life - locally, nationally and internationally.
In the last few decades in particular, however, new internationalist associations of development organizations and solidarity and human rights movements have been countering the harmful effects of global economic activity in the south - but also regional social movements such as the Brazilian landless organization “Movimento dos Trabaladhores Rurais Sem Terra” (MST for short).
With around 1.5 million members, the "Movement of the Landless" is the most extensive social movement in Latin America - and due to its size, scope and internationalist aspirations, it is the most influential social movement in the global South. It is an example of the resistance against the old elites of the country, which have dominated the country since the Portuguese colonization, as well as against the global players in the agro-mining industry. It was founded in 1984 by landless agricultural workers in the final phase of the Brazilian military dictatorship to combat the unequal distribution of land in Brazil: Even today, 10 percent of the population there own 80 percent of the land. Right from the start, the MST occupied fallow and illegally used large estates in order to enforce their demand for land access. Members of the movement are often victims of violence by state security forces or thugs and militias hired by the local landowners and business elites.
Following the occupations, the MST tries to scandalize the illegality and injustice of the ownership structure in the respective country and to enforce legalization. In this way, she was able to achieve legal goals in a state dominated by class justice. The legal recognition of real estate was successfully fought for thousands of families. A similar number of families are still waiting for land use to be legalized today. In addition, the organization is setting up its own educational institutions and advocating ecological smallholder agriculture. In doing so, it creates a powerful counter-narrative to the model of the export-oriented agricultural industry, which is dominated by transnational corporations. The MST is also a member of the "Via Campesina" (the peasant way) movement, founded in 1993, a worldwide association of various organizations of smallholder producers, landless farm workers and indigenous people. Via Campesina stands for a worldwide movement against the agricultural economy monopolized by large companies. She opposes the prevailing neoliberal discourse in the agricultural industry with the concept of food sovereignty and a just food policy. The needs and living conditions of those who produce food should be the focus, land should no longer be treated as a market economy commodity. Via Campesina also combines political with legal demands.
The fight for justice and the promise of justice
After all, movements critical of globalization employ various means of resistance around the world. One of the approaches is to insist on legally binding obligations for companies to comply with minimum human rights standards. Because contrary to the opinion of many, there are international and national rights that those affected by human rights violations can invoke. However, the difficulties that those affected - like the victims of KiK - experience when they assert their rights against companies are glaring, and these reveal the weakness of human rights.
But the beginnings of an international legal practice can be recognized that is still incomplete and marked by setbacks. Criminal charges against German entrepreneurs due to incidents in Argentina, Congo or Sudan, like the civil lawsuit brought by the Pakistani textile workers against KiK, are still unusual, even for the lawyers directly involved. Nevertheless, it is clear that those affected and their organizations are bringing transnational legal actions against the transnational economy. For this, legal reforms are necessary so that the blatant weakness of the enforcement of human rights claims in particular can be overcome.
Lawsuits like the one against KiK, in conjunction with other initiatives and campaigns, can help ensure that labor rights can be better enforced in global supply chains. A more binding legal framework for transnational companies, on the basis of which they can be held accountable, would also empower trade union organizations and interest groups, so that in the future the workers could fight politically and legally for their own interests more easily and without repression.
Utopian notions of justice can find their expression in positive law and materialize in national law as well as in international conventions. They set important standards in the current legal disputes. We can measure the sometimes dreary reality against them, identify concrete injustices and thus question the prevailing world conditions. It is true that people do not get their rights directly in this way. The political, social and economic hierarchies are often cemented to the detriment of human rights, especially through commercial law. But millions of people have no access to a legal process in which they can assert their human rights.In the global power structure, it must be about addressing justice and injustice, translating human rights from legal to political with the help of social movements and vice versa, exploiting positive law in ongoing proceedings and lending effectiveness through legal reforms, always looking at further political and economic changes to penetrate.
Human rights versus economic interests: The emancipatory potential of law
So we are talking about law here as we are talking about justice. Do we think too positivistic and pragmatic when we emphasize the value of law and its emancipatory potential, although we know that many of the human rights violations described, which are tried in court, have systemic causes?
The realization of global social human rights certainly requires structural changes in the world economy. Individual judgments against companies or their managers are not sufficient here. In order to enforce fundamental rights, actors have to act on many levels.
One of these levels should be the struggle for justice - which takes place in the global south, supported by the organizations there, such as the Brazilian MST, the South African anti-privatization coalition and the Indian human rights lawyers. They are supported by the globalization-critical solidarity movement and the human rights movement from the north. Forums for these struggles are accessible to all, including the international judicial bodies and courts of the north. Fundamental criticism of the current world economy, thinking and discussing alternatives and our concrete actions in individual cases do not have to contradict each other, but can complement each other in the sense of concrete utopias. Our concrete utopia is linked to the vision of justice and its connection point in written law. In the past centuries, socially disadvantaged people have repeatedly used the law and claims based on it to enforce their social and economic claims. The 19th century movement in England and elsewhere against slavery (as well as for the right to vote and equality of women) combined demands for political and social equality with proposals for reforming the law and going to court in paradigmatic individual cases. The German labor movement also made use of the law as a resource in order to secure constitutionally and labor law for politically desired or already fought for demands.
The current movements and their lawyers, together with those affected and their organizations, specifically select cases that exemplify a human rights problem and on the basis of which a human rights claim is to be legally recognized and enforced - so-called strategic human rights actions, also known as legal interventions. Legal defeats can also serve as interventions in political and legal realities and contribute to political victories in the medium to long term. Because they problematize social, political or economic injustices, expose the legal reality as intolerable, initiate public debates and initiate political and legal changes.
Of course, this kind of success in human rights suits requires certain social and legal-political prerequisites, such as a functioning legal system and favorable political constellations - and of course active social movements and organizations of those affected. In situations of complete lawlessness and repression, even legal proceedings can only develop an emancipatory effect with difficulty, although it is precisely in such situations that the appeal to human rights can be an important part of freedom struggles.
Chances and Limits of the Legal Struggle
The importance of the legal procedure in the struggle for the validity of human rights and for decent living conditions should therefore neither be overestimated nor underestimated. International human rights organizations as well as national and regional lawyers often take an affirmative and positivistic stance on the law: too quickly, if a case is won, people speak of a victory for human rights. Whether and what a court ruling changes in the situation of the injured party and those affected, or whether and how a judge's ruling promotes the future validity of human rights, is too seldom questioned critically.
Therefore, the various criticisms of the law must be taken seriously: the appeal to the law undoubtedly resides in a paradox. The use of norms that have been generated by a society permeated by multiple structural inequalities can strengthen the system against which emancipation should actually be enforced. The law is the expression and safeguarding of existing relationships of power. It is precisely through national and international civil and commercial law that the dominant segments of society stabilize their ownership and exchange relationships as well as their patriarchal-heterosexual living conditions. The complex institutional structures that lead to legal violations all too often remain hidden in legal disputes. Because it is typical of the legal discourse that it restricts itself to concrete actions of individual persons and excludes structural injustices.
In addition, the question arises of how a court ruling can help those affected. Usually the law comes too late, the judgment often takes many years, and even if it wins, it can hardly reflect the extent of the injustice suffered, let alone make amends. Even the initiation of a process often represents a high risk to life and limb as well as to the psyche for the plaintiffs in view of the continuities in the police and military apparatus. They have to expose themselves with their experiences, submit to the rules of the procedure as witnesses and take action against often still powerful perpetrators, while the process usually has an uncertain outcome. In addition, law alienates the political and social conflict situations and abstracts them. Legal considerations and decisions disregard the emotional state of the injured party, even if a legally satisfactory result is achieved.
With the law against the power of circumstances
Nevertheless, the right and the appeal to rights also grant the socially disadvantaged security and a certain degree of freedom. In addition to the stabilizing aspects described, the law also offers the opportunity to question and shift power relations, for example between employers and women, between the sexes or between civil society and the state. According to Wolfgang Abendroth, social struggles for the law can be understood as emancipatory struggles for participation and a certain state of legislation and legal practice as an expression of a (class) compromise that pacifies society.
The narrowing and limitation of the facts inherent in every legal process also represents an opportunity: The legal process makes it possible to address a structural human rights problem in the form of an individual case, whereby it can be better conveyed - also in the media. A grievance can be demonstrated to a broader public as an example and a specific legal violation can be better scandalized - especially if the discussion is not limited to the outcome of the process, but takes this as an opportunity to look at a problem in depth. It can be made clear that the human rights violation suffered is not just a politically, socially or morally critical condition. Rather, the law has been violated and a limit has been exceeded: The injustice content of the committed act or acts can no longer be freely negotiated or interpreted, but has to be negotiated before the competent authority, usually before a court.
Even for the survivors and those affected by human rights violations, the legal process can already be of great importance. If they are actively involved in shaping the proceedings, they can free themselves from the role of passive objects who do not have a comprehensive say in their procedural role as witnesses or whose statements are dismantled by the lawyers on the other side. In the processes, however - with good preparation and support - they can regain their voice and language, and the narrative of violence can be countered with their own - that of survival, resistance and utopia.
The importance of human rights can be confirmed publicly through court proceedings and the judgment can further develop economic and social human rights. And yet: The future of transnational lawsuits in the human rights area is difficult to predict.
But regardless of the fundamental view that one might take on the relationship between law and politics and power, the use of legal means in processes of social change, but also in defensive struggles, is inevitable. Wherever people are murdered, tortured, illegally imprisoned, exploited, deported or politically charged, they need legal assistance. The more professionally and efficiently this is organized, the more promising this support will be, especially if political groups and movements organize it.
The law is therefore a necessary instrument here, sometimes used by one side to criminalize protests and resistance - and by the other to defend individual and collective freedom, for example in the case of human rights defenders or trade unions.
The extent to which legal interventions can actually help to overcome social grievances such as systematic human rights violations, i.e. the law can also be used offensively, ultimately depends on the social circumstances. But unlike many right and left cynics, we take the position that the use of legal means in a more or less strategic way can give political and social struggles to enforce universal human rights an additional impetus.
Real and discursive spaces can be (re-) occupied in this way. In Europe in particular, a lot can be learned from the social movements in the global south, which have developed a pragmatic, differentiated understanding of the law and a political practice that goes far beyond our current state of discussion.
* The article is based on “Companies in court. Global struggles for human rights ”, the current book by Wolfgang Kaleck and Miriam Saage-Maaß, which has just been published by Klaus Wagenbach.
Information from Michael Arretz, Managing Director for Sustainability Management and Corporate Communication at KiK Textilien und Non-Food GmbH until April 30, 2014, to Nils Klawitter, published in the article “Reliable Supplier”, in: “Der Spiegel”, 43/2012.
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