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Pakistan's Textile Industry Faces Challenges

A fire last month that killed some 300 trapped workers at a garment factory in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi exposed serious flaws in the country's industry regulations. It was one of the worst industry disasters in Pakistan, one in which most victims were trapped behind closed or blocked fire exits. Union members blame a culture of easy violation of health and safety laws.

At the M.K. Sons factory in Faisalabad, which produces colorful printed fabrics for sale by U.S. retail giants like Walmart and Target, chief executive Rana Javed Akhtar insists that unlike the Karachi factory that burned down, his business is in line with international regulations.

"We have been audited by Walmart, Target," said Akhtar. "They come for social compliance as well as the safety, and for that we also have to be complianced. All fire exits, fire extinguishers are in compliance with international standards."

Textile exports are a major foreign exchange earner for Pakistan. The industry employs almost 40 percent of the country's workforce. That's significant in a country whose economy is shaky.

Union leader Zahoor Awan says the need for employment and corruption means many factory owners get away with providing illegal wages and substandard working conditions.

"This compliance system has a lot of questions on their credibility, this is now being asked and that is correct," said Awan.

But industry leaders in Pakistan say they have no problem abiding by workplace regulations.

Ali Raza Kari, of Faisalabad's BeBeJan company, says acute electricity shortages and customers' fear of terrorism will have a longer term impact on the industry and its workers.

"The point is that economic development and the corresponding prosperity are intertwined with political instability," Kari noted.

Kari says it will be up to the business community here to work with the government to solve the industry's considerable challenges.
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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.