THE BITTER BREWS OF FAST FASHION

Published November 7, 2021
A woman is seen surrounded by fabric at a garment factory in Karachi | Hussain Afzal/White Star
A woman is seen surrounded by fabric at a garment factory in Karachi | Hussain Afzal/White Star

The mistreatment of Karachi’s garment factory workers is hardly a new phenomenon. Working in factories that often resemble jails, these labourers, producing clothes for local and international fast fashion brands, work long hours for meagre pay and no benefits. Has the Sindh government’s announcement of a rise in the minimum wage made any difference on the ground?

Sitting at a crowded chai dhaaba in the Korangi Industrial Area, Yaseen, 35, anxiously turns the pages of his diary. He appears to be searching for something important. He finally stops on some photographs of a factory. “This is where my friend Rafiq works,” he says, adding that the clothes being produced at the factory are for reputable international fast fashion brands.

“We call it the central jail and its workers as prisoners who are enslaved inside the factory,” says Yaseen, the chief organiser of the Sindh Renaissance Labour Federation. “A worker knows when he is going to step inside [the factory], but he doesn’t know when he is going to come out,” he adds.

We have been waiting for Rafiq for some time. We may have to continue waiting for a while, Yaseen informs me.

Yaseen has worked in various factories which sprawl over Karachi’s economic hub, the Korangi Industrial Area. Most recently, he worked at the same factory where Rafiq is currently employed. He claims he was let go because he was seen as a troublemaker. His crime: raising his voice against human and labour rights violations inside the factory.

“After months of trying to get reinstated, I took it upon myself to organise the industrial workers and never give up struggling against the factory owners who deprive us of our basic rights,” he says.

As Yaseen continues to talk and the chai cups continue to pile up, a man dressed in a worn-out shalwar qameez finally approaches the dhaaba. His hair is dusty; his shirt shows visible patches of sweat. Rafiq has arrived.

“I am sorry for getting late,” he says, profusely apologising to Yaseen with his hands put together to indicate that he is seeking Yaseen’s maafi (forgiveness).

No apology is necessary. Yaseen knows the reason for the delay all too well.

“I went to work yesterday at eight in the morning and was allowed to leave tonight at eight,” he claims. “I have been working for 36 hours and have not slept a wink.”

In a notification by the Sindh Government’s Labour and Human Resources Department, issued on July 9, 2021, the government stated that it was “pleased to declare the minimum rates of wages [at] 25,000 rupees per month for unskilled adult and juvenile workers…” The notification added that this would apply to all unskilled adult and juvenile workers employed in all industrial and commercial establishments in Sindh, with effect from July 1, 2021.

Rafiq has been working at the factory as a helper for over two years now. The company requires him to work continuously for longer hours when they have to meet the demands set by famous international brands.

The mistreatment of factory workers in Pakistan is hardly a new phenomenon. Rafiq says that, after all his efforts, he still makes less than minimum wage. The factory where he works does not allow workers to carry cell phones with them. And if anyone is caught sneaking in or using a cell phone on the premises, 500 rupees are deducted from their already meagre pay.

A sliver of hope appeared to be in the works earlier this year, when the Sindh Government passed an order, fixing the minimum wage at 25,000 rupees in the province.

The decision was met with great support from human rights activists, commentators and members of the media. Columns and op-eds appeared in newspapers lauding the decision. But not everyone was so quick to celebrate.

A man hangs colourful bales of dyed fabric to dry | Faysal Mujeeb/White Star
A man hangs colourful bales of dyed fabric to dry | Faysal Mujeeb/White Star

THE BARE MINIMUM

In a notification by the Sindh Government’s Labour and Human Resources Department, issued on July 9, 2021, the government stated that it was “pleased to declare the minimum rates of wages [at] 25,000 rupees per month for unskilled adult and juvenile workers…”

The notification added that this would apply to all unskilled adult and juvenile workers employed in all industrial and commercial establishments in Sindh, with effect from July 1, 2021. It also reiterated that the working hours and conditions of overtime work and work on holidays etc will be regulated by the Sindh Factories Act, 2015, the Payment of Wages Act, 2015 and other relevant labour laws.

But factory workers such as Yaseen and Rafiq knew little would change for them despite the order. Sure enough, soon the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), the SITE (Sindh Industrial Trading Estates) Association and other trade associations petitioned against the order. The decision to increase the minimum wage from 17,000 rupees to 25,000 rupees had irked the industrialists, who pointed out that they were not taken on board before making the decision.

Workers prepare embroidered clothes at a small factory | Shahbaz Butt/White Star
Workers prepare embroidered clothes at a small factory | Shahbaz Butt/White Star

They said that they would have no option but to move out of Karachi, the garment hub of the country, and relocate to places such as Punjab, where the policies are more favourable for them. According to a Dawn report, Zubair Motiwala, chairman of the Businessmen Group and the Council of All Pakistan Textile Association (Capta), had argued that when the tariff and rates of petrol, diesel, gas and electricity in the entire country were the same, then what was the justification of fixing a higher minimum wage in Sindh as opposed to other provinces.

The Korangi Association of Trade and Industry (Kati) president Saleemuz Zaman had declared that the Sindh government’s decision was “the last nail in the coffin of the already struggling industrial sector”, according to Dawn.

Zaman had pointed out that a company with 1,000 employees would have to afford an extra eight million rupees under the head of salaries because of the announcement by the provincial government.

Still, last month the Sindh High Court again upheld the government’s decision to fix the minimum wage at 25,000 rupees. The court directed the provincial government to review the minimum wages, but also directed the government to ensure payment of the amount till the review of the declaration.

The pushback continues. Meanwhile Rafiq, and thousands of other labourers such as him, have yet to receive the new minimum wage.

“We get the target of 800 pieces on an average day,” Himmat shares. But some days the target is even higher. “Our in-charge makes sure that we complete this demand, which sometimes reaches 1,000 or 1,200 articles of clothing per day. It gets really tiring, but we cannot do much about changing the conditions.”

The workers argue that they are the backbone of Pakistan’s economy and the textile industry. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics’ (PBS) data, textile and clothing exports grew by an impressive 27.41 percent from 3.469 billion dollars in the first quarter of fiscal year 2021 to 4.42 billion dollars in the first quarter of fiscal year 2022.

Over 11 billion dollars’ worth of textile products were exported between July 2020 and March 2021. This, the workers point out, was made possible because, despite the pandemic, the workers kept performing their jobs in dingy factories, where even sitting under a running fan is considered a privilege.

The government also offered reliefs for industry in the last budget. However, the workers receive little or no relief. They know that they have two options. They can either quietly work and accept whatever treatment is given to them. Or they can raise their voice and, often, pay a heavy price for doing so.

FIGHTING FOR THEIR RIGHTS

Men burn the midnight oil at a factory| Fahim Siddiqui/White Star
Men burn the midnight oil at a factory| Fahim Siddiqui/White Star

Back at the dhaaba, as the night proceeds, workers continue to join in the conversation after work. They have many tales to tell, and most of them sound familiar. The names change, but the stories remain the same.

Last year, Rafiq and many other workers were fired, only to be rehired after a few months. They were let go when it was time to give employees bonuses. “This is how they save money,” Rafiq says. “We had to return to work because we were already starving,” adds Rafiq, whose eldest daughter is only 11 years old. He is yet to enrol his daughter in school because he can simply not afford to send her to school, he says.

Yaseen, Rafiq and hundreds of labourers such as them have been struggling for even the most basic of reliefs for years. The aim of getting minimum wage for an eight-hour shift is a far cry from their reality.

Yaseen’s labour group organised a convention last year with the motto, “Revolution For Our Rights.” The turnout was bigger than expected and encouraged Yaseen and other workers and former workers to continue their struggle. They made speeches, held signs and shared their struggles.

On April 17 this year, they organised another protest outside a factory which had fired a number of workers, reportedly because they had raised their voices for minimum wage, bonuses and social security benefits. A lot of workers who did not work in that factory also participated in the protest to stand in solidarity with the fired workers, Yaseen recalls. However, the police disrupted the protest and arrested Yaseen along with another worker.

Their fellow workers arranged for their bail. But then something surprising happened. Yaseen claims the company management offered him 45,000 rupees a month to stop creating trouble for them and getting the workers to organise and protest. (The company’s management could not be reached for comment.)

“How could we accept that amount when our brothers would have been suppressed and exploited by them?” says Yaseen, who is by now a bit of a celebrity among the workers. “That amount would have come from other workers’ share, which we can never accept.”

When the bribe offer did not work, threats followed. Yaseen shares the details, sipping on another cup of chai.

NO PLACE FOR PROTEST

Working at a garment factory often involves performing the same task over and over again | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star
Working at a garment factory often involves performing the same task over and over again | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star

Himmat, 28, who has been an employee of another factory which supplies jeans to international brands, joins the group at the dhaaba. He laments that, despite giving the best years of his life to the company, he is still making only 20,000 rupees a month. He claims that, during the same time, the company’s business has increased threefold.

Last month, Himmat and some other workers were organising a hunger strike inside the factory. They said they would end the strike when their demands, including the issuance of Employees Old-Age Benefits Institution cards to all the workers, were met. At the same time, his former colleagues, who had recently been fired without cause by the company, were going to protest outside the factory.

At around midnight, when the protesting workers reached the factory, three police vans also arrived at the scene. Some 17 protestors were arrested, according to Himmat, and a few of them were also injured during the arrests.

“The saddest part was that we could not initiate the hunger strike for our just demands,” says Himmat. “The company management knew that we were in touch with the protestors outside, so they tried to disrupt the peaceful protest.”

The workers had staged a similar protest in September to demand the payment of minimum wages and for social security registration.

“Now I am the target,” Himmat says. He says that he has worked at the company for many years, but whenever the workers have tried to form a union or put forward their demands, which is their constitutional right, the company uses harassment tactics to silence them.

Riaz* is another former worker of the same factory who attended the peaceful protest on October 11. He was still employed by the company at the time of the protest. “I was on leave for a week when I decided to stand in solidarity with my fellow workers,” he says. “I was hoping that, since I had worked there for seven good years, I would not be punished. But when I got back from my leave, the manager came to me with his men and told me to resign immediately. They forced me to sign a resignation letter.”

“Even when auditors come from the international brands who purchase our products, we do not get to talk to them and share our misery with them,” says Himmat. “We cannot even go to the manager if we have a complaint of harassment or payment issues, let alone talking and revealing the truth to the auditors,” he adds.

Both Riaz and Rafiq share that the nature of their work requires them to wear safety gloves. Riaz worked on shading jeans and Rafiq worked as a loader of different chemical substances used in the making of jeans. “We have never seen the safety equipment ever, let alone used it,” Rafiq says. “I know the danger involved in the work but what can I do?”

These factory workers are made to feel like they are expendable. Working inside factories with no one from the outside around to keep a watchful eye, they say they are vulnerable to all sorts of abuse and harassment. They detail many incidents of ill-treatment which are difficult to independently verify.

They also share some ‘evidence’. One is a video where a woman sitting in a vehicle with her brother shows bruises and serious injuries that she and her brother endured, supposedly at the hands of men employed by the factory where she works.

Seema, the woman seen in the video, is a worker at a factory. According to the workers, she and her brother were thrashed by these men after a heated meeting with the company management, where Seema had demanded her bonus, which was due. Attempts to file a complaint with the company also proved futile.

These scare tactics work. Why would any woman stand up in such an environment, the workers wonder aloud.

THE REAL COST OF FAST FASHION

A factory worker speaks at a labour convention organised by the Sindh Renaissance Labour Federation
A factory worker speaks at a labour convention organised by the Sindh Renaissance Labour Federation

Yaseen, Himmat, Riaz, Rafiq and thousands of workers such as them make the fast fashion race possible in the West. A single unit of jeans from these brands gets priced at around 40 dollars in international markets. Inside the factories in Karachi, workers are divided into multiple lines. One worker cuts the cloth, the other does the stitching, the third cropping, and so on and so forth. They have to work fast. Like clockwork, they continue to perform the same task over and over again.

“We get the target of 800 pieces on an average day,” Himmat shares. But some days the target is even higher. “Our in-charge makes sure that we complete this demand, which sometimes reaches 1,000 or 1,200 articles of clothing per day. It gets really tiring, but we cannot do much about changing the conditions.”

Himmat believes that factory owners can easily afford giving 25,000 rupees to workers as minimum wage, but that the thirst for higher profits and the brands’ pressure to cut the costs keep them from doing so.

“I don’t know whether the people who use and wear these clothes that labourers make with their blood and sweat know how much humiliation it carries [for the workers],” says Yaseen.

By now, the users of these products must know, at least to some degree, the mistreatment the workers have to endure to produce their T-shirts, often carrying motivational messages. In 2018, two reports by the organisation Global Labor Justice detailed the abuse female garment workers in Asian factories have to endure to produce clothes for Gap and H&M. Other brands have also come under fire since.

But in Pakistan, these abuses are so well hidden that often even the average Pakistani is unaware of the conditions in which their clothes are made, let alone international customers of fast fashion brands.

INVESTIGATING LABOUR PRACTICES

Workers protest outside a factory in Karachi’s Korangi Industrial Area
Workers protest outside a factory in Karachi’s Korangi Industrial Area

In 2019, the Sindh High Court formed a commission to inquire into labour practices in Sindh. The commission found that several posts of inspectors, responsible for visiting factory sites to ensure implementation of minimum wage, were lying vacant.

“Besides, when it was asked from the secretary labour department and chairman minimum wages board as to whether any violation of minimum wages has been detected… they denied the fact regarding violation of Sindh Minimum Wages Act,” according to the commission report.

The report mentions that when Saeed Saleh Jumani, then chairman of the Minimum Wages Board, who was also serving as the director Labour in Sindh, was asked if his department had ever penalised any factory for not following the minimum wage rule, he remained silent.

“I believe the most certain issues facing workers across industries in Pakistan is the non-payment of minimum wage, non-registration with Sessi [the Sindh Employees’ Social Security Institution], no paid leaves for medical grounds, no proper compensation for overtime and a basic lack of ownership by principal employers,” lawyer Jibran Nasir tells Eos. “Employers prefer employing workers through third party contracts to avoid liability and hassle, as dealing with issues relating to basic rights of workers is considered a ‘costly hassle’ by industry owners.”

Nasir’s list covers most of the demands the workers have been putting forward. Basic human rights, that they are penalised for demanding. The increase in the minimum wage is a welcome step, but if these pro-worker developments only exist on paper, they do not benefit these vulnerable workers.

Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah last month said that the provincial government would ensure that the minimum wage is being implemented across all government and private organisations. But as prices continue to rise and their pay remains the same, workers are less than hopeful that this will happen.

“We run the economy but in return what do we get? Nothing,” says Rafiq, speaking on behalf of his fellow workers who have gathered at the dhaaba. “Our children starve and cannot go to school to have a bright future. It is a vicious circle we are miserably trapped in.”

As the hours go by, the workers start to leave. They have to report back to the factory bright and early the next morning.


*Name has been changed to protect identity

The writer is a journalist who covers human and labour rights violations. He is currently associated with Soch Videos. He tweets @FawadHazan

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 7th, 2021

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