Abstract numbers, real people

January 28, 2019


The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

WHILE one could probably say this about the entire discipline of economics, the sub-discipline of macroeconomics appears to be even more acutely delinked from the human condition. Its main considerations revolve around the state and an economy as abstract entities, with measures of their health being numbers and percentages that are ultimately supposed to benefit real people (in frequently unspecified ways). Almost inevitably then, we see an occupational hazard of sorts that macroeconomic thinkers and planners, such as finance ministers, have to couch their agendas in similarly abstract language.

In recent months, we’ve heard a great deal from the finance minister on how to kickstart this abstract notion of economic growth. Enabling the manufacturing sector and boosting exports have both been mentioned, with textile manufacturing and exports earmarked (as for the past three decades) as central pillars in the short to medium run. Given that textile manufacturing is a labour-intensive industry, it’s often marketed as a development pill for poor countries with large populations like Pakistan.

Enabling textile manufacturing to grow, capturing market share from Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia, and jumping in time to grab a piece of China’s phasing out of $146.5 billion worth of garment exports involves the lives of labour, the real people on whose efforts the edifice of economic growth is expected to rest. Last week, Human Rights Watch released a 73-page report titled, ‘No Room to Bargain’: Unfair and Abusive Labour Practices in Pakistan, which documents the troubled lives of these real people in contemporary Pakistan.

The bulk of garment manufacturing now takes place in unregistered workshops that escape already sporadic labour inspections.

Before proceeding further on HRW’s findings, there are a few caveats worth pointing out. Employment in the manufacturing sector, and in export manufacturing in particular, is still better than service-sector employment (especially that in retail-wholesale and transport) and in construction, which is almost entirely informalised, low-paying, and with little scope for skill development and advancement.

In export manufacturing, the pressure of appeasing foreign buyers and their international regulations means that a modicum of pro-worker management has been historically maintained. Similarly, factory employees have historically had more organisational voice because of better unionisation rates. Such pressures offer greater prospects of social mobility for workers in the long run.

But there are growing indications that in a bid to make the sector more ‘competitive’ in the domestic and international market, government deregulation and anti-labour practices have become the norm. Subcontracting and informalisation are on the rise, while the depletion of robust unions and an indifferent political party landscape have left no apparent countervailing force to such trends.

HRW’s report is based on interviews with more than 140 people, and documents a range of disturbing labour practices across the entire sector. For example, The bulk of garment manufacturing, which caters largely to the domestic market, now takes place in unregistered workshops that escape (already sporadic) labour inspections. The working conditions in such smaller factories are usually worse than those in larger ones. Owners often refuse to pay the statutory minimum wage and hire workers on short-term oral contracts.

In line with trends established over the last decade, even the larger factories that supply to international retailers and brands are no longer free of violations of labour rights including long working hours and extended temporary employment without job security or benefits.

The report also highlights how workers, many of them women, experience verbal abuse, were pressured not to take toilet breaks, and were even denied clean drinking water. People demanding their rights could be threatened or fired. In two factories, the researchers documented beatings of workers by managers.

In recent years, Pakistan has also witnessed a number of major industrial accidents, with the Ali Enterprises garment factory fire being the most gruesome. At least 255 people were killed and another 100 injured; subsequent investigations revealed a series of irregularities and an almost complete absence of fire and safety systems. Survivors reported that the management made no immediate efforts to rescue the workers and instead attempted to save their merchandise first.

To informed observers, none of these findings come as a surprise, though their stark documentation lays out the scale of the problem that the state needs to resolve. Growth is necessary, we’ve established that much, but what is its cost? Why is it that policy discourse remains fixated on a set of GDP and current account deficit numbers, and political discourse remains an endless paean to amorphous development, but actual living humans rarely feature in both?

This stands out more starkly when compared to other countries in the region (such as India and Bangladesh), which while no exemplars, have performed better than Pakistan on social development indicators. Part of their success comes down to the assertion by workers and a more attentive state. The chances of something similar taking place in Pakistan, on the other hand, are currently negligible.

If it is serious about burnishing its social justice credentials, the new government in Pakistan should amend its labour law to comply with international standards including International Labour Organisation conventions. As a starting point, rigorous enforcement of the existing law would go a long way in protecting workers’ rights, while adequate considerations can be paid to the existing regime of labour regulation, which is both predatory and prone to elite-capture.

It should be of considerable concern that the revelations made by HRW’s research, along with other such accounts, have focused on the manufacturing sector. Many (including myself) have made an inequality-based case for expanding manufacturing, and giving it central importance in a holistic vision for socioeconomic development. If this is the case here, it is disconcerting to think about the adverse situation of working people employed in other, even more deregulated sectors of the economy.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.


Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2019