Millions of workers in Pakistan’s garment industry suffer abuse and labour rights violations, notes a recent report released by the Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“No Room to Bargain” Unfair and Abusive Labour Practices in Pakistan is largely based on interviews with more than a 100 people, including 118 garment workers from 25 factories, union leaders, government representatives, and labour rights advocates in Karachi, Lahore and Hafizabad, and documents a range of violations in Pakistan’s garment factories that include:
The report also highlights widespread suppression of independent labour unions by factory owners, as well as the incompetence and inefficiencies of the government’s labour inspection mechanisms.
“The government has long neglected its obligations to protect the rights of the country’s garment workers. It needs to urgently enforce labour laws and adopt new policies to protect them.” — Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.
The textile and garment sectors are important components of the country's manufacturing industry. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that the Garments, Textiles and Footwear sector in Pakistan employed 4.2 million people in 2014-15.
The garment and textile sector contributes up to 8.5 percent of Pakistan’s GDP and about 70 percent of total exports.
No Room to Bargain sheds light on the lives and the working conditions of abused and neglected workers in the garment industry, who often remain invisible and absent from the political agenda.
Below are some of the main findings of the report:
Working conditions in smaller factories are usually worse than those in larger ones that are more likely to be inspected. However, violations of labour rights including long working hours and extended temporary employment without job security or benefits even in large Pakistani factories, including some that supply garments to international retailers and brands, was well-documented.
The use of verbal contracts is alarmingly widespread throughout the garment industry. Not having an employment contract makes it very difficult for workers to demand employment benefits or to enforce terms of employment. It is common practice to hire workers on a “piece-rate” based on a production quota, this adds to worker insecurity because it takes away the guarantee of a fixed income. It is also often used as a disciplinary measure to enhance productivity.
Factories routinely compel workers to work beyond the legally permissible nine hours, and in many case without extra pay. The absence of a written contract and a formal appointment letter makes workers vulnerable to retaliation for refusing to work overtime.
The lack of employment contracts and registration means that factories routinely deny social security and pension benefits to workers. In some cases, the social security and pension amounts are deducted from salaries and never deposited, resulting in illegal enrichment of factory owners.
Several workers also informed that the factory management deny adequate breaks to the workers on grounds of “productivity.” Workers are even denied breaks to drink water or use toilets.
Many of the workers complained about unsanitary conditions in the factories, including dirty drinking water, substandard food, no provision of medical assistance, and overcrowding.
Women workers are exceptionally dis-empowered and discriminated against in the garment industry. Many women are employed as contract, piece-rate, non-unionized workers in low-paid and low-skilled roles. Women workers asserted that in practice there is no maternity leave since pregnant women are either fired or themselves leave the job for a few months.
Some garment factories producing for domestic brands use home-based workers for special orders or on a seasonal basis. Women working from home are often denied labour law protections. They are not able to join factory unions, and their work remains largely unregulated and vulnerable to middlemen, who often refuse to pay minimum wage. No province apart from Sindh has taken meaningful steps to protect the rights of home-based women workers.
Labour rights activists described union-busting by many large factories. Factory managers often keep workers on short-term contracts to discourage their participation in union activities. Workers also alleged that factory owners manipulate the labour law to create obstacles to register trade unions. Several factories register fake or “yellow” unions consisting of chosen or non-existent employees, making it close to impossible for workers to register real unions.
The provincial labour departments are completely inefficient and, in many cases, complicit. Labour inspections happen very rarely and almost never unannounced. According to one estimate there are only 537 labour inspectors in the country for 350,000 factories in the country and only 17 women labour inspectors.
Compiled by Shahbano Ali Khan