About a decade ago, Karachi’s Saddar Cooperative Market was lined with shops selling Pakistani artisanal handicrafts: jewellery, ornaments, textiles, furniture, wooden and brass artefacts, leather goods and other decorative tidbits. Today, only a handful of shops have survived.
“There’s one on the main road and another towards the backside of the market,” says one shopkeeper selling cloth, about the handicrafts’ shops. “There were 50 or 60 shops here and most of them have shut down. If you really want to know more, go to Pak Colony or Manzoor Colony.”
Pak Colony is major working class neighbourhood in Karachi. Bisected on both sides by the Manghopir Road, the locality houses part of the informal marble and tiles industry in Karachi. Walking through its narrow and dusty lanes, I’m introduced to a middle-aged man named Kamran.
Some five years ago, Kamran ran a workshop that made assorted marble products. From ashtrays to paperweights, wine-glasses, key-chains to minimised versions of the animal kingdom, Kamran manufactured them all in his small and dusty workshop.
“We would send 50,000 rupees worth of items on a weekly basis [to the shops],” he says. “The labourers employed under me were also able to save up to 12,000 rupees every month.”
For Pakistanis the most visible showcase of the marble decline is in the once-booming handicrafts sector
As we walk into the same workshop, Kamran explains that the space is now used as a goat pen for his family. To make ends meet, he drives a rickshaw that he bought on loan. “Things have changed and we do whatever we can to make ends meet,” he says.
But this isn’t just Kamran’s story.
Miles away, in another part of town, Manzoor Colony is chockfull of similar accounts. In fact, Pak Colony and Manzoor Colony have slowly seen handicraft workshops shut down after the price of onyx (a type of marble) began rising in the local market about three years ago.
“There were about 200 workshops in Manzoor Colony alone,” says Zeeshan, a small scale exporter of handicrafts. “Today you will find just four or five.” Each workshop employs an average of four workers and each worker supports a family of five.
But the many other artisans who lost work were forced to look for pastures anew. Some became rickshaw drivers, others set up roadside cigarette stalls, and some headed to work in factories, while many others moved to Punjab to work in the salt mines.
There were about 200 workshops in Manzoor Colony alone,” says Zeeshan, a small scale exporter of handicrafts. “Today you will find just four or five.”
“If the labourers aren’t going to earn, they will switch jobs,” Zeeshan says matter-of-factly. “The A-grade marble that used to be available to us is beyond our purchasing power now. What is available to us is the B-, C- or D-grade marble.”
At Pak Colony, I’m seated in Rehman Masih’s workshop. He’s fondly called ‘Mani Bhai’ by his co-workers. Masih is a labour contractor, with his men artisans of various marble handicrafts. The communal association helps of course: Masih largely hires Christian workers.
It is afternoon and there is no electricity. The walls of his workshop are caked with white dust from the grinding and shaping of the marble. And as Masih explains, he doesn’t own the workshop but the labourers working with him have all been brought by him. Not only does he deal directly with the workshop owner on the others’ behalf, the others also follow his recommendations about where to work and where not to.
“We have to work longer hours because of the load-shedding,” explains Masih. “Our standard work shift is eight-hours-long but due to the power outages, we aren’t working for five of those hours. This lost time is made up by working overtime, but without any overtime remuneration.”
For contractors such as Masih, who once had an abundance of orders, marble work has become seasonal or dependent on an event taking place. The marble processing sector in Karachi was already on shaky foundations for the past few years. Input prices have rocketed but then labour too is not permanent. In the previous year, Masih and his co-workers got fed up with the low remuneration on offer and switched jobs. Mani took to driving a rickshaw.
On the day when we met, Masih and his three workers — Javed, Jaga and Shehzad — were processing an order for a handicrafts exhibition at the South and Southeast Asia Commodity Expo and Investment Fair (SSACEIF) in Kunming, China that was held in June this year. The exhibition provided work for the local industry, including the workshops in Pak Colony and Manzoor Colony.
But with no access to grade-A marble, workers such as Mani have to make do with inferior grade marble that isn’t purchased at international exhibitions such as the one at Kunming, where a certain aesthetic is desired.
“Customers want the dark green Pakistani onyx,” explains Masih. “We are forced to work with the multi-green onyx and that doesn’t sell as much.”
Meanwhile, expenses have risen manifolds. The high-quality English sandpaper used for chiselling rough edges used to cost four rupees; today it is available at 40 rupees.
“We now use the local paper which costs us 25 rupees,” says Masih.
“The prices for the blades have increased too,” chimes in Javed, one of Masih’s employees. “They [exporters] blackmail us into negotiating a lower rate for work. They know we are desperate for money.”
Away from the workshops, I walk into Jawed’s small showroom that is lined with assorted onyx and marble products. While waiting for his visa, he scrolls through WeChat on his smartphone checking for updates on future trade fairs in China. After Kunming, he plans to exhibit at the Shijiazhuang International Trade City. That is, if he is able to sell off his consignment at Kunming.
“It is a hit-and-miss attempt,” says Jawed. “Sometimes we hit a sixer, sometimes we don’t.”
This belies the general mechanics in how businessmen approach the handicrafts sector today. Now limited to China, previously they had access to markets in the Middle East, Russia and India. That access was shut down due to the turbulent conditions in the Middle East, Russia’s strained relations with Ukraine and Pakistan’s spiky relationship with India.
“About 60 percent of our products would be bought by the Russians,” says Rehman Memon, another exhibitor and exporter entrenched in the business since the last six years. “And they are fond of the multi-dark green variety. The lesser-graded products would be sold in the Middle East.”
But things changed once Pakistan lost access to these markets.
“After we were squeezed out from elsewhere, we began to look at Chinese markets,” says Memon. “And since business relations with the Chinese are on friendlier terms [visa access is easier], everyone’s focus has switched to China.”
Meanwhile, back in Saddar Cooperative, shopkeepers remain reluctant about talking too much about marble. It is almost as if this is a topic that still hurts like a sore wound — after all, many businesses were run and made profits by exclusively selling marble by-products. None of it exists anymore. Many downsized and sold of their marble products, others introduced plastic and consumer items and some like Siddique Memon shut down their shops, sold them and moved to Pak Colony.
“Today the size of the marble handicrafts industry is less than one percent,” says Memon ruefully. “Earlier, it was the primary source of income for exhibitors and exporters in this industry. Now, it is their secondary source and many are either switching or diversifying income sources.”
The writer tweets @_basilandrews
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 12th, 2017