Published January 28, 2018
Illustration by Rohail Safdar Munshi
Illustration by Rohail Safdar Munshi

At the recently concluded five-day World Economic Forum (WEF) in the snow-laden Swiss resort town of Davos, synonymous with wealth and prestige, global leaders from business, politics, academia etc, gathered to discuss the most pressing issues facing the world and deliberated on creating a ‘shared future’ for a ‘fractured world’.

Meanwhile in Karachi, 22-year-old factory worker, Syeda Naila, who had never heard of the WEF, wants to know if these rich individuals had talked about ways to increase the “measly” wages of factory workers like her in Pakistan. “Was someone there who told these people how increasingly difficult it is becoming to live on the money we earn?” she whispers over phone and then, gathering some courage blurts: “You know it is people like us who make people like them so rich?”

“Inequality is rising by the day and workers are frustrated because they are unable to support the cost of living on their present wages,” says Zehra Khan, general secretary the Home-Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) who sees the chance of workers escaping the cycle of poverty “getting slimmer.”

A recent Oxfam report has drawn attention to rising global wealth inequalities. For factory labour and unregulated home-based workers in Pakistan, particularly women, the issue cannot be more stark

Zarina Naeem, mother of five, works in a garment factory in Faisalabad, in Punjab province, and earns 11,000 rupees per month working 12 hours a day. She can only send two kids to school.

“We have two more kids of school-going age but we cannot afford their schooling, even though my other two go to a government school,” she says. “Sending two more would mean additional expenditure on uniforms and books.”

And with no education she sees little hope for a better future for her children. “We can barely take them out for a picnic and when we do go visiting, it is always on foot to someone living nearby as we cannot afford the bus fare,” rues Naeem.

In a survey of 10 countries carried out by Oxfam, a report on rising levels of economic inequality around the world that was released on the eve of the WEF, over half the respondents said despite hard work it was impossible for ordinary people to increase the money they have.

According to Muhammad Qazilbash, Oxfam’s country director in Pakistan, there is no “authentic data” to measure the actual level of income and wealth inequality in Pakistan and how much the fortunes of the rich have increased in recent years.

“But a sizable gap in education and health outcomes between rich and poor income groups highlights significant levels of inequality,” he says. Even the government’s own Multidimensional Poverty Index of 2016 states that 39 percent of Pakistanis live in poverty and of the 15 indicators, the topmost is the education deficit.

The World Bank has warned that unless the gap between the rich and the poor is bridged, the world will fail to eliminate extreme poverty with 200 million continuing to live on $1.90 a day in 2030. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives on between $2 and $10 a day. In Pakistani terms, this is between 220 and 1,100 rupees per day.

Oxfam comprises some 20 organisations from 90 countries working to building a global movement to create a future free from the injustice of poverty. Its most recent report titled Reward Work Not Wealth proves Zehra Khan’s assertion about the widening rich-poor gap. More people became billionaires last year than ever but 82 percent of the wealth was amassed by the top one percent alone — wealth that could have ended global extreme poverty seven times over.

To get an even clearer picture, Oxfam explains: “With just slightly more than one day of work, a CEO in the US earns the same as an ordinary worker makes during the whole year.” In addition, the report states that men are consistently the majority of the best-paid employees. On average, it takes just over four days for a CEO from the top five companies in the garment sector to earn what an ordinary Bangladeshi woman textile worker earns in her entire lifetime.


The Oxfam report also says that it is not always “talent, effort and risk-taking” that results in a person getting rich and that, “...approximately two-thirds of billionaire wealth is the product of inheritance, monopoly and cronyism.” Further, the rich are known to evade taxes, which the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers have well documented. It has revealed that the super-rich are hiding at least 7.6 trillion dollars from tax authorities.

Oxfam, therefore, urges governments to prioritise “ordinary workers and small-scale food producers” instead of the “rich and powerful.”

The international NGO Oxfam also points out that the economy of the wealthy one per cent is built on the backs of people, such as Naila, who are paid a pittance and denied basic rights.

At her place of work, Naila says, workers are “not allowed to go to the toilet more than twice in a day, must observe pin-drop silence, and the hall [they] work in is poorly ventilated.” Only since last year have the halls been installed with just a few fans which she says are not enough to provide respite in the scorching summer, and even these they got only after fighting for them for over two years. She dreads the day when she falls sick as it means a “pay cut on top of paying for doctor’s fee and medicines.”

As a “checker” at a factory that makes denim jeans for renowned international brands, Naila works seven days a week from 9 am to 9pm, sometimes even 10pm and longs for “just one Sunday” when she can sleep in and “cook a special meal” for her family.

Sundays and all the extra hours she puts in after 6pm are counted as overtime by law (although by law she cannot be made to work more than two hours overtime in a day), for which she is supposed to be compensated with double the hourly rate. This never happens in practice. Naeem in Faisalabad says the same. “If we demand or complain, we are given an ultimatum to keep quiet or look for work elsewhere,” says Naila.

Doing some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations, Naila says: “The month when I’ve worked all six days from 9am to 9pm and all four Sundays, my monthly wages should add up to 27,000 rupees. But even then I only get 22,000 rupees. A certain amount is always deducted and I’m not told why. It’s not just me or just the women, this happens to all of us.”

If it were income tax deductions, Naila hasn’t been informed (although a worker who earns 27,000 rupees per month is not bound to pay tax). If it were cuts for EOBI (Employees’ Old-Age Benefits Institution) or social security, she ought to have been informed. But with no financial accounts maintained or shown to workers, Naila and many others in her position believe that their just remuneration is being withheld from them.

The fact remains that workers such as Naila spend more than 52 hours working but get less than the work carried out.The young woman is the major breadwinner for her family of five — two ailing parents and two sisters, living in a two-room rented house in Korangi. She has four more sisters and two brothers, all married and taking care of their respective families. On good days, when her father, a taxi driver, is well enough, he is able to drive the taxi and earn anywhere between 400-500 rupees. Her two younger sisters give tuitions and together earn 2,000 rupees per month. Labour leaders approximate that the average household income totals about 20,000 rupees. But here’s the caveat: with no reliable or collated data around, it is difficult to calculate the exact numbers as sometimes even kids bring in some money.

Women in a garments factory check the stitching on seams
Women in a garments factory check the stitching on seams

For the last one month, however, Naila has been losing sleep. She is not being asked to stay on for overtime. “So my take-home comes to just a little less than Rs 15,000 every month, and a major chunk — Rs 12,000 — goes straight toward paying house rent and our electricity bill.” Adding to her financial woes is the cost of her mother’s medicine, to treat her for Hepatitis C, which costs an additional Rs 4,000 every month, and to which only one other brother chips in. Her dream of saving enough to be able do a beautician’s course and eventually open up a beauty parlour — which she claims is “a more lucrative business and less back-breaking” — is now on hold.

“She had taken her employers to court for not making her a permanent employee, and which they now have, so it’s their way of punishing her,” explains Khan of HBWWF.

Still, Naila is lucky to be paid the minimum wage — Rs 15,000, although that is for unskilled workers and she falls in the category of skilled workers and should be paid more. There are many, says Oxfam’s Qazilbash, who are not even paid that. What’s even more unfortunate, he says, is that 87 percent of female employees in Pakistan earn less than the minimum wage. Iceland, which recently became the first country to introduce equal pay for equal work across genders, understandably seems a world removed.

When asked how much she thinks she should be paid for the amount of work she does and for her family to live comfortably, Naila answers that 25,000 rupees would be a decent sum — about 10,000 rupees more than what she is currently paid.

“It would take care of my parents’ medical bills, the house rent, utility bills and I’d be able to save a little as well,” she says.

On the other hand, Naeem, with five young children, says that if she can earn anywhere between Rs 30,000 to 35,000, she would be able to provide sufficient food and an education for all of her kids.


Economists term Naila’s and Naeem’s “decent” wages “living” wages. A living wage is calculated on the basis of the cost of living for a fair day’s work and is driven by inflation, increased cost of household goods, rents, and transport. This is not a new concept and is included in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights as well as in the International Labour Organisation’s constitution.

Organisations working for the protection of the rights of workers say the minimum wage that governments fix, and which is less than living wage, should now be replaced by the latter. But, economist Asad Sayeed of the Collective for Social Science Research points out: “It needs to be done gradually by reducing the gap between the two, eventually merging the two.” Doing it in one go won’t work, he says.

Sayeed, along with Kabeer Dawani, recently authored a report (published in March 2017) estimating the living wage for the Sialkot region in Punjab for December 2015, with a focus on workers in the sports balls manufacturing industry. The report calculated the wages for both the rural and urban areas since factories are found in the urban centre but a lot of the hand-stitching of balls is carried out at stitching centres in rural areas. The net living wage estimate for urban Sialkot came to Rs 20,144 per month and the gross living wage estimate at Rs 20,224. The net and gross, for rural Sialkot, was Rs 16,993 per month.

“In comparison to the prevailing wage in urban Sialkot’s sports ball industry, the gross living wage is 45 percent higher than the wage currently prevalent there,” stated the report. “The difference is greater in rural Sialkot, where the gross living wage we estimate is 110 percent higher than the prevailing wage in sports ball stitching centres.” And if living wages are still a distant dream in Pakistan, Lahore-based advocate Huzaima Bukhari points out that minimum wages may be fixed such that the worker can provide “adequately for a decent-sized family.”


Just like elsewhere across the globe, in drawing rooms across Pakistan too, the elite are often heard worrying about the expanding poor-rich divide in the Pakistani society and fear a “bloody revolution” may just be around the corner if steps are not taken to narrow it. But few want to share their wealth. In fact, when it gets down to the brass tacks and opening up their coffers, they say they are already paying their workers sufficiently.

In the Status of Labour Rights in Pakistan: 2016 by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research (PILER), researcher Zeenat Hisam states that policymakers have acknowledged that “existing inequalities” have a “corrosive effect on the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development.” The Planning Commission states that Pakistan’s richest 20 percent now consume seven times more than the poorest 20 percent.

According to Bukhari there is provision in Pakistan under the Workers’ Participation Fund Act, 1968, where certain employers are supposed to set apart a small percentage (five percent) of profits to be distributed among the workers. “Sharing this small amount will hardly cause a dent in the wealth of owners.” She explains that this concept is already present in other countries, especially those which are members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

It would cost 2.2 billion dollars a year, for example, to increase the wages of all 2.5 million Vietnamese garment workers from the average wage to a living wage, says Oxfam. And while it may seem like a huge amount, this is actually the equivalent of only a third of the amount paid out to shareholders by the top five global companies in the garment sector.


Pakistan may not have taken care of its workforce, yet it is one of the most heavily legislated countries in the world vis-à-vis labour laws. According to Nasir Mansoor, deputy secretary general of the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), there are as many as 70 laws that govern Pakistan’s labour market, but a majority remain unimplemented and some have even become outdated.

“Ninety-five percent of the factories across Pakistan do not respect the existing laws and there is no one to hold them accountable,” he says. He points out that for over 30,000 big factories (and there must be many more small- and medium -sized ones too) there are only 500 inspectors, of which only 16 are women. “The regulators are incompetent and prone to corruption,” adds advocate Bukhari.

In addition to laws, she says, the Constitution of Pakistan contains a range of provisions with regards to labour rights, giving a list: “Article 11 of the Constitution prohibits all forms of slavery, forced labour and child labour; Article 17 provides for a fundamental right to exercise freedom of association and the right to form unions; Article 18 guarantees the right of its citizens to enter upon any lawful profession or occupation and to conduct any lawful trade or business; Article 25 lays down the right to equality before the law and a prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sex alone; Article 37(e) makes provisions for securing just and humane conditions of work, ensuring that children and women are not employed in vocations unsuited to their age or sex, and for maternity benefits for women in employment.”

Mansoor says that various Pakistani governments have ratified 36 International Labour Organisations’ conventions. However, dignifying the ratifications by taking action has never been on the cards.

To him, the biggest violation of workers’ rights is hiring them as temporary workers for permanent jobs through third-party contractors — a violation of Articles 3 and 4 of the Constitution of Pakistan. “Temporary employees are paid lower and have fewer rights and no social protection,” he explains. Women and young people are more likely to be in these jobs. Naila, a permanent employee, only got an appointment letter after three years of employment and, that too, after she took her employers to court.

Of the 62 million Pakistani workers, less than one percent is unionised. “When they do not have a voice, how can they fight for their rights?” asks Mansoor.

The situation is no better for an estimated 12 million home-based workers with over three million in urban areas and 8.5 million in rural areas, of which more than 75 percent are women. “The wages are pretty much unregulated in Pakistan and women tend to get paid far less than men,” points out economist and senior researcher at the Collective for Social Science Research, Haris Gazdar. “There are many activities that are gender-segregated and what are seen as women’s jobs get paid lower wages,” he confirms.

Saira Feroze, 34, a home-based worker, very active in rallying women workers to form unions admits men get better paid than their female counterparts. Giving the example of collar-making for shirts, she says, “Men get between 7 and Rs 8 for this work while women just Rs 4 or 5 for exactly the same work in the same house, despite the fact women’s work is better.”

But even for the work that is given just to women, the remuneration is quite paltry. “A woman gets two rupees for every trouser or shalwar she stitches [she can stitch a dozen in half an hour],” says Feroze. “In bangle-making, she gets only nine rupees for a tora [a bundle comprising 365 bangles] and can weld up to 10 such bundles in eight to 10 hours a day.” That means an earning of just Rs 90 a day. But these home-based workers remain voiceless. Like in the formal work, even the HBW have not been able to organise themselves to demand better wages or working conditions, laments Khan of HBWWF.

Feroze says women give several reasons for their reluctance to form unions. “Apart from worrying about housework that will get piled up in their absence or having to leave the kids, many women say they are not permitted to leave home and be seen doing the rounds at labour courts, raising voices at rallies or attending seminars.”

But the handful who have unionised, like Feroze and Khan, have been able to fight for the rights of all HBW, at least in Sindh, where a policy for HBW is now in place and the bill for the protection of their rights has been drafted.

“At the moment it is being tweaked to be sent to the law department for vetting,” explains Khan, saying it brings hope to millions in the province that the kind of exploitation that takes place in the informal sector will end. “Once these people are registered as workers, they will be able to demand the minimum wages as set out in the Minimum Wages Act of 2015, and access the health, education, housing and old age benefits.”

But while such decisions are being made by the high and mighty, consuming bottled water and culinary delights in air-conditioned rooms, those at the receiving end see no silver lining to their plight. The cost of one bottled water, for example, is somebody’s bus fare for the day. The cost of eating a delightful steak could be some household’s entire expense on dinner. And the cost of air-conditioning might well be twice the average household income. For these underprivileged people, there is but a pittance and a prayer. May the millions of hard-working people who make our clothes and grow our food actually have clothes to wear and food to put on the table.

The writer is a freelance journalist. She tweets @zofeen28

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 28th, 2018



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