KARACHI: A large number of textile and garments factory workers staged a protest rally on Sunday against violation of labour laws in Sindh.

The rally, which started from Bilal Chowrangi in Korangi Industrial Area and culminated at the Karachi Press Club, was organised by the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF).

The protesting workers threatened to stage a sit-in in front of the Sindh Assembly if the worsening conditions at their workplaces were not improved immediately.

Carrying red flags, placards and banners, the protesters marched to make people aware of their grievances in the lead of veteran labour leader Gul Rehman and Textile Garments General Workers Union general secretary Nisar Ahmed Panhwar.

Addressing the rally, NTUF general secretary Nasir Mansoor said the local factories working for international fashion brands were treating their workers like slaves as they violated all local and international labour laws in those factories that were virtual sweatshops.

“The textile and garment industry is the backbone of our economy, but government policies and attitude of international brands have made hundreds of thousands of workers of this sector virtually low-wage slaves, who are deprived of their due rights,” he said. The country would also progress and prosper if the working conditions and living standard of these labourers were improved, he added.

He also said the textile and garment factories of Karachi, especially those located in the Korangi Industrial Area, including the factories that make exportable goods for international brands, openly violated local and international labour laws.

He said 99 per cent of workers of that sector were deprived of their labour rights, including the right of making labour unions. “The nexus of corrupt bureaucracy and factory owners has made it almost impossible to give workers written appointment letters and get them registered with social security department, workers welfare fund and old-age benefits institutions. The textile and garment factories of Karachi are converted to modern slave houses and jails,” he said.

“Pakistan is the third largest cotton-producing country in the world and also the eighth largest producer of textiles and garments. The share of textile sector in the national GDP is 8.5 per cent and in national foreign exchange, its share is more than 60 per cent, but still workers belonging to this sector do not get their due rights. Instead they face harassment and fear at their workplaces. Police and other law enforcement agencies fully support the factory owners and there is no one to take care of the oppressed workers,” he said.

Saeeda Khatoon, chairperson of the Association of Affectees of Baldia Factory Fire also spoke. “The international fashion brands are openly violating local and international labour laws in Pakistan,” she said. “These brands befool their consumers that their products are made in factories following satisfactory working conditions. But the sad incident of Ali Enterprises, the Baldia factory fire, shows the horrible working conditions in which the Pakistani textile and garment factory workers are forced to work,” she added.

Zehra Khan, general secretary of the Home-Based Women Workers Federation Pakistan (HBWWF), said the international brands did roaring business of $1.5 trillion even during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, but the workers of that sector could feed only two square meals to their families.

“Some of these brands, especially H&M, had promised to give living expenses to their workers, but the workers of these factories are not even getting minimum wages as announced by the government and they are also forced to work for 150 to 200 hours of overtime every month without remuneration,” she said.

“In Pakistan, 18 million workers were affected due to the Covid-19 crisis and most of them are textile and garments workers. However, the industrialists and the government are less concerned about the plight of these fully or partially unemployed people,” she said.

Textile worker Asghar Ali said that in the textile and garment factories of Korangi Industrial Area, workers also faced ethnic and linguistic discrimination. Women workers were paid less wages as compared to their men counterparts. Incidents of sexual harassment of female workers were increasing as there were no vigilance committees in these factories, he said.

He said the labour courts delayed cases of the aggrieved workers. Unrest was sharply rising among the textile and garment workers of Karachi and they might take to the streets if their grievances were not resolved, he added.

The rally participants appealed to Sindh Labour Minister Saeed Ghani to take notice of the lawlessness and harassment of workers in the textile garment factories of Karachi.

They warned that if the situation was not improved urgently, the workers would stage a sit-in in front of the Sindh Assembly.

They also vowed to participate in the protest by workers of the SITE Area scheduled for Jan 28.

The rally also demanded an end to the contract labour system. All workers should be given written appointment letters, they said.

They demanded that their salaries be paid through bank accounts; employment of retired security officers in industrial areas be stopped; all workers be given social security and pension cards; forced retrenchment of workers be stopped; all sacked workers be reinstated; overtime without payment and forced overtime be stopped, they added.

They also demanded that female workers should not be compelled to stay at the workplace during night hours; vigilance committees be made at all factories to stop sexual harassment of female workers; international brands should respect the rights of workers under GSP Plus and Global Framework Agreements.

They said that in case of violation of these agreements, the process of complaint be made easier and workable. The right of workers to make their labour unions and elect their collective bargaining agents be revived practically.

Ghulam Nabi and M. Zubair representing Textile Garment General Workers Union, Owais Jatoi of the National Trade Union Federation, Landhi and Korangi and Saria Feroz of the HBWWF also spoke.

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2021

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